Published in Tribune, saturday EXTRA on Saturday, February 4, 2012

The recent debacle faced by Team India should be a learning experience, says Vivek Atray.

The devastating 0-4 loss in the Test series Down Under has demoralised Team India’s fans, and has set the cat among the pigeons. This disaster, coupled with a similar catastrophe in England last summer, has left Indian cricket in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. There are calls from critics for a total revamp of Indian cricket and to sack the selectors, the senior players, the captain and the coach.

For this series in and against Australia, Team India played nothing like its number one rank and stature that it was eight months ago. It behaved like a shell-shocked, fatigued and ageing side, with little passion or pride in its performance.

The reactions to eight straight losses in Test Matches abroad have been predictably caustic. There are calls to “boot out seniors” and to field an entirely new team. The logic given is that the team is losing anyway so why not field a team of greenhorns, who would learn in the process. Skipper M. S. Dhoni too has rightly said that change cannot be an ‘event’ but has to be a ‘process’. The factors responsible for this calamitous performance are there for anybody to see.

Preparation & selection

Team India has been through a roller-coaster ride before and since the World Cup. It was not able prepare at all for the England and Australia tours. The captain and coach should have planned carefully and prepared meticulously. Practice games should have been scheduled before each Test match to enable the team to recoup but then not much thought is given to Team India’s itinerary. At Adelaide and Sydney, two grounds that are relatively spinner-friendly, India should have played both spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Spin has always been India’s strength, and it is a well-known fact that spinners hunt in pairs. Even at Perth, where India played four pacers, Ashwin should have played instead of Vinay Kumar. Rohit Sharma should have got a look in at Perth and Adelaide.

India’s batting greats have been its pillars of strength. Till last summer, they were the main protagonists in India’s march to the No 1 ranking in Tests. Repeated failures of titans like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, coupled with pathetic opening partnerships by Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, have put a question mark over their future. It is evident that their reflexes have slowed down and their footwork is not as quick as it used to be. The maddening thing has been that all of them failed all at the same time, barring Dravid in England and Tendulkar in the first two Tests in Australia.

The opposition team was extremely well prepared and disciplined. England’s bowlers took full advantage of the seaming conditions and Australia’s bowlers of their bouncy tracks. India’s batsmen could not handle tight pace bowling outside the off stump and could not avoid edging deliveries repeatedly to the slip cordon. Whenever India’s turn came to bowl, they made early breakthroughs but could not dismiss the middle and late order.

Duncan Fletcher has proved to be a passive coach, and he could not instil any vibrancy into the team. Similar was the case with M. S. Dhoni, who let too many partnerships blossom without applying pressure. He had fielding placings that allowed too many singles and boundaries. The leadership of the team appeared slow, slack and slothful.

While these were the immediate issues that weighed Team India down, some problems have been the bane of Indian cricket for years and are still deeprooted.

Busy schedule
One glance at the schedule of the national cricket team in the past four years is enough to drive anyone crazy. The very thought that our cricketers play so many ODIs and T-20 matches, accompanied by endless travelling and off-the-field pains, is abhorrent. If any human being was to play as much cricket as Dhoni has and simultaneously handle the pressure of captaincy, the media and the fanfrenzy, he would be close to collapsing.

There is too little emphasis on top players turning up for their state and/or zonal teams in domestic tournaments. Players representing India do not even have time to participate in the prestigious Irani Trophy. The top players burn themselves out playing IPL and endless ODIs, and have no time to get into the groove for Test cricket by playing three or four-day matches. The IPL, in particular, is far too long a tournament and takes a toll on the players. The emphasis on gross commercialisation of the game is far more evident in India than in any other country.

Problem pitches
Domestic and international matches in India are played on pitches that have made even great fast bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh look like impostors. Most wickets across the country have no life or bounce even for opening bowlers and the batsmen have a field day. As a result, our batsmen are left clueless the moment they are presented with seaming pitches abroad.

There have been very few tours by the India-A team to countries like Australia and England recent ly. The second-rung players of the Indian team need to play as many three-day and four-day matches as possible but they have to travel with the main team. If talented players like Viraat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane had been sent to England and Australia last year in anticipation of these upcoming India tours, they could have performed miracles for Team India!

The way out
The Board of Control for Cricket in India should take a call on its lopsided priorities about Indian cricket. The cricket board has several committees but very few of them have enough teeth and vision to take a call about the larger interests of the game in India. There is a crying need for an apex committee manned by former players like Gundappa Vishwanath, Anil Kumble, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Sourav Ganguly. They should draw up the calendar for Indian cricket and keep a watch on the goings-on that may adversely affect India’s prospects at the international level. The apex committee should have the final say on all cricketing matters in India. The BCCI should appoint professionals as administrators for dealing with operations, finance, media etc.

A large pool of cricketers is announced annually by the cricket board as having been handed out contracts. There is a need to ensure that players with real potential are picked for this pool and not just one-match wonders. Many players have been dropped after playing just a couple of matches for India. If the selectors had done their homework properly, these players would not have been selected in the first place. Viraat Kohli and Rohit Sharma are examples of players who need to be persisted with, even at the risk of them failing initially.
No side can win match after match, but if the right balance is maintained, chances are it will do rather well. The present-day greats of India, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag are the sort of players who know when it is time to hang up their boots. In any case, three of them will surely retire in a year or two. If they have to be dropped, they must be. However, youngsters have to be phased in.

With all the frenzy that never-endingly accompanies Indian cricket, the lack of planning for an important series is evident. If Team India had gone to Australia and England a fortnight in advance and played at least three first class matches before the series, the results could have been different.

Overall, this dismal scenario has emerged because of the shortsightedness of the BCCI. What needs to be done is to prepare, plan and prioritise correctly. The fact remains that Test cricket is the ultimate for anyone who has any real insight into the game, especially for the players. Let the BCCI prove to genuine cricket lovers that it thinks so too!