...The more they stay the same. Indian fans will certainly be feeling that way, having watched India suffer their sixth successive away Test defeat – three of which were by an innings – after yet another abject performance. The last time the team went on such a miserable run was between 1959 and 1968 when they lost 17 straight away matches – eight against England, five against West Indies and four to Australia.
For most of us though, it feels like a return to the dark days of the 1990s when India entered every Test away from home as underdogs, with more hope than belief, and ended it, more often than not, with a crushing loss after a listless performance. In that period, the only overseas tour India returned victorious from was the 1993 tour of Sri Lanka, thanks to their only victory in 39 away matches. There were defeats – 15 in all – to Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, and even Zimbabwe. In contrast, the only series India lost at home was the 1999 Asian Test Championship to Pakistan, and even that included a drawn match in Sri Lanka.
But the ‘poor travelers’ tag isn’t the only painful memory coming back to haunt India. Infuriatingly ‘slow starters,’ they have now lost the first Tests on four of the last five tours, three of which were affected by rain. Which reminds us of the many Tests India contrived to lose when one session or a rain shower away from a draw. The team usually found themselves in that position due to dreaded batting collapses. That habit is back too – India lost 14 wickets for 132 runs over two innings at the MCG, while in the second Test, they were bowled out for 191 after electing to bat, not even managing to last out 60 overs. Their 400 in the second innings in Sydney was the first time in 12 Test innings away that the total crossed 300, though that too was not without a seemingly inevitable collapse – Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal saw four wickets fall for just 15 runs, ending any faint hopes India had of taking the match into the fifth day.
That was also a sight familiar in the 90s, when it was widely believed that with Tendulkar alone rested India’s hopes. The first two Tests have already seen the 38-year-old waging a lone battle, even as wickets fell in a heap around him. Not surprisingly he is India’s top-scorer on the tour so far, followed by R Ashwin – which only illustrates the worrying malaise afflicting the much-vaunted Indian batting line-up. He has looked in good touch but the big score continues to elude him, leading to more tiresome talk of the 100th hundred.
Ironically, the only Indians to have any sort of century to their name on this tour so far are Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Ashwin. Sydney marked the sixth time since 2011 that three or more Indian bowlers conceded 100-plus runs in an innings. The bowling, after a promising start in Melbourne, looks as insipid as it did before, especially when up against their nemesis, the tail-enders. The blame for that, though, must also be shared by the captain – MS Dhoni’s defensive tactics hark back to the days when Indian skippers were instinctively passive – and the lack of agility and intensity on the part of the fielders, another problem that has plagued India through the times.
Benefiting from India’s failings is an Australian side that was deemed to be one of the weakest in years coming into the series. Their batsmen were struggling, the bowling attack second-string after a spate of injuries. Yet Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus have all played themselves back into form against India. Typical.
All the signs then, are pointing to yet another series whitewash Down Under, just as on the nightmarish tour in 1999-2000 when India were trounced in all three Tests, a fate they had only narrowly avoided earlier in 1991-92, when a double hundred from Ravi Shastri and an unbeaten 148 from who else but Tendulkar helped India draw at least one of the five matches.
Unlike the England tour though, this time there are no excuses for India’s predicament – this is the best available team, with no injury concerns; the players had two warm-up games to acclimatize to the conditions; while Australia were collectively and individually out-of-form, coming on the back of a shock defeat to New Zealand. In fact, many had labeled the Indians as favourites before the start of the series, incredulous as that seems now. The drubbing in England last year was dismissed as an aberration, the previous drawn series in South Africa and the subsequent win over West Indies (albeit at home) signaling the intent to regain the number one Test ranking surrendered to England.
The script has gone horribly wrong, and while the players are largely at fault, it is time for the BCCI to do some serious introspection as well. The lessons, should they be willing, can be learnt from the very opponents who have inflicted this damaging string of defeats on India. England conducted an in-depth review after the 2006-07 Ashes disaster, which led to an overhaul of the entire structure based on the Schofield report. The changes bore fruit in 2010-11, when England secured their first Ashes victory in Australia since 1986-87. Meanwhile, Australian cricket reached its lowest ebb with their second successive Ashes series loss, and changes similar to the English system were brought about after the Argus review last year. Those include hiring a full-time national selector and a general manager of team performance, and reducing the number of central contracts.
The changes required in India will need a separate article by itself, but a re-think of the domestic structure, pitches and schedule, along with meticulous planning for the future in terms of grooming players and team preparation for important tours can go a long way in addressing some of the long-term shortcomings that have characterized Indian teams over the years.
India might still win the next two Tests and draw the current series. They might even return to the top of the Test rankings, given that over the next two years most of their Test series are at home. The problems, however, will remain. In fact, there is every reason to believe things will get worse before they get better, with the retirements of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and even Zaheer on the horizon and no replacements yet to convince. So India and the BCCI need to heed the warning signs and start thinking ahead. Otherwise, by the time India embark for Australia again in December 2014, the 1990s may no longer be a distant memory.