Decline and fall
The strength of character that India showed in Australia, and then again in Pakistan, proved to be as fleeting as winter sunshine
Watching Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke bat with such nonchalance and flair this morning, the mind wandered back ten months, to the fourth afternoon of the Sydney Test. After taking a first-innings lead of 231, India were looking for quick runs, and Virender Sehwag provided the perfect start with a casually destructive 47. From there, India's two modern-day batting masters took charge, with Rahul Dravid's gorgeous unbeaten 91 perfectly supplemented by Sachin Tendulkar's composed 60.
Jason Gillespie hardly bowled, while the radar-less Brett Lee and Stuart MacGill were treated with what bordered on contempt. With India putting the boot in so ruthlessly, it was almost impossible to envisage what has transpired over the past three weeks.
MacGill didn't even board the flight to India, while Lee has had to amuse himself by bowling legbreaks in the nets. Shane Warne has returned, but not to any cataclysmic effect. The one big difference has been Glenn McGrath, who surely has no peer in the history of the game when it comes to boa-constricting the batsmen out. Deprived of his services at home last summer, Australia leaked far too many runs in the initial stages, and Gillespie - without Pidge by his side - only appeared to be an intermittent threat with a dodgy mullet.
But for all that, India batted magnificently. Even their poorest display, in the second innings at the MCG, realised 286 with Dravid compiling a superb 92. And it wasn't all magical strokeplay either. When they slumped to 85 for 4 at Adelaide, in reply to 556, many Indian supporters readied themselves for the wearying house-of-cards trick that has been practised with notorious regularity by Indian sides abroad. Instead, Dravid and VVS Laxman - who batted that entire series as though he had been possessed by the ghosts of Trumper, Bradman and Harvey - built a monumental 303-run edifice that altered the course of the match.
After letting Australia off the hook at Melbourne, they meted out the punishment at Sydney, racking up 916 runs for the loss of nine wickets. The message then seemed clear - India were a team in the ascendancy, while Australia's veneer of invincibility had been scratched all over.
But the soothsayers had reckoned without one factor, the indomitable will that separates the titans from the also-rans. The strength of character that India showed in Australia, and then again in Pakistan, proved to be as fleeting as winter sunshine. By contrast, Australia took stock and looked within after the fiascos of Steve Waugh's farewell series, and as the series in Sri Lanka and India have shown, they remain as formidable as ever.
India didn't help their cause with some dreadful batting in this series, but to suggest that they have been merely outplayed is grossly simplistic. There is no disgrace in being beaten by one of the greatest sides in the game's history, but how many of the Indians - Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and, to a lesser extent, Virender Sehwag apart - can claim that they fought their opponent eye-to-eye without blinking in terror?
Even worse was the manner in which they were out-thought by John Buchanan and his support staff. Australia's preparation was magnificent, with a distinct plan for each and every one of India's top batsmen. Dravid and Laxman, even more influential in Tendulkar's absence for the first two Tests, were ruthlessly targeted and roughed up, while the likes of Aakash Chopra and Yuvraj Singh did little more than provide target practice.
The muddled thinking over who would open with Sehwag didn't help, and neither did the management's Parthiv Patel fetish, which surely cost them victory on the fourth afternoon in Chennai. At the very highest level, there is a thin line between a settled side and an unhealthy clique, as Sir Alex Ferguson proved when he kicked the likes of Paul Ince, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis out of Old Trafford.
When Australia batted, they did all they could to upset the bowlers' rhythm. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer haven't performed as they can - except in the first innings at Chennai - but their frailties were beautifully camouflaged by a middle order that was imperious, except for one Kumble-engineered debacle. Martyn's exploits will invite comparison with those of Neil Harvey 45 years ago, while Clarke appears certain to feature in English Ashes nightmares for years to come.
As for India, whose best batsmen tarnished their reputations, morale was yet another casualty. The zest and commitment that characterised the Australian and Pakistani campaigns was conspicuously absent except in the case of men like Harbhajan, who tapped into his own rage to try to alter the balance of power. Imaginative tactics and innovations were also invisible, and a sense of torpor was the overwhelming impression you got from a team that had all passion spent.
Victory in Pakistan was to herald a new age, and signal a corner turned. The corner was turned all right, straight into a dead end. And while Advance Australia Fair is sung loud and proud across Nagpur tonight, India can retreat into the shadows and Dylan's It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.