Friday, August 12, 2011

WHY ARE WE HERE?

India, the World No. 1 Test team, is very likely to relinquish the ranking very soon to the rampaging English team. It's been frustrating and embarrassing to witness this Test series for an Indian fan. It was a tad bit embarrassing to see our famed middle order, known for its prowess against spin bowling of all kinds, catapult against Mendis in Sri Lanka 2008. It was embarrassing also to watch a virtually limp Indian team surrender to Australia 3-0 back in 1999-2000. But none of those experiences come close to what I have seen over the last 3 weeks in England.

After the ultimate high of World Cup win, I am feeling a bottomless low even before this series has ended. The Indian supporter in me shall never die, but I pray that it never has to face this kind of embarrassment ever again!

But why has Team India reached this position in the Test series against England? Last time that India toured England in 2007, we won the series 1-0 with a similar Indian line-up against a similar English line-up. What has changed? Both the teams have gotten better since then for sure, even though the scoreline suggests that only one team has gotten better, and the other has gone down to pits!

Why are we performing so badly then? Many people have come up with different reasons and explanations. The primary reason for me is not something new and unknown... but I will come to that later. First, I want refute another view.

Sanjay Manjrekar thinks that our bowling attack lacks ability. Maybe, it does. But India beat Sri Lanka in Colombo with an attack of Ishant Sharma, Abhimanyu Mithun, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha. India beat Australia in Perth with an attack of Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Ishant Sharma and the great Anil Kumble. The current bowling attack of Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh / Amit Mishra is not much worse from those attacks. Both Sri Lanka and Australia were in-form teams at those times playing on their home grounds with a series lead in hand, very similar to England here!

Admittedly, this attack has misfired, and apart from Praveen Kumar, no one has been able to maintain consistency that demands respect from the batsmen... but is that the primary reason? Often in the past, our bowling attack has been helped by a scoreboard cushion provided by the batsmen, something that has not occurred this time.

This is the other reason that a lot of people have agreed on (and I agree too) - the failure to fire of our batting line-up. It has been somewhat surprising to see this line-up misfire so spectacularly. I still have no doubt that India's is the best batting line-up in the world in Test cricket. In the last five years, whenever our bowlers have managed to pick 20 opposition wickets, our batsmen have almost always ensured that they put enough runs on the board to beat the opponent. The only exceptions to this rule have been Lord's 2007 (draw), Cape Town 2011 (draw), Dominica 2011 (draw) and Nottingham 2011 (loss).

In fact, the last time (before Trent Bridge) that we lost a Test match despite our bowlers having taken 20 wickets was Mumbai 2006 against England. 5 years and a few months since then, there have only been those 4 aforementioned instances where the bowlers have done the job, and the batsmen have not capitalised. Worryingly, 3 of those incidents have come in a span of 7 months in 2011 while holding the No. 1 rank!

So if we agree that our batting failures is the single biggest cause of this situation in the series (and even if we do not agree, this question is still important), then the question that arises is how did it come to this! Why is the best batting line-up in the world misfiring so badly?

In the 1st Test, lack of acclimatisation could have been used as an excuse. But it's been 5 Test innings and 2 and a half practice match innings through this tour now, and we have not had a single collective batting performance to rejoice. Rahul Dravid has scored 2 hundreds, and there have been a few fifties to assuage some pride, but where is the good old Indian way of applying scoreboard pressure gone?

In my humble opinion, the failures have been caused not by the lack of acclimatisation, but by the lack of preparation. The English cricket team had their eyes set on an Ashes triumph in Australia, and so they prepared for it diligently and well in advance. They planned well, had contingency options ready, and when the time came, they delivered. They then had a new goal to aim for - the No. 1 ranking in Test cricket. They knew they would have to beat India at home quite comprehensively to attain that. So they prepared again, planned again, and seem to be delivering again!

It's not that the Indian team and its management is incapable of such planning. Our triumph at the World Cup 2011 is a prime example of how we planned for a campaign that was very precious and dear to us. Players have talked about how their mental preparation started a year before the World Cup in Dambulla. They have talked about how they worked at their fitness to be in the best shape during the final stages of the campaign. They have talked about how they wanted to peak at the right time. And they delivered!

So was it a case of not having planned and prepared well to take on England in England? Was there a bit of complacency after having creditably earned a draw away at South Africa just a few months ago? As a fan, I think that even I am a little guilty of having underestimated England a little bit before the series began.

But my assessment of England before the series was based on an English attack containing a misfiring Stuart Broad. But the Stuart Broad playing in this series is a different one from the one that played earlier against Sri Lanka and Australia in the Ashes!

Stuart Broad's new avatar has ensured that the English pace attack has been able to apply relentless pressure on the ill-prepared Indian batting line-up. In South Africa, after the pressure from Steyn and Morkel was over, India could play a few release shots against Tsotsobe, Kallis and Harris. Similarly, against all other attacks, our batsmen have always had at least 2 bowlers who could be attacked for pressure-release!

However, on the evidence of the cricket that has been played on this tour thus far, India's only hope for release in pressure has been in the form of Graeme Swann. The difficulty for the Indians has arisen because Strauss has rotated and managed his fast bowlers so well that Indians have not faced too much from Swann! Instead, it has been steady and relentless pressure and testing from a highly-skilled English pace attack!

When India's No. 1 ranking used to come under fire by people who used to say that they are not like the dominant West Indies and Australia of the past, I always defended India by saying that No. 1 ranking suggests that we are the best of the current lot. That ranking does not imply that the team owning it will be one of the all-time greats like those West Indian and Australian teams!

So going by the same logic, if and when England get to that ranking, I will accept their position there. However, to be dominant like West Indies and Australia, they will need to beat South Africa (home and away) as well as India (away). Nevertheless, if they get that No. 1 ranking, then No. 1 they will be, and deservedly so! As for India, I know that I will (like a lot of others) continue the support despite this nightmare. They may have been badly exposed this time in England, but the lessons will be learnt, and we will see better cricket from this team!

7 comments:

N.Balajhi said...

Exactly shridhar. Our preparation was hampered by IPL and further weakened by refusal to go to WI.

Zak, Viru, Gambhir aggravated their injuries in IPL.

Tendulkar opted to play while ignored WI tests. He could at least have come back for the last 2 tests in WI. Runs are a confident thing Shri. One bad luck is enough to upset your rhythm and dent your confidence.

DEEKAY said...

Ditto wat u say......we r not as bad as the score line says....lack of preparation, little bit of over confidence all went in together....but hopefully, we will be back

Shridhar Jaju said...

@N.Balajhi, I know IPL hampered our preparations in a BIG BIG way. But one thing that we must all realise is that IPL is not going away... it is here to stay! The solutions must be found around it, not by disregarding it!

I think the player structure of IPL franchisees needs to be looked into. Like I tweeted to you, had Gambhir decided to rest after World Cup, KKR would have been upset because even though they don't have to pay him that 2+ million if he does not play! They would have been upset because selecting Gambhir ate up those 2+ millions from their budget, which they could have spent on someone else who would have been available.

I don't doubt for a moment that players are well aware of what their priorities are. They know that there is greater pride in being a part of the World No. 1 Test team than leading KKR. But considering the financial aspects of sport, I don't think they have much choice after they sign the dotted line!

BCCI needs to work out some guidelines whereby the centrally contracted players can manage their fitness and form and preparations despite the IPL.

I would suggest a different budget for the centrally contracted players and a different one for the rest. And a limit on the number of league games that the centrally contracted players can play (not too small, but something like 11 out of 14 games). If such steps, combined with the possibility of increasing foreign players from 4 to 5 per XI, IPL franchisees could still maintain their team's brand value, and the important players of the Indian line-up can work on managing their fitness too.

It will be a hard task of correcting the mistakes made in the lead up to this loss (if at all BCCI does wake up to realise their mistakes)! I hope the process starts now, before we learn a few more shocking lessons!

N.Balajhi said...

Shridar, IPL is going to be a big issue for BCCI to handle, if at all it decides to tinker with it. I certainly like major overhaul of IPL. But then for that to happen BCCI has to let go its revenue opportunity and allow cut back of original auction price. I don't see any way franchisees agreeing to let go their star players during league games, unless stars themselves walk away ditching their franchisees and the money that comes from them.

There is no doubt that IPL is hampering Indian cricket (especially in tests) as it eats into whatever time that is available for players to recover from injuries or take quality rest. For anyone to perform at their best, they do need some rest. Rest is very much part of preparation. you have to tune up your mind and body.

IPL is a monster and am not sure it doesn't turn into a frankenstein's one.

Shridhar Jaju said...

@N.Balajhi,

I don't see the stars walking away from the IPL on their own. Multiple reasons for that. For one, it would mean cold-shouldering the mighty BCCI itself. Secondly, the money offered is too tempting. Lets face it, very few men would be able to refuse that kind of money for that kind of cricket. Third, these players have a limited shelf life. If they refuse this money in the peak of their career, they will never get a chance to earn as much ever again!

I don't blame them for being materialistic in this context. It's a very natural and a human thing to do!

IPL has hurt the Indian Test scene from the background thus far, and some of its effect was seen in this series. The greater impact, I fear, will be seen some time down the line when our batting personnel will change. Why India alone, some people claim that IPL has hurt Australia's cricketing scene as well, and some reckon that South Africa and Sri Lanka too might soon feel the pinch.

But out of all such speculations and futile discussions, in my opinion, if the IPL structure has to have a major overhaul, the initiative will have to be BCCI's. They are the bosses, and bosses have to take tough decisions sometimes. One such time is now!

N.Balajhi said...

Neither I blame players for going after money. But it is BCCI's job to ensure that IPL doesn't affect our test match aspirations. But the problem is we have arrogant and irresponsible people who don't see the reason as our board office bearers. Neither will players make the move nor will BCCI. We got to get going with whatever we get, like the English football fans.

Shridhar Jaju said...

I hope that this series serves as a call for the BCCI to revisit our cricket structure, as it is in a desperate need of overhaul - both the FC matches as well as the IPL.

Whatever happens in the 4th Test and the ODI series to follow, I hope the lessons learnt on this tour won't be brushed under the carpet!

SAVE OUR TIGER!