India must accept need to rebuild
When we lose is a good time to ask some fundamental questions. Why do we play international cricket?
Is it to a) win all the time; b) ensure that individuals are given a chance to become world figures; c) keep the sport alive; d) generate enormous amounts of money; e) test the efficacy of our domestic system with competition; or f) give youngsters something to aspire to, like playing for the country?
The honest answer has to be 'all of the above'. What distinguishes one national team from another is merely a matter of emphasis. Winning at all times and at all costs is a legitimate goal, whatever the psychological reasons. So is generating an enormous amount of money with which comes influence, power and the joy of walking around with chest puffed out.
It is when the emphasis gets skewed that problems arise. At least since 2008, when Sourav Ganguly retired, the idea that Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman would follow suit soon ought to have been in the minds of the authorities. Suddenly, three years later in Australia comes the realisation that we don't have too many replacements. The system seems to have let the team down, and it is the cricket board which has fiddled with the system, placing greater emphasis on money-making in the shortest form of the game while refusing to learn the lessons from its national championship where runs are made by the tons by mediocre batsmen on shirt-front wickets.
The American mathematician Sam Saunders has a lovely analogy about how certain truths creep up on us. A frog placed in hot water will struggle to escape, he points out, but the same frog placed in cold water that is slowly warmed up will sit peacefully until it is cooked. Indian cricket is in hot water, but it has become hot so slowly that no one has noticed. But after six away defeats in a row, it is time to shed sentiment and wield the axe.
Some veterans will have to be politely asked to hand in their resignations, others will have to be told to perform or perish and youngsters will have to be given the confidence to fill in the rather large shoes. Easier said than done, of course. But changes are best made when the team is en route to the bottom, not after they get there.
Of 27 Tests abroad since Boxing day 2007, the start of their last tour of Australia, India have won only four outside the subcontinent while losing 12 overall. More to the point, despite the reputation as the finest batting side in the world during that period, they have managed to play 100 overs in an innings just nine times in 53 outings. In the same period, they lost only two of 22 home matches (both to South Africa).
Perhaps we were spoilt by the proximity to the natural born strikers of the cricket ball. The Tendulkars, Dravids, Laxmans, Gangulys and Sehwags made everything look so easy and performed with such authority for so long that we turned a blind eye to their diminishing powers. The selectors got caught up in the hype too, and seemed to have no plan for the transition with the result that like a frog jumping out of hot water, an entire middle order will abruptly retire, leaving a gaping hole.
Indian sportsmen are not athletes. Whether it is a cultural or a temperamental issue, the fact remains that Indians lack the confidence that comes from physical fitness. Boundaries are compensation for the reluctance to run. Physical fitness can make the ordinary player look outstanding but lack of it makes the outstanding player look ordinary.
It is never easy to tell a long-serving employee that his time is up. But it is a job that has to be done, and done with as much dignity as possible. Laxman certainly looks out of it - making big hundreds needs fitness and he doesn't look the part at the moment. Dravid is not the same player who stood alone on the burning deck in England.
Before the start of the slide in England, India had won more matches abroad than they had lost in the new century. But the dream is over.
Whatever the reason for playing at the international sport, one thing cannot be denied. That the best team has to take the field. The happy accident where half a dozen world class batsmen emerged has made the authorities lazy and robbed them of initiative. The result was the massacre in England, and the threat of one in Australia.
India will have to start from scratch. Rebuilding can be a long process, but the need has to be recognised first.
More about Suresh MenonSuresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer.
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