Pradyot Lal writes in Tehelka.com
The economic powerhouse of international cricket is suffering from a rather debilitating poverty: It is not the lack of ambition, but the means to translate it into reality. As Indian cricket oscillates between heroism and scandal, the patriotic heart is deeply worried: Can Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men do an encore and surprise the world?
The chances are extremely slim.
The chauvinists and the jingoists better see the weight of logic before the foundation on which the ivory tower stands is all rubble and a shaky future looms large.
For the ordinary cricket lover, one side has to win at any cost, and that is India. However, the optimism of the hopeful has been rudely shaken by the recent performances of the team Down Under.
The team has, to be generous, underperformed in practically all departments of the game. There is a touch of desperation about the Indians’ game, and it is starkly manifest at the very top, with the ever-so-cool mask of Dhoni giving way to a kind of temperamental behaviour seldom associated with him.
Adds Arijit Dutta: The World Cup often brings out the best from the best in business. Arijeet Dutta remembers seven such superlative performances
The evidence is so strikingly there that repeating it appears to be an exercise in futility — the team has just one gold-standard batsman in Virat Kohli, who has been a class act in the ongoing tour.
But what does one say of the rest? Frankly, with the exception of the persevering Ajinkya Rahane, the batting is almost uniformly inconsistent and has not been able to come to grips with the pace and bounce of wickets Down Under. The bowling has been uniformly pedestrian and an embarrassment, and experts reckon that India can only chase targets, not defend them.
The troubles begin at the very top with skipper Dhoni. The most celebrated finisher in the one-day international game seems to be terribly out of sorts. Dhoni has revolutionised Indian cricket over the past decade (it has been said that in 2004, Indian cricket discovered a new drug — MSD). For most of the ensuing period, the Indian game has been on a high; the kind of highs it had seldom experienced before.
Dhoni’s spirit and aplomb galvanised the Indian team into world champions in all three formats of the game between 2007 and 2011 under his captaincy. And quite true to his spirit, when victory began to elude him in Test cricket after a spate of highs, he knew his time was up. And he wisely chose to quit Test cricket with the detachment of an ascetic, without any press conference or the usual fanfare. The man marked a brand new ethos, and the Indian game got more democratised and egalitarian in his wake.
Once he dug his heels in, Dhoni scratched off the so-called “elitist” gloss from the national team. It no longer was a preserve of the fabled cricket centres and metros such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru anymore to produce players for the Indian team. Players with rustic roots and village wind in their lungs began emerging. Ravindra Jadeja came from Navagam-Khed, Saurashtra; Suresh Raina from Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh; Munaf Patel from Ikhar, Gujarat; and the list can go on.
The Indian dressing room during this period came to symbolise its own version of aggressive cricket, be it batting, bowling or fielding; even spinners exuded the aggression of fast bowlers. And in all of this, Dhoni led from the front even when the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble were around. Dhoni’s cricketing skill, shrewdness and charm wove these stalwarts into an unbeatable side.
In 2009, India became the world’s top Test team after beating Sri Lanka at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai. And the team stayed at the top for 18 months, a feat India had never achieved in its cricketing history. As observers have it, Dhoni wielded the willow with a ferocity and brilliance uniquely unorthodox and effective, often taking fancied opponents to the cleaners.
What Dhoni the captain achieved is thus much beyond mere statistics, which in themselves are impressive. He instilled a sense of purpose and belief in his teammates that they could beat any side. But the astonishing fairytale has one major blemish — his overseas record as a captain. The team has had a nightmare overseas since April 2011 and has lost 13 out of 18 Tests and won only one. But then, Dhoni did lead India to 21 Test wins at home, making him the most successful Indian captain of all time.
The Dhoni saga will abide whatever happens in this World Cup. But he will surely like to sign off on a scintillating, imperious note, just as he “finished” the Sri Lankan challenge in style at Mumbai four years ago.
The Dhoni story has its flip side, which is acutely depressing on the face of it, what with his name getting embroiled in some unsavoury controversies. But such is the man’s persona that he has been able to make light of all the slur directed at him, but the kind of mountain he has to climb Down Under to do an encore of the 2011 triumph appears too daunting for the moment.
In a recent column, former Australian skipper Ian Chappell wrote that “India’s World Cup defence is looking as shaky as Christchurch in the midst of an earthquake… If India are to have any chance of successfully defending the World Cup trophy, they will need the batsmen to score heavily. The bowling has been profligate throughout the Australian tour and there are no signs that failing is about to be rectified.”
Chappell added: “The Indian bowlers have not learnt anything from the Australian tour so far. The bowling has lacked consistency of line and length, and the odd good delivery is bookended by a series of boundary-worthy balls.”
He also said that with their major pool matches to be played in Australia, one of them at the bouncy waca, adapting to conditions will be crucial for the bowlers. “They get into the World Cup with their confidence suspect and ability to combat the odds quite erratic as well,” he added.
Chappell has quite succinctly analysed Team India’s long and seemingly unending list of travails. On paper, the team has a string of free-stroking batsmen, but from among them, only Kohli and Rahane exude confidence. Rohit Sharma, the man who has the highest ODI score (264) under his belt, epitomises inconsistency by his regular string of failures when the ball is moving and seaming. Shikhar Dhawan has so precipitously gone down that he is in grave danger of not making it to the playing eleven.
Uninspiring as the batsmen may have been on recent form, it has actually been India’s frail and pedestrian bowling attack which makes their title defence appear so vulnerable. The canny Sunny Gavaskar has been categorical in his criticism of the Indian seam attack with Ishant Sharma (doubtful for the tournament because of a knee injury), Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar all proving to be quite wayward and expensive in both the Tests and the Tri-series.
From among the spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin continues to have a nightmarish run overseas and Ravindra Jadeja is also going through the horrors. It is only Axar Patel who has looked reasonable among the tweakers. Gavaskar went to the extent of saying that India needs to unearth fresh bowling talent if they have to make the difference, but you cannot obviously do that in the middle of a campaign.
In more ways than one, the Indian story Down Under resembles the nightmare of 1992 when India lost four Tests and then proceeded to make a hash of it in the World Cup that followed. As former skipper Kapil Dev says, India will have to chase down targets rather than defend given their scant bowling options.
India have tasted only sporadic ODI success in Australia: they wowed the world when they wrested the World Series Cup in 1985, but that was in an epoch when the nucleus of the 1983 World Cup-winning side was more or less intact. India also won a Tri-series during the ‘Monkey-gate’ fracas in 2008, but that is about it all. The extra bounce and the lack of penetrative bowling and inconsistent batting have been forever the bugbear, and this particular side looks quite vulnerable, to say the least.
What could have been a great opportunity to adjust and orient in conditions Down Under has almost been frittered away.
That said, cricket is a funny game, and miracles do happen. Remember 1983, when ‘Kapil’s Devils’ astounded the cricketing world with a spectacular show? That particular triumph was scripted by the legendary Kapil Dev, the persevering Mohinder Amarnath and a gamut of bits-and-pieces men. India defended a modest 183 against the full might of the marauding West Indies and created history. Then again in 2003, after a disastrous opening foray, the team did exceptionally well. And, of course, the whole of India remembers the historic win (India became the first side in the world to win a World Cup at home) in the 2011 World Cup, which was a befitting gift to the magnificent Tendulkar by his team.