December 13, 2012

Defeat could be good for India

It will force the players and those in charge of them to introspect on what has gone wrong and what needs to be done now

While none of us likes to lose, and we often try as hard as we can to delay or overcome defeat, there are times when it is not always the worst occurrence. Just as pain is a body's way of attracting attention to something wrong, and we ignore it at our own peril, so too can defeat be an alarm going off somewhere. It is how we react to defeat that tells us how serious we are about learning from it.

England admitted that defeat against Pakistan in the UAE opened their eyes to how much further they needed to go, and said it contributed in no small part to their success here in India. During the first IPL when the Rajasthan Royals had just had a winning streak broken, Shane Warne suggested such a kick up the backside was needed to get the team focused on winning again. That is why I think defeat in this series may not be the worst thing to happen to Indian cricket. It will force introspection that, for whatever reason, might otherwise have been overlooked.

Teams rarely introspect when they are winning; there is camaraderie, celebration, and no one is really keen to see why the team won. Sometimes defeat can be met with denial, a refusal to accept that there is a problem, or the feeling that the tide will turn when circumstances change. I suspect India allowed themselves to go through that phase in 2011-12. There was the world No. 1 tag and a World Cup glittering in the office and on bio-datas, so any suggestion of a weakness, like not crushing West Indies 2-0 in June 2011, was cast aside. No one wanted to hear about it, probably.

When India lost in England and won 2-0 at home against West Indies (it is not always remembered there was a win between the two 0-4 results), it reinforced that India were champions at home (even though there was a scare in Mumbai). That is what probably led to the feeling, even after Australia, that all India needed to do was play at home and happy times would be here again. The one-sided series against New Zealand confirmed that, and with England due in November - let's be honest, everyone thought they would be run over - an analysis was postponed again, if indeed it was contemplated.

Now that India have been driven to the brink, there is no choice but to realise that the weaknesses displayed in England and Australia were indicative of deeper fissures, that the illness had spread to home conditions. If India had won a one-sided series on rank turners, it would have covered up fundamental weaknesses for a little longer, and with 14-15 away Tests approaching, India could have been further exposed.

Is domestic cricket producing the players India needs? Why have India been out-spun on their pitches by, of all people, English spinners?

And so there must be a review of every aspect of Indian cricket; a review that asks uncomfortable questions, because otherwise it will be like solving only the problems you know how to solve rather than tackling the ones you don't in preparation for a mathematics exam. The questions you ask determine the answers you get, and any review must consist of people who will ask uncomfortable questions.

Is domestic cricket producing the players India needs? Or is there a problem with domestic cricket? Is the IPL influencing the way youngsters are playing domestic cricket? Why are there no spinners anywhere on the horizon? Why have India been out-spun on their pitches by, of all people, English spinners? What have they done right? Does India have the right coaches at grassroot level? Are the right people running the academies? There will be many more such questions; these took a minute to generate.

Some of the answers to these questions are staring us in the face. The Ranji Trophy has been poor for a long time. It is the highest form of India's domestic game and playing it must be an accomplishment. If players on the ground are saying that fast bowlers are being influenced by the IPL to think in terms of only four overs, that is an issue to be addressed immediately.

I would, in fact, advocate a public review, a communication to the fans, who are responsible for the power of Indian cricket, for dissent and acceptance of dissent are signs of mature organisations.

A review must also go beyond structures and into addressing player issues. Currently the stance is that a player is free to opt out of a series if he is tired or jaded. That option must be taken away and given to someone who has responsibility for the team. It seems to be working with England, and while systems cannot always be duplicated, it is worth analysing why something is working. England, Australia and South Africa all seem to think that having the same captain in three formats can be draining, so there must be some truth in it. And yet having different captains playing under each other in different formats is doomed to fail. Leadership cannot be worn and discarded like clothes. A solution must be found - maybe the captain gives up playing a format.

None of us, much as we would like to claim otherwise, have all the answers. But answers are what Indian cricket needs very quickly, because, irrespective of what happens in Nagpur, the time for major decision-making is here. A lot of good can come out of this series if we are willing to listen to what it is telling us about Indian cricket.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here