At the end of it all, MS Dhoni's smile was intact. India had lost the third Test, their third in three weeks by a massive margin; England had grabbed the No.1 Test ranking by inflicting on India their largest margin of defeat since the turn of the millennium; and Dhoni himself had suffered his first series loss as captain. Yet he kept his emotions in check. With a gentle smile he ventured into the inquest, launched by a media contingent that sounded more concerned than him about India's drop to No.2 and the threat of slipping further in the event of a loss at The Oval in the next Test.
"The series never really went our way," Dhoni said. "If you see, most of the sessions were won by them. If you divide the Tests into small sessions, more often than not we were outplayed in both the bowling and batting departments."
India have so far won just six sessions: two at Lord's and four at Trent Bridge. At Edgbaston, the gulf between the two sides was further exposed when the India batsmen failed to total 500 runs in two innings, playing an aggregate of 117.5 overs. Alastair Cook, the Man of the Match, alone played a ball short of 91 overs. If England's metronomic bowling attack embarrassed the world's best batting order, India's tired bowlers struggled miserably, fetching just seven wickets in this Test.
"You have to be at your best when you are playing top nations. Our batting department didn't click the way it should have. We were not able to put par-plus runs on the board," Dhoni said of the batting failure. He was India's best batsman in the Test and the only one to score a half-century in each innings. In contrast, England had two centurions and four others who went past the 50-mark.
After India had been bundled out for 224 on the first day, Duncan Fletcher said, somewhat surprisingly, he had never witnessed such "swinging and seaming" conditions in England. Eyebrows rolled immediately, and further proof of Fletcher's remarkable statement was highlighted when Tim Bresnan claimed the conditions were hardly in favour of bowlers unlike in Nottingham during the second Test. If anything, India have failed to withstand the pressure mounted by a bowling attack that has slipped into accuracy mode without any warm-up balls or spells. A perfect example has been James Anderson so often picking up a wicket almost immediately into his opening spells.
"I can't exactly pinpoint the reason like this is what went wrong because if it was so easy then we would have fixed it," Dhoni said of his batsmen's woes against swing.
Both Dhoni and Fletcher have strongly defended their batsmen, but the view that it's the right time to blood youngsters in the middle order and look to the future is gaining momentum. Of the top six in the Indian batting order only Rahul Dravid has been consistent and is the lone centurion with determined hundreds in the first two Tests. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman have scored 159 and 156 runs respectively. Suresh Raina excelled in the second innings at Lord's but has disappointed thereafter. India have not been able to get good starts, their best opening alliance being 63, between Gautam Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund in the first innings at Lord's.
Asked if the spotlight was now on the seniors, Dhoni cast aside doubts of benching or forcing any of the big three to retire. "Six months back also they were part of the side. By losing one series we shouldn't get critical about them," Dhoni said, reminding the media that the same batsmen were successful till the last Test series India played in South Africa. "What you need is youngsters to come in and score runs and displace someone at the top. I think this is the best team that we had. If you take out the injury aspect, I believe this was the best team selected. And in Test cricket age doesn't really matter, it's the performance that matters."
Dhoni also defended his bowling attack, whose inability to take 20 wickets in a match has been questioned time and again in the absence of the injured Zaheer Khan. "The pressure kept mounting on us. Once you start the series and if you are not able to get the opposition out and then you have one bowler less, it keeps mounting as the series progresses. Not to forget England, they are a very good side and throughout the series they have done well."
Moving on, do India now have the resilience to stand up, having been flattened thrice to the mat? "Why not?," Dhoni shot back. "We are very optimistic about it. We need to forget about the last three games in the sense you know, try to make the most out of the fourth one. Take it as a one-Test series, so that you don't have the burden of the last three Test matches you have played."