On The Draw at Dominica

When India decided to shake hands with the gracious hosts at Dominica with about 15 overs to go in a chase of 180 in 47 overs, all hell broke loose. At least on social networking sites anyway.

Would I have liked my favorite team to take a shot at winning the series 2-0 instead of 1-0? Of course. But considering the situations and the conditions, it was a fair decision by Dhoni to come to the conclusion that the test was at a stalemate. When given the first opportunity to take the draw, he did and I am comfortable with the decision.

I am not going to call the team “Gutless”,  “Wimps”, “Running with their tail between their legs” and such, as they have been called on social networking sites. It is wildly inaccurate and highly melodramatic. Talking about melodrama, somebody commenting on Cricinfo, called it “A black day for cricket”.

Let us get down to the circumstances that may have led Dhoni to call off the chase:

The target was 180 runs in 47 overs (3.83 runs per over). Let us first get to the junk argument about this being an ODI target and lads grown up on T20 should easily coast home. It is not an ODI. There are no field restrictions. There are no restrictions on bowling negative lines outside leg stump or way wide of the off stump. Scoring more than 3.5 runs per over is a tough ask in any test, against any opposition.

In a short chase, one of the essential things is a good start. India did not have that. India lost Abhinav Mukund to the first ball of the chase. At this juncture, Dhoni could have held back Rahul Dravid and sent in a Virat Kohli, but he didn’t. Perhaps the idea was to have the two new batsmen get settled and have a shot at the chase with Dravid as the anchor, which seemed to be the case.

As explained by Coach Fletcher, shot making on that pitch was difficult. It was a slow pitch. It wasn’t a difficult pitch per se in terms of survival (as shown by Fidel Edwards for 3 hours). When Dravid and Vijay had got their eyes in, they decided to increase the run rate. They did, I swear. But then, Devendra Bishoo started going around the wicket and started pitching two feet outside the leg stump which immediately put a halt to the scoring.

How could the Indians have combated this? Some good friends on Twitter reminded me that VVS Laxman took apart Shane Warne in 2001 even when he was pitching it outside leg stump. Sure. But scoring at upwards of 5 runs an over? The more logical solution is having a left hander to neutralize Bishoo. India opted for that exactly by sending Suresh Raina ahead of VVS Laxman, when Vijay fell trying to accelerate. I hope you noticed that a batsman who was settled in, with a score of 45, got out the moment he tried to take a risk.

As Bishoo put paid to the hopes of any scoring chances by the negative line backed by a spread out field, the options were to score off the other end, which most certainly the Indian batsmen tried. I watched every single delivery of the chase, as quite possibly most of you did. Whenever the Indian batsmen tried to force shots off the fast bowlers, they had difficulty timing their shots. When they did time their shots, there were the deep set fielders limiting the effectiveness and the slow outfield didn’t help either.

When Raina was out caught brilliantly by Rampaul (off his own bowling), it took the main option for India to combat and score off of Bishoo. Even Raina hadn’t set the world on fire with his strike rate. At this point, Dhoni seems to have decided that scoring 6 RPO was going to be beyond them and offered a draw.

The outrage mostly has been about the fact that India did not even venture a shot during the mandatory 15 overs. Fans are well within their right to expect what they believe is a chase that is quite within the reach of the number one test side (albeit missing 4-5 players from their regular XI). It does however help to put ourselves in Dhoni’s shoes. He has shown remarkable ability to win matches in his captaincy career – across all formats. His team was on the verge of another series win. He set a very sporting 281 in the previous test for his opponents which he came within a brief shower and bad light of defending and taking a 2-0 lead in the series. It is safe to say that the intent to win is definitely there.

As Kartikeya Date points out, even with two of the pillars of Indian middle order out in the center, and two of the limited over stars (including himself) in the hutch waiting, Dhoni decided to offer draw in the third test. Why so?

It is not because this Indian team lacks the stomach for a fight. If the recent few years have shown us anything, it is that this team fights. Even here, they wanted to see what would happen to have Vijay try to up the scoring the rate and have Raina in to see how well he can attack Bishoo. Both the options failed. Only then Laxman walked in to roll down the shutters. Almost run a ball, half of which would have been bowled by a legspinner from around the wicket pitching outside the legstump by 2 feet, on a slow track where shot making wasn’t going to be easy and saddled with a slow outfield, Dhoni decided chasing a long shot win (and risking a long shot loss) wasn’t worth it. As a captain of a team that has worked hard for 15 days to have the 1-0 edge in the series, perhaps, it wasn’t prudent in his opinion to expose his team to even the longest odds of losing this test and thus, just drawing the series. It might be a conservative, safe option but I find it fair.

Samir Chopra laments that this Indian side does not live up to his definition of a true champion. “To be a true champion it is not enough that one sit on top of a numerical ladder of rankings and points; it is necessary the putative champion show the desire and the ability to respond to challenges…”. If this is all that takes for Samir to pass out a judgment that this Indian side which has built its way to the top, one test win at a time on the back of some impressive cricketers, is not worthy of the tag of “true champion”, then so be it. Perhaps, they are not the “guardians of test cricket” he would like them to be.

This is what it essentially it boils down to, isn’t it? Whether the Indian team will play up to the ways we expect them to play? We, as fans, have this idealistic view of what sports is, or rather, should be. It doesn’t always jive with what the players think. From the players and team management point of view, they took an inexperienced test side loaded with youngsters (including three debutants) and won a test series, away from India. Weather cooperating, they could’ve sealed it 2-0 or even 3-0. That is a tremendous achievement.

The other theme commonly bandied about: ruthlessness. “Oh, the Aussie team of the 2000’s would not have offered a draw.” I don’t think this Indian team is not losing its sleep over whether some folks are not comparing them favorably to the Aussies. At any rate, a playing XI including Mukund, Vijay, Kohli, Raina et al., are not even in the same zip code as those Aussie teams.

As fans, we often tend to think we know and understand things a lot better than the athletes playing the sport. It is quite easy to get in to that vortex and start questioning the character and testicular fortitude of players who had sacrificed a whole lot and surpassed tremendous competition to get to where they are. I am not insinuating that the fans shouldn’t question the tactics of their teams but to fundamentally doubt the players’ characters that have brought us wins, trophies and covered us in vicarious glory, is a little extreme. It would help us, and the team as well, if we can stay away from such “outrage” bandwagon.

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