Ruing over the bitter English summer
What we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. When Dhoni led his Test team to the No. 1 spot one and a half years back, he would have known that India’s real task had just started. Like every achiever, he also knew that sustaining the top spot is more difficult than reaching there.
You don’t have to be a sports psychologist to understand that. If the top team doesn’t keep improving, other teams ultimately take over. So the mantra for any top team, or for that matter any top organization, is to keep improving every day and set higher benchmarks for excellence. This is a continuous process. It never ends. Any lackadaisical attitude can prove detrimental.
The two humiliating defeats at the hands of England, one by 196 runs and another by 319 runs, prove that India have not got the basics right to remain No. 1 in Tests. At a time when a huge transition is waiting in the wings for the Indian setup, this downward movement is an offshoot of India’s lack of mental make-up of being ruthless as the best performer.
The back-to-back losses in England have raised a lot of questions about India’s status as the No. 1 Test team. It’s just a matter of time when England will dethrone India from the top. There is no doubt that they deserve it. The way the English team has been playing for the last couple of years, no one can question their ascendency.
Let us closely examine what went wrong for India during the first two Tests in England:
Lack of preparedness: India did not look like a team which is ready to face the challenges in England. Despite being the top Test team, they put the longest format in the backburner. There was no planning, no homework for a battle which could have deposed them. Playing the Indian Premier League would never help India become a good Test side. And they never did. The way our premier batsmen succumbed to short pitch stuff was enough to highlight the lack of preparedness for the Test match.
Batsmen’s form: India have always boasted of a heavy batting side. Bowling has never been our forte. But unfortunately, the batsmen have been the biggest let down in the first two Tests. It’s really surprising that in the last four innings in England, India did not put up 300 runs on the board even once. Apart from Rahul Dravid, and to some extent VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar, no batsman seemed to be comfortable against the England pacemen. The way Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Abhinav Mukund got out off short balls was disgusting and shameful.
Off-colour Harbhajan: If the battle for No. 1 was the real plot, one of the sub-plots was the determination of world’s best spinner. Harbhajan failed to make any sort of impact in England so far. His bowling looked ordinary, he failed to get any turn or bounce from the wicket. Much was expected of the Punjab spinner in the absence of premier fast bowler Zaheer Khan. But he remained one of the biggest disappointments, getting only 2 wickets in the first two matches.
Injury woes: Immediately after the World Cup the cash-rich IPL took over. Most of the top players could not handle the rigorous and grueling schedule of IPL. The result was that the backbone of Team India - Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir - got injured while playing the tournament. Zaheer came to England without playing any first-class match. Unlike other seniors, Harbhajan decided to play all forms of cricket in West Indies. And finally, his body gave in, carrying injury during the 2nd Test at Trent Bridge which jeopardized Dhoni’s entire plan. In the two Tests, India were forced to bowl with three bowlers. It’s not surprising that the English batsmen made merry against the crippled attack.
Dhoni’s form: When the captain of the team is concerned about his own form, it’s very difficult to inspire the team which is not performing. In the two Tests, Dhoni failed to contribute with the bat, getting out early, and exposing the lower order for the raging English pacers. His dismal form was one of the main reasons why Indian lower-middle order failed to put up any kind of resistance. On the other hand, it was England wicket-keeper Matt Prior who gave them the perfect support needed at No. 7.
Over dependency on key players: Best teams are those which don’t depend on certain individuals. Everybody is a part of the culture which inculcates winning habits. Stars may come and go but team’s mission does not get affected. To remain at the top, one needs to have a pool of players who can fit seamlessly into the team whenever they are without their key players.
India’s biggest bane was their over-dependency on some key players. Indian batting does not look the same without Sachin. The loss of Zaheer made the bowling unit look like an ordinary one. There were no ready-made replacements for Sehwag and Gambhir when they got injured.
Lack of fighting spirit: What is more disappointing is that Indian players did not show the stomach for fight. Despite the huge margin of defeats, Indian had their chances. In the second innings of the Lord’s Test, they reduced England for 62/5. Again at Trent Bridge they had the opposition on the mat for most part of the first innings. But they let the hosts off the hook. Opportunities beckoned, they simply could not seize them. Rather than overcoming difficult situations, they frittered away the advantages.
Priorities (club over country) : You may not like the former England captain Nasser Hussain, but he was spot on when he said India looked ragged due to the IPL which took a lot out of them, physically and mentally.
India’s current predicament is due to the fact that they could not set priorities right. They kept on playing T20s when they should have prepared for Tests. They kept on playing in the IPL and skipped national duties when it should have been other way round. If Australian players such as Captain Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson can withdraw from T20 Big Bash League to concentrate on their Test career, why not Dhoni, Zaheer, Sehwag, Gambhir, and even the God, do it? Why did Gambhir play in the IPL semi-final despite being injured? Why did Sehwag wait for so long to undergo his shoulder surgery? Who should be blamed for the debacle?
Does the BCCI have any answer?