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We, the chokers

Why do India’s hockey players, and its cricketers, freeze at the finishing line?

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: September 15, 2018 8:37:00 am
asian games 2018, asian games, india hockey, india cricket, virat kohli, india test match, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara Indian players look forlorn after their defeat in the shootout against Malaysia. (PTI)

How often have Indian cricketers fluffed up fourth innings chases? As often as their counterparts have conceded last-minute goals in hockey.

About a fortnight ago, they did it again. First the hockey team, playing Malaysia in the semis, froze at the finishing line at the Asian Games. Not unlike 2010. Three days later, in England, the cricketers glaciated not far from the winning target. Gold missed, series lost. The inevitability of an Indian loss in tight situations has truly decaffeinated sports watching.

Virtually every Olympics this millennium has featured an Indian hockey meltdown — always against a mid-level opponent, because of a late goal. Sydney, 2000 — Poland (69th minute); Athens, 2004 — Argentina (69th minute); London, 2012 — South Africa (65th minute); Rio, 2016 — Canada (52nd minute). The only reason 2008 is missing from the list is because India didn’t qualify for the Beijing Games.

Our cricketers are no better. Regardless of what those puffy TV teasers, BCCI-watermarked commentators and other assorted social media spin doctors say, the Indian batsmen — those modern-day brand ambassadors of everything uber-cool — too turn into nervous wrecks in high-pressure situations. In the last nine months, Virat Kohli’s stubble-wearing top order have repeatedly panicked, and perished, while chasing sub-300 winning targets — 208 (South Africa, Cape Town), 245 (England, Southampton) and 287 (South Africa, Centurion).

So why, on the night of September 7 with KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant hitting sixes at the Oval while chasing 464, did a wave of optimism embrace India? Didn’t they know, India, traditionally, don’t do chases? Wasn’t there a spoilsport around to remind them that India’s best winning 4th innings total in the last 40 years away from home was a mere 264? But there were reasons that made many believe in the 20-year-old left-hander with blond streaks and the 26-year-old with tattoos. They were the factory-fitted strike-rate conscious batting daredevils, made-to-order for the new-age dreams of coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli.

Rahul and Pant are the young millionaires of the post-transition T20 generation who got their Test caps after Tendulkar — the last of the old guard — had retired. These products of the new order were to be the enforcers of a team that didn’t believe in draws, and had little patience for stone-wallers. They hated the old Indian tag of flat-pitch bullies or turning track tormentors. They had ambitions to break new ground, be the pioneers.

The two cricketing millennials were born in the Indian dressing that boomed with Shastri’s high-decibel pep-talk and Kohli’s chatter about positivity. Four years back, in his debut Test innings at Melbourne, Rahul, scoring 3 from 8 balls, had twice tried and failed to send the ball in the stands. Pant opened his Test account with a second-ball six. In both cases, the urgency to show that they belong to the Kohli-style of Test match batting was uncanny.

Rahul happens to be the only batsman in the Top 5 except Kohli to play the last eight Tests. He’s got the longest rope in the changing batting line-up. His second innings’ hundred at the Oval had come after 14 unimpressive innings that had just one half-century, an insignificant contribution in the run-riot against Test debutants Afghanistan. Compare this to the playing XI uncertainty faced by the more conventional old-school Test batters — Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara or even Ajinkya Rahane — and the changing culture of the Test side becomes stark. So, has the rising stock of the newcomers ironed out old flaws and changed the team’s fortunes? Not really.

Five of India’s six Test losses this year — two against South Africa, four against England — are because of the familiar folly, that fourth innings fiasco. 464, 287, 245, 208, 194… mountain or hill, the batsmen have failed to be the sherpas in the team’s assault of the summit.

If these mucked-up final chases this year were a 400m race, regardless of the score, India, for the majority of times, have collapsed just after the final bend. Here’s an interesting factoid about the five 2018 losses: Kohli, with a fourth innings average of about 28 in the defeats in SA and England, has never made it to the home stretch when the finishing line is in sight. The captain hasn’t been around to shepherd the team in the crucial final fourth.

Kohli’s relentless pursuit of batting perfection is creditable. He managed to do the impossible, wedded caution with aggression. A once-in-a-generation batsman, he has the skill to pull off this very difficult routine. But do others have it in them? Anecdotal evidence shows how individual skill-sets haven’t always matched with the team’s freshly penned template. Pant’s second ball six and his 29-ball duck, Rahul’s “first or fourth gear” quandary, Pujara’s strike-rotation pressure-fuelled run-outs, Dhawan’s play or leave dilemma and Rahane’s “attack or defend” confusion clearly point to a problem of having one common plan for all.

Kohli’s final answer at his last press conference on the England tour was again about positivity. In his bi-lingual looking-ahead replay, he spoke about “khul ke khelna” from the beginning of the next innings, which would convey to the opposition that his team plays “fearless” cricket. “Pehli hi inning mein ek impact banayenge”.

These comments seem a manifestation of a glib, macho culture that detests any expression of uncertainty or fear. The long England tour should have made the young captain and his Gen X team realise that Test cricket, with roots in rural tranquility, is still about passive aggression. It’s not always about first impressions with the sun beating down on your back, but it’s mostly about playing out of your skin in fading light.

Since past Indian teams don’t boast great overseas records, this team’s global ambitions should look elsewhere for inspiration. Take, for example, Graeme Smith-led South Africa’s 15-series unbeaten run away from home that lasted over 9 years. They also won eight and drew two out of the 14 Tests where they were set a total in the 4th innings. Their successful run-chases include 414/4 in Perth, 183/1 in Melbourne and 283/5 at Edgbaston.

Most importantly, they played two memorable draws — once they played out 111 overs on a turner in Colombo and 148 overs at Adelaide. This hard-training, strategically strong team had batsmen with varied approaches to run-making. Smith, Amla, de Villiers, Kallis, Duminy, Prince, McKenzie didn’t collectively subscribe to “khul ke khelna” in the first innings of the opening Test. Kohli and Shastri need to know that the wheel has been invented, they don’t need to spend time on the drawing board reinventing it.

Imagine, we have the gall to call the South Africans chokers.

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