Losing with the winners
Chew on these numbers for a minute. Just re-read them. Rub those eyes and do your own searches for confirmation if you are still in disbelief.
When the last wicket fell on Day Four of the Melbourne Test, here's how they stacked up. India's top seven batsmen between them had played 685 Test matches and scored 52,328 runs. So we are clear, that is fifty two thousand, three hundred and twenty eight runs. They had scored 140 centuries and 256 half-centuries. Go on, munch on those figures again.
One can conclude with a reasonable amount of certainty that a batting line-up of such monster feats hasn't featured in a Test XI before. Now the stark contrast. Australia's four-man bowling attack had played a grand total of 57 Test matches, claiming 202 wickets between and sharing eight five-wicket hauls among them. Yet India lost. Australia won. How?
At its most basic, cricket is bat against ball. All sorts of leather hurlers send down five and a half ounces in the direction of the willow wielders. They impart pace and swing, seam and spin, cut and guile so their presence on the centre of the field is ended. And the batsmen have their own forms of counter-punching. They drive and pull, nurdle and hoick, scamper and clip. Over time they establish reputations founded on their deeds. And arrive in arenas carrying those reputations, as did this Indian batting unit in Australia. Oozing in class and pedigree. Quality and brilliance. They were the big boys in town. The support cast needed to show up. And roll over. Alas, sport doesn't allow the luxury of contests on paper. So Siddle beat Tendulkar. Pattinson overcame Dravid. Hilfenhaus outsmarted Sehwag. Not one among the Australian bowlers have a 100 Test wickets yet. Four of India's top seven have over 8,000 Test runs. Two over 13,000. One over 15,000. Whoa, who turned these tables?
In England, Indian cricket learnt some lessons and learnt them well. No longer would an unfit or out-of-form bowling unit be allowed to do duty in a Test match. Reputations were discarded as certificates of merit. And the right decisions were made. Zaheer Khan was asked not merely to get fit again but to prove that he was by bowling on the domestic circuit. A spin bowler with 400 wickets to his name was replaced by a canny young operator. In Melbourne, only those men who tick-marked all the boxes were allowed to play. And the outcome was heart-warming. Zaheer alongside Ishant, Umesh Yadav and Ashwin were a bowling unit to be proud of. Incisive and determined, they delivered 20 wickets. And the opportunity for victory.
But the bowlers, as the clichÃ© goes on the circuit, are Indian cricket's 'cattle class'. England also provided a peek into the future of Indian batting, as well as an opportunity to bandage the rupture. Eight innings without a single score of 300 was an ominous warning. Something was dreadfully wrong. But the warning signs were ignored. Not one of the fringe men were given a sustained go in whites. Run-making resumed against the hapless West Indies at home. Already formidable career figures were given further substance. Victories were bagged. All was well. But was it really? Once the superstars faded, what was plan B?
In Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, Indian cricket has been dealt an incredibly generous hand. They became permanent occupants of batting order numbers 3, 4 and 5 through run-making of gargantuan proportions. Pretenders came and pretenders went. To this day, the holy trinity has no worthy rivals to their spots. In-fact a nagging fear lurks in Indian cricket circles. Life beyond Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman seems unimaginable. Just watch Dravid stand tall in the ruins of England. Just see the purity of Tendulkar's shot making at Melbourne. But permanence in sport is nothing. Succession is inevitable. And over the last few months, India's Test team has been forced to recognize that the inheritors are either ill equipped or consumed by doubt.
Now clearly that is through no fault of Messrs Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. Had Yuvraj Singh made the most of his Test appearances over the last decade perhaps he might have had one spot sewn up? If Suresh Raina wasn't as allergic to the short ball, he might have been a regular in starting XI's? It is only fair, isn't it, that after an embarrassing batting implosion, the latest occupant in that middle-order, Virat Kohli, have his place questioned in the line-up? 11 & 0 are hardly the scores you want next to your name on a score-sheet where the holy trinity precedes you. Yet will Kohli's departure stem the rot? What if the next kid who replaces him has an equally horrid initiation? Off he goes into obscurity, replaced by another 'talent.'
At the heart of Indian cricket's predicament lies an emotional response to a practical problem. Succession plans are ruthless in their design and do not rest on the current ability of the men who are sought to be replaced. Of-course Tendulkar is still the best man for number four. Undoubtedly there aren't any batsmen more suited to bat at three and five than Dravid and Laxman. But must the immediacy of a task be the over-riding concern at all times? Must the desire to let them choose a "grand exit" over-ride the shape and form this cricket team takes in the future? We often hear of the fruitless search for a replacement for Ganguly at number six since he retired in 2008. But is there one at number three? Four? Five? Surely, once Ganguly left it became apparent that in a couple of years on the outside, his great contemporaries would too. Yet little effort was made to groom a new generation of Test batsmen. It shouldn't be rocket science. Identify the men with the tools. Hand them a long run. And inject them with the confidence that they aren't expected to fill the large shoes that will be left behind by the legends.
Men with the ability of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman can play on for as long as they wish. Such is their mastery over the craft of batsmanship. Just watch Shane Warne bowl in the Big Bash at 42 and it's evident he could turn up for a Test match and outperform the best tweakers in the business. But full stops are important in sport. It's evolutionary in its format. So the great men either recognize that or they are given a helpful nudge towards that golden sunset. Yet, Indian cricket has waited on them to make the call. And has spent little or no energy in identifying the next in line. So when the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara or whoever else takes those batting spots, they will dread the inevitable comparisons. And live in a constant fear of failure. It is why Virat Kohli must play all four Tests in Australia and be aware that he will be. So he doesn't approach each innings as his last. So if he wastes the long rope, he cannot lay the blame on other shoulders. Yet he will not enjoy any such guarantee. Rohit Sharma is breathing down his neck you see, he isn't even in the running for a spot occupied by the permanent residents.
Worryingly for the Indian Test team, the men who have accompanied the trinity over the last few years are battling their own demons. Virender Sehwag last made a hundred outside Asia in Adelaide in 2008. In eight Test matches since outside Asia, Sehwag has 399 runs at 23.47. One wonders if there will be a return to those days of leviathan scoring. Gautam Gambhir has made all of one century in 18 Test matches over the last two years. He is often spoken of as the next skipper but not too many men lead if they aren't a certainty in the starting XI. MS Dhoni seems to wander into Test cricket with a hard-to-explain reticence. His average outside the feather-beds in Asia is under 30. And his batting ambitions in Test cricket appear limited. Surprisingly for a man capable of such aggression in coloured clothes, he is resolutely defensive as Test captain. Allowing the final-wicket pair of Pattinson and Hilfenhaus to bat with such freedom on the fourth day at Melbourne was just the latest instance of that unfathomable streak.
Of-course the script could change dramatically over the course of the New Year Test match at Sydney. The big three may reel off sublime tons. Gambhir and Sehwag could plunder like they have in the past and Dhoni might discover his verve again. Yet even a turnaround must not be allowed to paper over the cracks. Indian cricket is on the cusp of an overhaul. The decisions will be made for us, if we choose not to make them of our own accord. This is team that has lost five in a row despite the winners in its midst. The onus must now transfer to men who need to learn how to win again. For themselves. And for their team. The great men have come to the end of the road.
The statistics in this article are courtesy Arun Gopalakrishnan. On Twitter: @cricarun
More about Gaurav KalraGaurav Kalra has been producing sports content on television for over a decade. He started his career at Trans World International where for four years he worked on a variety of programming including magazine shows, news bulletins and live broadcasts. In his next role at Quintus, Gaurav produced a series of programming under the Wisden brand name, including the Wisden Indian cricketer of the century and the Wisden Awards. Gaurav joined CNN-IBN as Sports Editor in 2005.
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