How did we get here and where to now?

Let me first give credit where credit is due: England quite simply, and at times it seemed, quite easily, outplayed India in the three tests so far to dislodge them from the numero uno spot in the test world. In the first two tests, there was at least a semblance of competition from India to the inevitable English surge but at Birmingham, the annihilation was thorough, ruthless and from an India fan point of view, brutal. Well done, England.

As Sriram Dayanand points out, it wasn’t the walloping that India received that really irked the fans of not only India but England as well, but the manner in which it was allowed to continue without seemingly any resistance from a unit – a unit that had not tasted a test series loss in almost three years – that was having its stay at the top wrested away. I mentioned in my 3rd test preview that this Indian team is made of sterner stuff and I expected them to fight till their last breath even if they were overmatched, before their opponents take the test crown from their cold, dead hands. It wasn’t to be.

The captain, who struck some form with the bat in this test, and Praveen Kumar who all along has been the lone shining star for India in this tour, showed some backbone to bring mild respectability to the proceedings. Praveen Kumar, who after sending down 40 overs in this test alone, put in a dive at the boundary to save 2 runs off a rank long hop bowled by Tendulkar. That’s professionalism. That’s commitment to the cause. India needed 11 Praveen Kumars at Birmingham but alas, they had but one.

How did this happen? How could the fall from grace so precipitous and so swift? How can a top-level team (let alone the fact they were top ranked) perform so poorly? A combination of overworked, undercooked, unhealthy, unfit cricketers that failed miserably to click as a unit? Perhaps. Kartikeya Date lays the blame squarely on India’s fast bowlers Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth.

I do think the batting lineup needs to share a significant portion of the criticism. The Lord’s test could’ve (and should’ve) been saved and the batsmen needed to drive home the advantage at Trent Bridge after the bowlers had bundled out England for 221. At Birmingham, the top six wickets fetched 100 and 89 runs, respectively in each innings and before we forget, this is the lineup boasting the top two run-getters of all time and a supporting cast of Laxman, Gambhir and Sehwag. I am not even bringing up all the lapses in fielding, which is a distinct indicator of how clued in a team is, to the situation on the field. In the first two tests, whenever the game presented a situation for India, England through some brilliant individual contribution and exemplary teamwork, shut the door on India’s face. The constant and consistent threat of the fast bowlers and the unrelenting batting lineup of England, broke India’s will. Well played, England.

Indian cricket can significantly benefit if the right lessons from this drubbing are learned. The future of India’s batting isn’t as bleak as Sambit Bal might say. Of course, the new kids on the block are not going to walk in with already 10000 runs to their names, but they have the talent and some of them have already been exposed to international circuit, and have had the opportunity to share the dressing rooms with the giants of the game. As I wrote more than 14 months ago discussing the future options for the Indian middle order, there are about 10 players available for 4 spots. India will be fine in the batting department (under the guidance of Gambhir and Sehwag) after well planned, thought out farewell to the doyens. India is doing quite alright in the ongoing Emerging Players tournament in Australia.

It is the bowling department that does have reasons for some concern. India just doesn’t produce the tear away bowlers and hence, it requires its fast-medium bowlers to have excellent control and mastery of the exquisite art of swing. There are some exciting young talents below the age of 25 but they are going to need a lot of caring from the cricket board and guidance from the coaches. One aspect that needs to be brought under the scanner, in the aftermath of this pasting at the hands of England, is the player injury management and rehabilitation. The image of Zaheer Khan grabbing his hamstring and walking off on the morning of the first test and Sehwag without any sustained first class warm up facing up to Jimmy Anderson, should not be repeated.

The workload on the players due to the IPL, T20Is, CLT20, ODIs and tests will, expectedly, make the rounds, and there is certainly truth to it. The reality of the fact is that the business aspect of cricket has to be contended with. I do not have all the answers but the board needs to play an active role in increasing the pool of worthy players available for India selection and thereby reducing the workload by rotating the players, providing them sufficient time to not only get their R&R but to get back to first class cricket, be it in India or in the county circuit.

Kartikeya Date makes another excellent point in discussing the number of overs fast bowlers get to bowl in first class cricket that reflects on their ability to perform well in international cricket.

This not only conditions the body to survive long spells and difficult days in Tests, but also allows the bowler to practice ways of working batsmen over. First Class Cricket is the perfect place to try this, because the batsmen in this class of cricket are not as good, and are easier to work over.

This can be equally applied to spinners. In my opinion, Harbhajan Singh is still the best off-spinner India has to offer in the longest version of the game but the gap is fast vanishing. R Ashwin cannot be kept away much longer and there is Pragyan Ojha who, through no fault of his, isn’t getting the opportunities he richly deserves. Then there are Rahul Sharma and Iqbal Abdulla, to name a couple, doing their best to keep the others honest.

I do not think this series is the beginning of an interminable slide to the ways of the 90’s. This is a mini-crisis that’s facing the Indian team and its system. When the emotions from the 3-0 thrashing quiet down, it shall be noticed that this Indian team has achieved a lot in the span of the last 4 years – overseas series wins in England, West Indies and New Zealand, competed gallantly in Australia and South Africa, and delivered a world cup as well.

My friend in college used to have a banner on his room wall: “The worst is yet to come”. I always thought it was a brilliant social experiment tool. Bring in somebody to look at it and ask what he or she thought of it. The point is, as bad as the situation looks, it can get worse. So, you can either suck it up and think, “This isn’t the worst” or curl up in to a ball and think, “The sky is falling”. I belong in the category of people who think the former.

This too shall pass and we shall overcome.

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