Thanks for coming, India
It was almost farcical. A group of nervous West Indies players was actually hoping an underprepared, lethargic Indian side would keep them alive in the tournament by beating Sri Lanka. As India went about conceding 33 runs in the last two overs - admittedly they didn't have any interest left in the tournament - the IPL final came to mind.
Kieron Pollard seemed like he was pulling off a heist against Chennai Super Kings when MS Dhoni came up with the move of a genius. He placed a mid-off almost behind the umpire, and a long-off almost behind him. The bowler was asked to bowl full and straight, and err, if he had to, on the fuller side. Lo, Pollard was out, caught at the very straight mid-off. Later Dhoni explained how he had not pulled a rabbit out of the hat, and how it had been a rehearsed move, which had worked against such big hitters as Matthew Hayden in the warm-up games. Yes, Indian cricketers have time to prepare and play warm-up games for the IPL, but not for major international events like the World Twenty20.
How impotent India's batsmen must feel. They knew exactly where they would be hit, they had enough time - about a year - to prepare for it, yet they reacted to balls headed for the ribcage and upwards almost as if it was a hitherto unknown underhand tactic. And there was no devil in the Kensington Oval track either: it just offered pace and true bounce. No sideways movement, no unplayable swing.
Unlike Dhoni with his genius move in the IPL final, not many in the batting line-up can be said to have worked endlessly in the nets, at camps, during warm-up matches, to try and eliminate the weakness that was pointed out to them a year ago, by the likes of Luke Wright among others. Between the really important cricket, a number of needless ODI series and tri-series involving Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, (both outside their FTP commitments and both involving the BCCI's unconditional allies in cricket politics), the IPL (demanding schedule, travel, inane media work, mandatory late-night parties), and the false confidence that the flat pitches and hyperbole during the IPL tend to create, who has the time to think about bouncers? If they had had the time, at least some improvement would have shown. They actually seemed more clueless this time around.
For two editions of the World Twenty20 running, India haven't won a Super Eights game. But it is the manner of the defeats, almost identical to the ones produced any time this line-up bats on a bouncy track, that will hurt them more. To be fair to them, there is hardly any time in Twenty20s to duck under a few bouncers and try to wear the bowlers down. There is a reason, though, why such tactics are not tried against the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Shane Watson, Kevin Pietersen, et al. The bowlers know those men can hook them for sixes; the Indians' only scoring shot to well-directed bouncers has been the top edge over the keeper's head. Their team-mate Virender Sehwag is a perfect man to learn from; bowlers have tried bowling short at him but don't quite like being upper-cut for six or getting whipped away for four.
Suresh Raina has reiterated that if he's not allowed to plonk the front foot down, all those heaved sixes and slog-sweeps become top edges that go nowhere: against Australia he nearly played on with an edge that could have hit a low-flying aircraft. On a slow and low St Lucia pitch against Sri Lanka, he was back in form, crackling away to a good-looking 63. M Vijay, who had come across as a more solid batsman, doesn't attack the short ball. Although Gautam Gambhir did most things right, his wrists didn't drop in time, something he will now have to contend with in the longest version of the game too. Yuvraj Singh managed to keep the pull shots down, but his head kept falling away. After a couple of short ones - not nasty ones mind you - Rohit Sharma stopped moving his feet completely and kept edging slower deliveries floated outside off.
Neither does Yusuf Pathan enjoy the captain's confidence to bat before the game is almost over, nor has he shown the aptitude to translate his daredevilry from the IPL ("greatest innings" and all that) to the international level. Dhoni felt he needed to pick an extra batsman in back-to-back Twenty20 internationals, going with just three bowlers, much like he invariably did in the IPL, where he picked one of Manpreet Gony, Joginder Sharma, L Balaji or Sudeep Tyagi as a specialist bowler.
The bouncers actually did the team a favour. They hid that the captain seemed to have no confidence in the specialist bowlers picked by the selectors (R Vinay Kumar was finally played after Praveen Kumar had returned home, Umesh Yadav was found to have travelled with the wrong visa, and Zaheer Khan had a niggle). That the captain was not only defensive, he was stubborn too. That Gambhir ran between the wickets in a manner that Ravi Shastri called pathetic - and it takes a lot to get Shastri to utter a negative word on air. (Nor does Gambhir usually convert threes into twos.) It hid that India's fielding continued to match IPL standards - minus the crazy catches pulled off by the likes of David Hussey.
It turns out there is a far wider gap between the quality of cricket in IPL and internationals than the Indian team lets on. Their coach is slightly old-fashioned and saner. For last year's embarrassment, Gary Kirsten blamed IPL fatigue and the sudden shift from that substandard cricket to top-quality international stuff, without sugar-coating his words. He also spoke about how his team had handed Australia their worst Test-series defeat in recent times, and that it followed a gruelling camp was not a coincidence. Only a board as deafened by the sound of money as India's could have not listened to the man. This time he may as well ask for subtitles.
The IPL tragics often cite India's No. 1 ranking in Tests to make themselves believe the cricket can't be so bad. Therein lies the major flaw: Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are too established and too good to let a hit-and-giggle league effect their techniques or work ethic. And it's because of them, not the IPL stars, that India are No. 1 in Tests.
Dhoni admits his side is tired. He says that's the reality of being an India cricketer. He admits most of his line-up can't attack the well-directed bouncer. He says his spinners bowled flat and his seamers kept bowling the same pace. He says his side didn't play to its potential, but he finds nothing wrong in either the IPL or the scheduling. Yet clearer signs of either a tired or unprepared side could not have been cited.
While defending the IPL and the scheduling, Dhoni said, "Players need to be smart because IPL is not only about cricket. You have to respect your body, and if you don't do that, the IPL is draining." The team and the board will do well to add international cricket to the to-respect list.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo