The current tour by the Indians to the dreaded Southern Hemisphere is one I have closely followed after more than a year. Not the one-day series, mind you. One-day cricket has become as trite as Himesh Reshamiyya songs – over-played and over-emphasised.
Test Cricket is what gets me going. Five days and thirty sessions of bat hitting ball, minds crossing swords, bowlers asking cryptic questions and batsmen struggling for answers, or with the roles reversed, bowlers asking questions of themselves. Test Cricket is beautiful when both the sides want to win. Everything becomes a factor – the moisture on the pitch, the moisture in the air, the forecast, the umpires and even the toss.
Sweet anticipation is with which I got ready for the series against South Africans. India won their first ever test match (not a series) in SA in their fourth sojourn at Wanderers. The key turning point in that match was the excellent bowling show, backed by smart fielding, which led to SA being dismissed for 84. As it so often happens, relaxation and complacence set in and India lost the second test, without a fight.
‘Without a fight’ is a phrase so often applied to Indian cricket that we would suffix it to our team. While teams like Pakistan and Australia have even their youngsters displaying mature courage to hang on (remember that resillient century by Kamran Akmal) and face the fire, Indian teams are yet to show that gumption. I have followed cricket for the last 10-12 years and not once have I seen any Indian team having the tenacity to survive.
As if to prove my point, the Indians had a repeat performance yesterday on the 4th day at Newlands. Stumbling from 84/2 to 169 all down in most crucial innings of test is a feat that requires immense lack of a willingness to win. Ganguly is back to his fluent best, the kind of form in which he ruled the off-side a few years back. After reaching the nadir last year, he has made the most dramatic comeback in cricket last year. He was dropped on poor form and is back in team, riding on an amazing fight-back. I supported his exit(on the basis of his form) and it is heartening to note how he showed character to fight for his place now. The only other batsman to impress yesterday was Dinesh Kartik, coming up with a spunky and daring innings, sadly without an iota of support.
Who failed? Everyone else. Firstly, Dravid has slipped since his epoch-making half-centuries at Sabina Park, going with a fifty the first time in 7 years in a series. The SA bowlers have worked on his weakness for legside shots, often getting him out in front of the wicket. But, the wrecker-in-chief, and increasingly, an embarassing liability is Sachin Tendulkar. Not only does he look like a great past his time, his presence on the pitch demotivates the other batsmen, let alone be an inspiration. He makes the tough look impossible and the ordinary tough. The way he played himself, Dravid and India into a bind last afternoon was shocking. The more annoying bit is the ‘sacred cow’ status bestowed on him by the media and commentators. Sunil Gavaskar, for instance, cannot find a single fault in his favourite cricketer. Poor rotation of strike? He must be hurting. Poor shot for a slip catch? The ball was unplayable. To continue edifying him seems to be second nature to him, Bhogle and co. A save on the boundary ropes today earned him accolades praising his ‘youthful spirit’ though he has been in cricket for 17 years. Yes, that is why he is God – for saving runs on the boundary. India lost the plot, the match and the series in the middle session of the 4th day, all because of one batsman’s inability to play, inability to rotate strike and the failure to survive.
Tendulkar had poorer averages than Brett Lee last year and I think if Ganguly was dropped on poor form, so has the time come for Tendulkar. As India goes through phases of transitions, it is time the selectors take tough calls. The more graceful thing would be for Tendulkar himself to drop out of the team, play himself back into form and create a place in the team for himself.
On the bowling front, India still do not have the confidence to bowl out any team twice anywhere. They have not had it ever. All of India’s victories have come on the back of valiant batting innings, or dubious pitches, or some sheer luck. As Harsha Bhogle remarked, such victories surprise the winning team and are unplanned. You still have not created the winning habit and hence, you will never win consistently enough.
Let’s hope the introspection following this series loss creates enough noise to bring in these changes.