India are regularly talked up as the team most likely to knock Australia off their perch but, on a day South Africa formally completed their seventh Test series win in eight, India's claim became that much more tenuous as they hurtled to their fifth defeat in their last 10 Tests against the strongest sides in the world [Australia, South Africa and Sri Lanka]. The factors for losing this match, and the series, cover almost every aspect of India's cricket.
"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail" said Benjamin Franklin a couple of centuries ago, sage advice that the Indian cricket board blithely ignores time after time. Prior to the Boxing Day Test last year, India had just one warm-up game and barely a week of acclimatisation. It was little surprise, then, when Australia romped home by nine wickets at the MCG.
On arriving in Sri Lanka last month, the Indians again played just one practice match, and left the SSC after an innings-and-239-run thrashing. Why do they never learn? Why is the itinerary always adjusted to shoehorn in meaningless one-day series? The lack of preparation becomes especially acute when the stalwarts of your batting order are no longer part of the one-day side. As long as the priority is quantity [and revenue], the team will continue to have all the substance of a plank of plywood.
The batsmen started in wretched fashion at the SSC, and with the exception of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, there were few silver linings as the series progressed. India's batsmen made one hundred [Sehwag's monumental 201 in Galle] and seven half-centuries [four from the openers] in the series, and didn't cross 330 even once. Sri Lanka had four centuries at the SSC alone, and they comfortably outbatted India in the series decider.
Australia conceded first-innings leads in every Test back in 2004, but still prevailed because their batsmen stockpiled seven centuries and four 50s. Without someone to dig deep and bat like Darren Lehmann and Damien Martyn did on that tour, India simply didn't have a chance. First-day scores of 249 don't win you Test matches on placid pitches, as Anil Kumble was to admit later.
The bowlers were just as culpable though. Barring Harbhajan Singh, who took 16 wickets, no Indian bowler averaged less than 30. Harbhajan and Kumble took 24 wickets between them, two less than the remarkable Ajantha Mendis, whose off breaks, peculiar googlies and carrom balls dismissed VVS Laxman on five occasions, and Rahul Dravid four times. After his exertions against Pakistan and Australia, Kumble appears to be running on empty, and the series against Australia could well be a watershed as far as Indian spin is concerned.
The pace bowlers had their moments, but couldn't summon up the consistency or the venom to break open the series. While it's true that slow bowlers tend to be the game-breakers in Sri Lanka, two of the sides to win here this millennium have shown the value of pace and seam movement. When England triumphed in 2000-01, Darren Gough took 14 wickets at 19.57 and Andy Caddick nine at 25. Three seasons later, Australia were indebted to Shane Warne's 26 wickets, but just as crucial was the contribution from Michael Kasprowicz [12 wickets at 25.16] and Jason Gillespie [10 at 31.6].
Enough has been said about the fielding shambles. Having given his all during one-day tournaments of paramount importance in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni decided to give this trivial Test series a miss. His replacements were shocking, both with gloves and bat. Prasanna Jayawardene, the most under-rated wicketkeeper in the world, was immaculate with the gloves and also contributed 107 runs with the bat, including a priceless 49 at the P Sara. Dinesh Karthik and Parthiv Patel aggregated 50 over six innings, and seemed to fluff more chances than they took.
Muttiah Muralitharan finished with 21 wickets at 22.23, par for the course in a home series, and India tackled him as well as could have been expected. What will really rankle, though, was the abject surrender - Sehwag and Gambhir apart - against Mendis, the only other bowler of substance in a wafer-thin attack. Chaminda Vaas wasn't the force of old, while Dammika Prasad will bowl a lot better and go wicketless.
Mendis and Murali wheeled away for an astonishing 324 overs and, aside from the openers, no one managed to collar them even once. When it mattered, they would either come up with an unplayable delivery or one of the fielders would pull off a stunning catch. The half-chances that invariably slipped through Indian fingers inevitably stuck in Sri Lankan palms.
Ultimately though, it came down to a batting line-up that couldn't pull its weight. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly finished with fewer runs than Prasanna, and when two of your biggest wheels fall off in such fashion, even the mightiest juggernaut will only end up in a wayside ditch. Beaten, broken, and ambushed by a man who likes to flick the ball with his middle finger.