If I was allowed one question of India’s Test cricketers, and was guaranteed an honest answer, I would ask “Do you, deep down in your heart, believe you can win Test matches away?” I wouldn’t ask it out of sarcasm, or a desire to play to the gallery, I would ask it because a lot of actions emerge from true feelings. I would also ask it because I have asked it of players who travelled overseas in the late eighties and nineties and they were honest enough to say that they didn’t believe they could.
But since it doesn’t matter what I ask, or what I feel, it is important that someone who matters does. Eight Test matches were lost in England and Australia and if the question was indeed asked then, it remained secret. But the answer, and the resultant solution, didn’t manifest itself. You could say, as Dhoni has tried to, that this is a different side, that the ageing batting line-up of those crippling losses has given way to a younger lot, and that therefore this team needs time. In fairness to that argument, India created winning positions in two of the last four tests but the ease with which those were subsequently squandered was indicative of a deeper issue.
On field battles
And so, now the hard question must be asked. And answered. And it must begin with whether or not the players, individually and as a team, genuinely believe they can win overseas; whether they respect each other enough as players to think that one of them can effect a turnaround in a Test match. India’s cricket administration, having won so many off-field battles with well planned campaigns, needs to spend a little more time in trying to win a battle on the field. For that, you must know why you are losing.
If you look at the away scorecards of matches between 2002-07, which was a good phase, some things become apparent. For a start, the batsmen made a lot of runs; it was the coming together of an extraordinary quintet of batsmen. With Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane, maybe that phase can return though it is best not to live with such expectation. In seven Tests in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04, India had scores of 409, 523, 366, 705, 211-2, 675 and 600! India won three out of those seven Tests but lost two and again the scorecards tell a story. While there were sporadic individual bursts, Agarkar at Adelaide, Pathan and Balaji in Pakistan, India’s bowling wasn’t scaring anyone. The opposition in those Tests made 323, 284-3, 556, 558, 474, 376-6, 407 and 489. What India seem to have done well was to capitalise on opportunities created which, in the years ahead, came from shooting stars like Sreesanth, RP Singh, and from Zaheer Khan.
There was another reason. Inevitably Anil Kumble and/or Harbhajan Singh would pick up wickets. There might have been long periods of toil but there were wickets. Kumble took five in the first innings in the win at Adelaide and they took eleven between them in that heartwarming win at Leeds. And so it is my theory that India are missing a quality spinner which, if anything, must hurt those that manage Indian cricket even more.
There could be another factor and that is why I would ask that first question of the captain. Does Dhoni believe that India can win overseas and I greatly fear that the answer to that question is “no”. Sanjay Manjrekar has a theory, propounded on air, that Dhoni likes bowlers who keep things quiet and therefore delay the march of the opposition. Hence, he says, the fascination with Ishant Sharma. Given the fields he so often sets it is a theory that has some legs to it.
The other theory, also worth giving time to, is that India’s relative success in limited overs cricket in recent times has created a mindset where things must happen quickly and so India cannot retain intensity beyond 50 overs. In Indian conditions, the game often changes in that much time and so it could explain why Dhoni seems to let the game drift after a while in overseas conditions. And might offer an explanation for England’s win in 2012 where they forced India to field long hours.
Losing overseas is now an epidemic and epidemics must call for tough measures. India have got what they wanted off the field and so now might be a good time to start giving their army of fans what they want on the field. Maybe there is a second question to be asked, this time of those that run the game. “Do you genuinely want India to be the number one team in the world for a significant period of time?”
There are nine away Tests in the next twelve months. Many tough questions will be asked on the field. If tough questions were asked off it, it might lighten the questions on it.