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With too great an emphasis on limited-overs cricket, MS Dhoni's side have a set of skills and a level of concentration that are not commensurate with the necessities of Tests
August 17, 2014
How does a professional team crumble in the way India have done this last month? What are the elements that combine to turn distinguished cricketers into fodder for their opponent? England have some fine players but their impact should not have been as powerful as this. The Indians had both Alastair Cook and his team in the palm of their hand and somehow, inconceivably, contrived to let them go. Rarely, in the history of the game, has there been such a dramatic reversal of fortune and results. The overriding impression is that India have only themselves to blame.
Out of that great land comes the accusation that players are spoilt by the fame they acquire and the money they earn. These riches come relatively easily and can, perhaps for the first time in their cricket history, be made without reference to basic skills or a willingness to apply themselves to the long haul that is Test cricket. Unless you spend time in India, it is hard to understand the favour that is heaped upon gifted cricketers. It is a charmed life.
Certainly, the Indian players have not relished the battle as it has become more intense. This manifests itself in various ways. The batsmen have not put a high price on their wicket. It is surely the duty of any Test cricketer to preserve their wicket and the Indians have failed in that duty. The bowlers have shown heart and courage but neither the consistency nor discipline that are key attributes at this level of the game. The fielders look unaware of the possibilities in each ball bowled, almost as if they do not expect it to come to them, or worse, do not want it too. The slips are poorly positioned and therefore cover less ground than they should and do not instinctively go for catches because they are packed so close.
My feeling is that the Indian players have either lost, or in some cases never knew, the rhythm and pattern of Test match cricket. India has spawned an affectation for the short-form of the game which allows for a set of skills and a level of concentration that are not commensurate with the necessities of Tests.
One-day cricket is much simpler. It dictates to the players, which makes it less interesting. In the longer form of the game the player has choices to make and his career and the match depend on these choices. In the limited-overs form, the player mainly follows the natural path of the game to its conclusion, which he may or may not be able to influence.
MS Dhoni is a good one-day tactician because he can orchestrate his bowlers and finesse his own batting within the confines of a 50- or 20-over period. Stretch him out and he becomes uncertain. He has tendency to lean upon excesses - too many slips for example - or falls foul of his own stubbornness - no third man for example.
He does amazing things and when they come off he is hailed as the sort of lateral thinker that Test cricket needs. Think of his wicketkeeping position to Ravindra Jadeja at Lord's or the sudden switch to a bouncer barrage that England fell for. Then he does other inexplicable things and the critics chase him.
Dhoni is a marvellous cricketer and still the natural leader of a country so dependent on the game. His measure and intelligence is an invaluable asset to those around him. His cool exterior is both a plus and a minus. The young players surely need clearer evidence of his passion for the job and for the game. At times, he seems indifferent and therefore cannot expect the emotionally charged responses from his team that turn a match. He has become oddly reluctant to defend. Or perhaps, he has not mastered defensive tactics when the pitch has pace or bounce. At Trent Bridge he set sensible fields that were able to dry up England but the pitch was slow and low in bounce, much like those in India where he has learnt the game. On the recent faster pitches, he has let England race away. The same conclusion can be levelled at India's batting, which has a greater sense of permanence on slow pitches.
After the game, the captain would not criticise his batsmen other than to say that they were learning about technique and the process would take time. But he must have watched from the other end at both Old Trafford and The Oval and thought "If I can do it why can't you?" Dhoni himself is proof that technique must not be confused with desire. He applies his unorthodox methods quite brilliantly. Test cricket takes the soul of a man. Only those prepared to commit absolutely can survive its examination.
The Indian bowlers are used to the short spells required in the short formats and to the cover provided by boundary riders. Their concentration can be switched on and off while their physical strength is only tested for a few hours at a time. The five match series has sucked the oxygen out of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and preyed on the mind of Ajinkya Rahane, two talented cricketers who are not remotely used to the demands of a tour such as this.
With tiredness comes the loss of focus and the bypassing of detail. The fielding had promise and urgency early in the tour but descended into something close to farce on the third morning at The Oval. Aching bowlers were suddenly overstepping the front line often enough to be sure that a wicket would be taken from a no-ball. The batsmen began to subside into the kind of crass errors associated with collapses and losing teams.
Picking a specific turning point is difficult. Probably there were two. The first day at the Ageas Bowl when England won the toss and batted well in beautiful conditions gave Cook and his men an unlikely lightness of being. They benefited from outrageous luck - witness the toss itself, Jadeja dropping Cook on 15 and Pankaj Singh failing to win a plumb lbw shout against Ian Bell on 0. Or was it luck? The toss is a fifty/fifty thing, so yes. The dropped catch is bad cricket. The lbw would have been overturned if India were not so stubborn about the DRS. After all that, England made 569 which proved to be a slam-dunk of a show. But, but, but, should India have allowed Moeen Ali to knock them over in the fourth innings? Saeed Ajmal maybe, but Moeen? Would a truly resilient team have saved that game?
The other major moment was the toss in Manchester on a damp morning. Both captains wanted to bat first. Both were wrong. Dhoni won the toss. An hour later India were 8 for 4 and James Anderson was rejoicing in his week of great fortune - acquitted at trial, unplayable on his home pitch.
Increasingly, the Indians have looked dispirited. There should be joy in a cricketer's heart but none has been evident. Winning may not be everything but losing with pride, perspective and character is important.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UKFeeds: Mark Nicholas
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