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Chetan Narula
Thursday , January 03, 2013 at 09 : 59

India's Punching Bag Puzzle


As per Google, a punching bag is 'a stuffed or inflated bag, typically cylindrical or pear-shaped, suspended so it can be punched for exercise or training, especially by boxers'. The other definition is one that pertains more to Indian cricket: 'a person on whom another person vents their anger'.

Now, there are two kinds of punching bags. The first type sticks to those players who are born to be so. No matter what they do, the watching - and paying - public will find it in their hearts to pour outrage over them, for good reason and mostly in defeat. Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla are two names that readily come to mind. Once upon a time Ajit Agarkar belonged to this club too.

The second type finds itself hung onto hooks, to be punched gloriously by fans, media and their dogs, even in victory. This is the captain of the team. No Indian skipper in history can dare claim that he has not been hung up, only to be boxed down, very frequently without any survivable reason.

Win or lose, they found themselves crucified. Tiger Pataudi and Sourav Ganguly, arguably India's greatest captains, will confirm to this. The former chastised for his lack of outright wins and his successor Ajit Wadekar booted out for one loss. The latter, aforementioned, for too much bravado, something that ironically resonates in his critic Bishen Bedi as well! Kapil Dev was too much of a maverick. Sachin Tendulkar got bogged down with responsibility. Mohammad Azharuddin wasn't talkative enough. Sunil Gavaskar was too greedy. Rahul Dravid did not stamp his authority and Colonel CK Nayudu did not have any royal lineage to assert any.

These are only a handful names from the glorious list that has led team India out onto a cricket field over the decades, and these criticisms are but the tip of a rather bulky iceberg. In present-day context, with India's fortunes seemingly caught in a timeless rut, MS Dhoni finds himself riddled with blows from boxing gloves, sometimes even bare fisticuffs.

In the span of 2012's last eight days, Dhoni showcased why he is indispensable in the limited-overs arena. His barrage in the second half of the innings against England in the second T20I at Mumbai and then the scintillating century in the first ODI versus Pakistan at Chennai, are both telling examples of how his game-play really adapts itself to the needs of the shorter formats. The restrictions on bowlers and fielders allow him to stay relaxed. That he doesn't need to play for time as in the five-day arena helps him gain an advantage the longer he stays at the crease.

In Tests, no matter how long he bats, as can be seen in the fourth Test of the England series at Nagpur, the game can always drift away in a flash. The tendency of this happening is higher than in ODIs or T20Is, thereby limiting his game. It reflects on his ability as a leader as well. In effect he becomes a reactive captain. Of course this was controlled and none too obvious when his bowling attack was in proper shape and the batsmen were firing on all cylinders. But his case isn't helped by the Indian team's uncontrolled downward spiral in the last two years.

Dhoni isn't a bad Test captain, success or failure rate in just one format cannot earn anyone that tag. Even so, this is a moment to make a call and just to light a bulb in this dark tunnel, a rash decision needs to be made. The transition, after the recent 2-1 loss to England, stands at cross-roads. Yes, one indeed doesn't want Dhoni remaining in the Test role for the Australia series.

The big question however is this: who, in India's current Test selection, is ready to be a punching bag?

Without thinking, most people (experts and fans alike) will say the name Virat Kohli. And you cannot really blame them, for he has forayed into Indian cricket with all the sensibilities of a leader. But, ask earnestly, is he ready?

The answer is no. Evidence from the England Test series clearly suggests that he has leaps and bounds to grow as a batsman, irrespective of the superlative form he was in for much of 2011 and 2012. It took him seven innings to figure out the opposition's plans, and calm himself down in order to counter them. Seven is a huge number, and says more about his highly inflammable temperament than his batting abilities.

Leadership isn't a bed of roses and the road ahead isn't easy, especially with the logjam Indian cricket finds itself in. Absolutely nothing gets solved by showering expletives at anything that moves, and Virat is yet to showcase his mature side. It is something he will learn gradually and only as a batsman, when he fails where he should succeed. In the here and now, therefore, with India's batting struggling badly, it would be imprudent and hasty to burden him with captaincy.

Another school of thought says that Virender Sehwag or Gautam Gambhir could take up the mantle while Kohli gets ready. The problem herein is that neither of them is a surety to be in the Test side themselves. Gambhir borrowed some time on account of his few runs against England. Sehwag, maybe, is a shoe-in for Tests at home, but what about abroad? He doesn't fit in the scheme of things going forward, with South Africa on the horizon later this year. You cannot play just one side of this game. It is a vicious circle indeed and will take a more-than-brave punt to solve this riddle.

It reminds you of 2007, when Rahul Dravid vacated the top-post. Dhoni was an experimental captain for the T20 World Cup in South Africa and then, on account of victory there, got the limited-overs job by default. But he wasn't deemed ready for leading in Tests for another year. Anil Kumble had stepped in. He was the perfect punching bag.


More about Chetan Narula

Studying engineering and business administration couldn't satiate his mind and in 2007, Chetan Narula found his calling as a sportswriter/journalist. Since then he was written on cricket, F1 and football at various avenues not only in India but also in USA and UK. He also worked as cricket commentator (voice) at ESPN for their mobile and web platforms, doing over a hundred matches. High points of his career include witnessing history at Wankhede Stadium (Mumbai) when India lifted the ODI World Cup and his first book, Skipper: A Definitive Account of India's Greatest Captains, which hits bookstores in July 2011. His Twitter feed is here.