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