December 18, 2012

If India don't hurt, they won't rise

Plenty of excuses have been offered over the last year and a half; the time has come to acknowledge reality

The time for fudging is over. In dealing India the kind of defeat that no one, including the most optimistic England fans, would have seen coming, England have bestowed on India a favour: all possible escape clauses have been removed. Indian cricket has no choice now but to look deep within and confront the magnitude of this failure.

Defeat, it is said with good reason, is a far better teacher than victory. It is impossible to say if the outcome of this series would have been any different if India had absorbed the lessons from their serial disasters overseas last season; but perhaps they might have approached the series with a keener sense of reality.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a remarkable man in many ways. His ability to isolate himself, and by extension his younger team-mates, from the cacophony that surrounds Indian cricket, has helped him, for the most part, keep his balance and stay as the pivot of Indian cricket. Even at the worst times he has retained his composure around the team. He could be faulted on tactics, but to lead the Indian cricket team, you need a thick hide and nerves of steel. Dhoni was the leader India needed.

But there is a thin line between insouciance and being blasé. Somewhere in the torrent of defeats, and in the scramble to make sense of them, this line has been obscured, and reason and perspective have been lost. It's impossible to know what Dhoni really thinks of the defeats that have piled up under his watch in recent times, but if you went by his public posture, you'd think he believes them to have been outside his control.

So the 8-0 wasn't because India lacked energy and fitness, or skills were waning with advancing age, or the players didn't give themselves the best chance to prepare, or the fast bowlers had regressed and the spinners couldn't spin the ball anymore. It was because their opponents laid out pitches that discriminated against India.

After India had been bowled out inside 63 overs on the first day at Edgbaston, the Indian camp, which contained a coach with intimate knowledge of English conditions, let it be known that rarely had there been a pitch that afforded so much seam movement. At the end of the first day, England had careened to 84 without loss, and they ended that innings at 710 for 7. In their second go, India slumped to 89 for 6 before Dhoni and Praveen Kumar took them past 200. A similar vein ran through the tour of Australia: the pitches had been spiced up, they had more pace and carry, and even the Sydney Cricket Ground had no spin.

And when the time came for India to return empty-handed from the World Twenty20, Dhoni reflected on the cruelty of the format. What, in the final analysis, had cost India a place in the semi-finals was a heavy defeat to Australia, which Dhoni, staggeringly, blamed on the wet ball. Batting first, India scored only 140, and Australia knocked off the runs in 15 overs, losing just one wicket, when they were on the doorstep of victory. Yes, it did rain at the break, but India still opened the bowling with a spinner, and Irfan Pathan, who had opened the batting ahead of six specialist batsmen (and consumed 30 balls in scoring 31), came on fourth change with the ball.

The external pressures make captaining India the toughest job in world cricket, and perhaps owning up to mistakes and shortcomings is much harder in an environment inflamed with passion, and one in which people are prone to exaggeration. But a feeling has grown that so cloistered has this Indian team become that it has started believing its own excuses. Through its miserable run outside its own shores, a sense of indignation had been building up within the team: let them come to our backyard, we'll show them.

Series wins against West Indies and New Zealand at home kept this belief alive, but even in these contests, India failed to see the signs. West Indies stretched them in Delhi, and might have beaten them in Mumbai. Twice India conceded big first-innings leads, and their spinners looked out of depth for large stretches. Despite the 2-0 scoreline, even New Zealand ran India close: in the second Test, they were a wicket away from causing panic on the final day.

The decline of the Indian Test team has perhaps been unstoppable, but the process has been exacerbated by denial

England have left India with no place to hide. The last time before this that India lost a series at home, it was to one of the greatest teams of all time. Back then, India competed better. They got themselves into a position to win the Test in Chennai before the rain came, and in Nagpur, Australia were gifted a pitch that played to their strengths.

England are a good team but not yet a great one. They are a resilient, spirited and committed group with some skilful bowlers, a couple of resolute top-order players, and one great batsman. They were hopeless against spin in three out of their last four Tests in the subcontinent before this series, and were outplayed at home by South Africa. But they ended up beating India, thoroughly and decisively, at their own game. Their spinners outbowled the Indian ones by a ridiculous margin, their fast bowlers produced better reverse swing, their batsmen showed greater application and flair, and they had the superior wicketkeeper-batsman.

After losing by ten wickets in Mumbai on a pitch made to order to doom England, India were driven to despondency over how to find a way back into the series. In reality, it was their starkest moment of truth.

Externally, they had everything under control. England had been denied practice against spin in the lead-up to the series; at Mumbai, India's captain had demanded, and been provided with, the pitch he wanted; they had picked three spinners; and even the coin had rolled their way. Yet they had been outspun and outbatted. Kolkata was an inevitability; the force had already been drained out of Indian cricket.

The decline of the Indian Test team has perhaps been unstoppable, but the process has been exacerbated by denial. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman were never going to be easily replaced, and the time has come for India to look beyond Sachin Tendulkar too, but the frightening thing is that they haven't produced a world-class spinner since Harbhajan Singh.

Every crisis can be an opportunity. Indian cricket can start by recognising the current one as such. Dhoni, as has become customary with him, sought to scale down the magnitude of this defeat by terming the 2007 World Cup a bigger disaster. Really? One bad day against the worst run in Test cricket spanning more than 12 months over three continents?

In the absence of a better alternative, Dhoni could still be the man to lead India in the near future, but India can't start rising until they accept how low they have sunk.

Indian cricket has the financial might to bend the rest of the world game to its will. But the real wealth lies in the quality of cricket its players produce on the field. In business terms, the Indian national team is the biggest asset of Indian cricket, and the cricket it plays is its most valuable product. With its wealth, passion and pool of players, there can be no excuses for India not producing a world-class team in every form of cricket.

For Indian cricket to renew itself, this defeat must hurt. It should rankle. And the way forward can only be forged with honesty, foresight, the humility to accept inadequacies, and the courage to address them.

The team to play the next Test for India needs to be picked not merely with the next series in mind but the next season. The Tendulkar question will hang heavy, but it will be, as has been suggested widely, unfair to leave the answer to him. Indian cricket owes him gratitude, but not the burden of a perpetual debt.

India's fall has been swift and dramatic. But the regeneration could be slow and painful. It would require commitment, perseverance and patience. Even to the most gifted, success has never come easy.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Animesh on December 21, 2012, 11:36 GMT

    This was a disappointing show from India. Selectors should now look at future and should blood in performers in Ranji Trophy. Giving Virat the opportunity to Captain will lift his game further. Here is my 11 -

    1. JJ singh (Punjab) 2. A Rahane (mumbai) / G Gambhir (delhi) 3. C Pujara (Saurashtra) 4. R Sharma (Mumbai) / V Sehwag (Delhi) 5. V Kohli (delhi) - Captain 6. R Jadeja (saurashtra)/Bhuvneshwar Kumar (U.P)/ I Pathan (Baroda) (depends on wicket) 7. P Patel (Gujarat) 8. R Ashwin (Tamilnadu) - No other spinner around 9. P Ojha - No other spinner around 10. I Sharma (Delhi) 11. U Yadav (Delhi)

  • Mark on December 21, 2012, 8:09 GMT

    @Dravid Righly or wrongly, the perception of the Indian players is that with the IPL earnings that they get they do not need Test cricket, which does not pay. People forget that, until India briefly reached #1, the BCCI had enormously reduced the programme of Test cricket for the side and concentrated much more on T20 and ODIs. It's hard to care when your big bucks do not depend on Test match success. Of course, if players don't have Test cricket as a shop window to sell themselves that may have an effect down the line, but we don't know that for sure yet.

  • Pratyush on December 21, 2012, 4:25 GMT

    Great on Sambit for this. Hope someone from the BCCI and all Indian players read it. The defeats have hurt the fans, and this one has simply devastated us and burst the only remaining bubble of tigers at home as well. No amount of IPL/T20/ODI win would change that. Its time for major changes and that begins with the top. MSD need to be given a break from leading in all formats. He should not be leading India in Tests for sure maybe T20's as well. I'd want Kohli/Yuvi leading the T0 side, MSD the ODI. For test we need someone who has the patience & stability - My choice is Pujara, has it seems he likes leading (his batting performances go up drastically when he is a skipper) or Kohli (slightly more plucky and aggressive but maybe thats the way to go). Start building a pool of Batsmen & bowlers and play them based on current form only. Increase India A tours to Eng/SA/Aus/WI. India has young spinners, put in place a spin coach. Make people fitter and dont tolerate unfit players.

  • Srinivas on December 21, 2012, 1:09 GMT

    Part 2: We can make adjustments based on results. So we have 10 players there already. The remaining slot can be filled by an upcoming seamer. Badrinath, Unmukt, Mandeep, Jadeja and Sreesanth should round-off our squad of 16. But we have to make sure that Statchin, Dhoni, Zaheer and Harbhajan shouldn't be allowed anywhere near our test team's dressing room. Fletcher and Dawes, these two are to be booted out first. Remember how far off the mark our own bowling coach was when he affirmed that Zaheer is in top 6 in the bowlers list at present? If that doesn't give it away about our bowling coach, then I don't know what would or what can ever! Fletcher can't even run one mile with our players. He just can't sit there and collect his pay. Sorry, he has to look for some other profession. I don't know who told him that coaching Indian team means sitting and collecting a fat pay cheque. Please give our test team one last chance before fans like me can move on from Indian Cricket. Please! (End)

  • Srinivas on December 21, 2012, 1:09 GMT

    Alright Sambit, here is my observation. Our players don't seem to be too interested in test cricket. I don't know if I'm being skewed but, to me, it's clear that our players are more interested in the shorter formats, from what I've seen of them in today's T20I. It's their life. They are professionals. They chose their careers. So, it's their wish as to which format they want to play and what interests them the most. But my only request to the selectors is, before longtime fans like us can look elsewhere for quality cricket, please make either Sehwag or Gambhir as our Captain and put them on strict notice (we can afford to lose one or both of them if they fail). Let 3 to 5 be occupied by Pujara, Rahane and Kohli. Give another 3 slots to Ashwin, Ojha and Yadav. Saha or DK as our WK. In fact, DK can even play as a specialist batsman. (TBC)

  • t on December 20, 2012, 23:27 GMT

    statements like terming the 2007 World Cup "a bigger disaster" (yes 1 bad week is worse than 18 horrible months according to his logic) & india's body language on last day where dhoni, sehwag etc were grinning away as if they were the series winners & not eng show how much they care abt the game & the fans. sehwag expecially acts as if he's doing a favor to us all by even being on the field. it seems losses hurt us fans more than these people

  • Srinivas on December 20, 2012, 17:36 GMT

    Hi Sambit, I have a couple of questions for you. So, you say if this doesn't hurt, then India won't rise. I guess many of us can understand your conclusion. So, my question is: Do you think this hurt the Indian players? If if it didn't, then why it didn't? If it did, then why do you think it did? My position is, no neither this series loss nor the previous 8-0 overseas losses hurt our Indian players nor the selectors nor the BCCI.

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2012, 17:13 GMT

    And finally, I know the article itself is not meant to suggest positives, but it would at least brighten up the doom and gloom. Plus, India actually did fine in the recent ICC World Twenty20, and it could be argued that Australia didn't try hard enough to beat Pakistan before India took on South Africa, and that they were crudely content with not chasing down the runs, despite the fact that they destroyed India. And enjoyed your article after the disastrous Sydney Test at the start of the year, and wish you and your family a very Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.

  • Srinivas on December 20, 2012, 17:11 GMT

    @YorkshirePudding, are you really so serious about the online petition? Come on, you are dealing with multi-millionaires here who also have rotten minds! Can we really think our online petitions and posts here on cricinfo will even make them think for a second? They will, of course, start thinking if underperformances lead to a loss in remuneration for them. That's why I hope the underperformance of our team in tests will be a catalyst for some much needed and long overdue changes. For the starters, Statchin, Dhoni, John Dawes and Duncan Fletcher have to be booted out. One more thing, you can clearly see from today's T20I that Indian players as a whole seem to be more pumped up, or interested or what have you, in the shorter formats than in the long format. If that indeed is the case, then there's nothing much that can be done about it, as it is their life and they will have interest only in what they want to do. We cannot make these professionals love the format that we love.

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2012, 17:06 GMT

    Completely agree with most of the stuff that has been mentioned here, and following the shambles of the last two tours away from home, as well as Indian cricket in general of the last eighteen months or so has been painful to say the least. It could be argued that it has been an accident waiting to happen since the appointment of Duncan Fletcher as a coach, an ex-England record whose record away from home only serves to speak for itself. Also, since the retirements of three of the fab four, and especially the recent ones of Dravid and Laxman, India has been unable to genuinely replace them. If they can get a new coach and embed new talent, coupled with a new captain and renewed belief in the squad as whole, only then will they recover from this mess and the steep and shocking decline suffered as a result. Also, change is needed within the BCCI, and they need to accept that DRS maybe beneficial in the future, although I am not saying it is the answer to the longer-term problems.

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