Another abject surrender by India saw them slump to their ninth consecutive one-day final loss at Kingsmead, Durban, on Friday. Shaun Pollock's men, in sharp contrast, were magnificent in carrying out their game plan on the field and they rightfully walked away with every award on offer.
I would lay the blame for this defeat squarely on the shoulders of the Indian batsmen. The overnight rain in Durban had meant that there was dampness in the pitch and the ball was stopping with disconcerting regularity on its way to the batsmen. I felt then that a score of 230 to 240 would have proved a challenging target for the South Africans, who had decided to chase. The Indian middle-order, however, for the umpteenth time failed to rise to the occasion following the early dismissals of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, and our final score of 183 was always going to be inadequate.
The defeat has proved yet again our almost absolute reliance on Sachin and Sourav. Let me place a few facts to drive home the obvious. It was Sachin's unbeaten 124 and Sourav's unbeaten 63 that sealed India's last win in a one-day final on 13 November 1998 against Zimbabwe in Sharjah. India's failure to win a one-day trophy since then has a lot to do with the fact that the two premier batsmen have managed to score only a little over 350 runs among them in the last nine finals. This, incidentally, includes the ICC KnockOut final at Nairobi in October 2000 when Ganguly made a brilliant hundred only to see Chris Cairns come up with an equally superlative effort to guide New Zealand to a famous win.
In all fairness to Sachin and Sourav though we cannot expect them to deliver on every occasion. The rest of the batting too has to pull their collective weight whenever the magnificent duo fails. The high success percentage of top teams like South Africa and Australia has a lot to do with the fact that their middleand late-order deliver even when their openers fail. But sadly this has never been the case with India.
On Friday, all we needed was for someone to give Rahul Dravid company. Virender Sehwag looked good while making 34 but he perished when India were expecting a long innings from him. Reetinder Sodhi also showed attitude while making a gutsy 22 but the others seemed to have thrown in the towel even before they made their way out to the middle. Their body language showed that they had no stomach for a fight and this meant India couldn't even play out the allotted 50 overs.
What the performance proves is that we have not yet learnt to play as a team. If you ask me, unless that happens, we cannot seize the big moment and make it our own. Our batsmen will also have to learn to play international-level fast bowling. As of now, with the honourable exception of Sachin, Rahul and VVS Laxman, I don't see any of the current lot succeeding against the South African quicks in the Tests.
Our willow-wielders must also master the art of running between the wickets. On Friday, almost all of our batsmen ran at a pace that would have been more in keeping with an early morning jog by the beach. They must also learn when to run and when not to, ensuring that they avoid the kind of dismissal that befell Javagal Srinath. Every wicket and every run counts in the international arena and this sort of lax running is truly unpardonable.
I have held for long that the lack of a quality all-rounder has been another major reason for India's poor performance in recent times. If you look back, a lot of our success in our golden era in one-day cricket, the early 1980s, was due to the fact that we had quite a few quality all-rounders. Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who currently fills the slot, has loads of attitude but he has to improve his batting and bowling in a big way if he is to be classed in the same bracket as those fine cricketers with whom I had the honour of playing.
It might be stating the obvious again but the fielding too has to improve by leaps and bounds (tongue-firmly-in-cheek). At Durban, we saw Laxman dropping Kirsten when the latter was on 23 and later Kumble dropping Kallis at third man. No team can afford such mistakes even in the normal run of play leave alone when they are defending what was at best a modest target.
The Indian skipper has said in the post-match press conference that he is still looking for solutions that would end the almost three-year long one-day title drought. I can only empathise with Sourav. What Durban has shown is that even the darkest of clouds might suddenly disappear; Indian cricket's worries though will not.