How low can they go?
India can now look forward to the game against Zimbabwe on August 29, a first-among-equals clash between two teams that deserve their place in one-day cricket's subterranean reaches. But for innings for character from Jai Prakash Yadav and Irfan Pathan, this would have been a rout of proportions similar to New Zealand's evisceration of Zimbabwe on Wednesday. With Rahul Dravid suffering a rare failure, and bereft of the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, the rest of India's powder-puff top order were ruthlessly exposed by Shane Bond, a man with legitimate claims to being the world's most accurate and lethal fast bowler.
There will be days when Bond bowls better than this, and ends up with figures far less impressive than 6 for 19. From the moment that Sourav Ganguly jumped like a scalded cat to the first delivery he bowled, Bond must have known that he was in for some easy pickings. These days, the world's premier fast bowlers look at Ganguly and see one of those fairground attractions, a stationary prize to knock off with the fast straight bullet, and there was a macabre predictability to the hapless fend that cost him his wicket.
The others were scarcely blameless either. Virender Sehwag rarely ventures past 20 these days, and both he and Mohammad Kaif perished to ugly flails that showed scant awareness of the fact that India needed to score at only four-an-over. Yuvraj Singh, who manages an innings of substance about as frequently as the Olympic Games are staged, perished in patented style, nibbling at one while the feet didn't so much as twitch, and Ajit Agarkar then showcased his allround worthlessness with a shot that was a mirror image of that played by Yuvraj.
If Greg Chappell, who has to coach this rabble for another two seasons, had packed his bags then and there, you could scarcely have blamed him. On a deck that was clearly made for run-scoring, India were in danger of putting up a total that would have caused blushes in the Namibian dressing room.
Luckily for Chappell, and the few Indians who have journeyed into the heart of Africa, redemption came in the shape of a man who is the very antithesis of the pretty boys who have dragged Indian cricket into an underground cave over the past season. If he was English, Yadav would have been the quintessential county pro, rendering yeoman service for over a decade and reaping maybe a handful of Test caps as reward. Despite standout performances in domestic cricket in recent seasons, he has grown accustomed to rejection's cold touch, a state of affairs that continued in Sri Lanka where he wasn't even given a game.
With the ball, he was tidy without revealing anything like the variety or guile that would make him a game-breaker in the Ian Harvey mould. But there was certainly no hung jury when it came to his batting, which was composed, innovative and, most important given the scatterbrains that had gone before, thoughtful. He stroked and chipped the ball into gaps, was unafraid to loft over the infield, and showed genuine class on a couple of occasions while working the ball past point and cover. It ended on a sour note, with an ungainly slog, but by then, he had done enough to suggest that he should be persevered with as a utility allround option.
Pathan is already more than that. After having bowled a magnificent spell in tandem with the impeccable Ashish Nehra, he returned to play the sort of innings that he has produced on a regular basis since thumping Shane Warne into the scoreboard at the Chinnaswamy Stadium a year ago. Like Yadav, Pathan played primarily with the straight bat, and with a sense of purpose that made you wonder why he isn't batting up the order. Any satisfaction at a well-compiled 50, though, would have dissipated with the realisation that a true-blue display had been marred by an utterly inept batting line-up.
Spare a thought too for Nehra, whose incisive opening burst was at least the equal of Bond's. Both he and Pathan swung the ball and moved it off the pitch, but it was Nehra that strangled the batsmen by refusing to give them even the stray scoring opportunity. Unfortunately for India, the Gandhian trait of refusing to kick a downtrodden opponent - not admirable in the world of sport - is alive and well, and Agarkar's profligacy and an indifferent spell from Harbhajan Singh allowed Craig McMillan, Jacob Oram and Brendon McCullum to pile on the runs that were decisive in the final analysis.
Agarkar's ability to bowl half-volleys, half-trackers and other tripe remains unrivalled, and it's a sad commentary on the state of Indian cricket that there seems to be no alternative for him and many others who clearly can't perform consistently at this level.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Cricinfo