For the past three years, after every away series, India’s Test cricketers have been returning home disheveled, their whites badly stained. These tumbles down the ranking ladder, would make them disoriented and those following them disillusioned.
Now here in England, they are ambling along on their longest-ever road trip while wearing flannels – after a couple of warm-ups against modest county teams, the good old five-Test series unfolds this week. And once again you fear for their whites.
Fanning these apprehensions are several inadequate Test CVs, depressing scoresheets compiled on foreign soil and those howling winds of change that the game is grappling with for some time now.
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To borrow a term, these young ‘long-format underachievers’ are Indian cricket’s ‘midnight children’. They got their India caps with the BCCI logo that had a never-seen before golden glow. They opened their eyes to a new world where money wasn’t merely trickling down the system, it cascaded like a torrent. But it was a complex era of reforms where Tests were losing ground and playing less got you more.
Of this bunch of 18, 16 have had their Test debuts post-IPL. These T20 wealthies have made their millions bowling four tight overs, hitting 24 runs from 6 balls or leading teams with proven match-winners from around the world. Those short evening outings for two months got them not only easy money and stability but also contentment that made them averse to the Test grind.
Several drifted away but there were others like so many in the present India Test squad who were not just satisfied by the riches. They wanted respect too. Being a one-format specialist was an insult for them, it hurt their ego.
They wanted to be acknowledged as complete players by their peers. Virat Kohli’s obsession to succeed as a Test player can only be matched by Cheteshwar Pujara’s tireless efforts to be a T20 batsman. The pain on a crest-fallen Rohit Sharma’s face after the duck at Durban or Shikhar Dhawan’s long emotional namaskar to the skies, and not his usual cocky mush-twril, after his ton at Auckland have been heart-felt emotions shown by IPL’s ‘marquee players’ while wearing whites. It showed how much success or failure in Tests meant to them.
It’s not often said but cricketers of today face a far bigger challenge of adjusting to different formats as compared to the previous generation that mastered the relatively easy toggle between Tests and that 90s monster called ODIs.
But T20 and Tests are a world apart. It’s like juggling with footballs one day and marbles the next.
A 20-day gap between the IPL final and the team’s departure to England means Indians have once again hastily put on their whites. But after seven seasons of the Tests-IPL co-existence, Indian batsmen, for one, seem to have cracked the code, slowly but surely. During the last England tour in 2011, a distant second on the batting charts, after Rahul Dravid’s stunning effort of 76 per game, was Sachin Tendulkar with an average of 34. Next year in Australia, Kohli (avg 37) was the best among the team that had gone from bad to worse.
It was in South Afirca in 2013, that the tide turned. India had hundred and double hundred partnerships from two Tests, the same as when playing four Tests in Australia and England. Pujara (avg 70), Kohli (68), Rahane (69) were stars of the tour. Earlier this year in New Zealand there were three 100 partnerships and again 3 batsmen averaged over 50. The openers continued to fail but the middle-order had settled.
So how come despite this ever-improving batting show, has India not won aborad? Blame the bowlers, and the captain too. Pacers have failed to pitch the ball up, a prerequisite for success in Tests while skipper Dhoni hasn’t come across as a natural long-form leader. He has let things drift, been too defensive at crucial times.
Too much of T20 has been the cause of both these aliments. Praveen Kumar, the most successful bowler on the last England tour says bowlers can take a week or even a month to switch from T20 to Test length. “There happens to be about 1 meter difference between the two. It takes me about a week but it’s different for other bowlers,” he says. Take the present-day pace department, consider their T20 load and just hope they get the rhythm to bowl 20-overs a day.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar topped most dot-balls in a game list of Season 7. To be restrictive he consistently pulled the ball back as bowling ‘up’ in IPL means a hit heading towards the side screen and even a mis-hit would send the ball over the slip cordon. Having bowled 50 plus IPL overs, Bhuvneshwar’s de-IPLisation might take long. Same is true of Mohammed Shami and Varun Aaron who spent 2 months cutting down his pace, reducing his length and bowling yorkers that are pitched outside off stump.
How you hope pacers had a reset command that could send them back to factory-default configuration. Pankaj Singh is untested but his lack of IPL contract provides hope.
On Ishant Sharma, the judgment is reserved. What do you say of someone who has figures of 6/51 and 0/164 in the same Test, the last he played in Wellington. You can only cross your fingers.
India’s problems while fielding multiply as these inconsistent bowlers are shepherded by a captain with a tendency to go into a mind freeze. Dhoni’s grooming as a leader hasn’t happened on domestic games played on flat tracks under the fuming hot sun. He learnt the art of captaincy wearing blue in the game’s shortest format. Even while playing Tests, he loves saving runs, applauds the loudest when Ravindra Jadeja darts a maiden. Slips disappear early and the point fielder too makes a hasty retreat to the fence. Mid-wicket, long-on and long-off mostly mushroom after most wicket-less hours. Placing a leg-slip is his favourite, over-used, surprise move. And when even that doesn’t work, the team goes on auto-pilot.
These will be crucial periods of play where the series will be decided. And there will be many on this long tour. This is a young team that has three new fathers but most team rooms resemble bachelors’ pads. Reading habit is a rarity in a team that bonds over Playstation consoles. The talk in the dressing room is mostly about the next flashy car, bike, phone or glares.
That’s why you fear for the whites. More stains and these group of boys with a notoriously short attention span might just get bored. They might ditch the whites for good to be with their beloved blue.
Yet the likes of Kohli, Pujara, Dhawan, Rahane have started defying these apprehensions, as the batting jigsaw has looked like it will fall into place these last few Tests abroad. Now only if Dhoni, the captain could shrug out of his defensive reticence and bowlers found their rhythm, the whites can dazzle rather than disillusion.