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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

36/9: World didn’t end but maybe new India needs an old lesson

True 36-9, the new low for Indian cricket, hurts, but then sports has a habit of reminding everyone that even the best can have the worst of days.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | New Delhi | Updated: December 20, 2020 9:27:38 pm
India's Virat Kohli stands with crossed arms near the end of their match against Australia on the third day of their cricket test match at the Adelaide Oval in Adelaide, Australia, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. Australia won the match. (Source: AP)

India will continue to wear masks and remain optimistic about the vaccine. Christmas will still be next week. And Indian cricketers will turn up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Boxing Day hoping to square the series under a stand-in captain. What Boris Becker famously said in 1987, after the second-round loss at Wimbledon as the two-time defending champ, should give perspective to a nation in mourning. “I haven’t lost a war, no one got killed, I just lost a tennis match.”

The eight-wicket loss in Adelaide on Saturday was India’s 168th in Test matches and 30th in Australia. And not for the first time, India, a country with a modest away Test record, is trailing after the opening game on foreign soil. This isn’t a time for self-loathing but self-examination.

True 36-9, the new low for Indian cricket, hurts, but then sports has a habit of reminding everyone that even the best can have the worst of days. Nothing worked for India Saturday. There were no lucky breaks or even the rub of the green.

The day’s first hour in Test matches is as much about balls beating the bat by millimetres and edges falling just short of fielders as it is about the fall of wickets. However, it turned out to be a miraculous day in Adelaide – the ball moved that wee bit more to kiss the edge and travelled just that much longer to reach the fielders.

On Saturday, everything was edged to the ’keeper – “caught Tim Paine” was on the clipboard of all online scorers. Having slept with the whiff of a rare Test win in Australia, India woke up to watch the Baggy Green huddle ruffling the hair of its fast bowlers Josh Hazlewood (5/8) and Pat Cummins (4/21) on loop.

If for once social media can be ignored and the views of modern-day effigy-burners — meme-makers and WhatsApp super-spreaders — overlooked, this was a rare batting collapse where the batsmen didn’t throw their wickets or can be blamed for poor shot selection.

Most of the top-order batsmen tried to get in line of the ball and gave the bowler the respect he deserved. Captain Virat Kohli did get out throwing his bat at a wide ball, but he too can’t be faulted — he was merely showing deserving disrespect to a rank bad ball.

The only batsman with suspect Test match skill and temperament was opener Prithvi Shaw but singling out a 21-year-old for this monumental loss would be unfair. There can be a case of replacing him for the second Test — he was bowled twice in the eight balls he faced in this Test — but he can’t be the reason for this humiliating defeat. However, more than his play, it’s the hype around him that made him a target of scorn and sarcasm.

In the past, coach Ravi Shastri, while talking him up, had said, “There’s a bit of Sachin there, a bit of Viru in him and when he walks — there’s a bit of Lara as well”. At Adelaide, when Shaw was dragging his feet with the rest of his deflated teammates, he was anything but the champion batsman Shastri made him out to be. He looked like a heartbroken young man failing to clear the impossibly high bar set for him by his coach.

More than a batting masterclass, this Indian team needs a reality check. Coach Shastri and captain Kohli can also do with some sense of proportion, a history lesson and, hopefully, some humility.

Before the game, Kohli was gung-ho about his Class of 2020. “The new India takes up challenges and is filled with optimism and positivity. We make sure we are ready for any challenge that comes our way,” he had said. Earlier too, he had spoken about how the “new India” is all about collective strength and not individual achievement. For a country that has historically had record-breaking run-makers and not too great a win-loss record abroad, this was a low blow to the “old India”.

Shastri, the booming voice of Indian cricket, was more unequivocal. He would call this the “best Indian team in 15-20 years”. The fact that the golden generation of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Kumble preceded the Kohli era was no consideration for a coach who believed in leaving out no hyperbole when talking about his team of under-achievers.

With no ICC World titles and Test series losses in South Africa and England, Kohli’s team has potential but is still work in progress. A series win in Australia, India’s first-ever, is the biggest ground-breaking result for this team but the architect of that historic win wasn’t a product of these times.

Pujara, the Man of the Series during the last Aussie tour, doesn’t have an IPL contract, he is an old-school Test batsman and not the strike rate-conscious true ambassador of this “new India”.

Kohli and the new generation of fans who no longer watch cricket, but stream it, need a crash course about “old India”. They took up challenges and were filled with optimism and positivity. They, too, were path-breakers. Tiger Pataudi gave India the conviction to win with spin, Sunil Gavaskar showed how to take on the West Indies pacers without a helmet and as for Sachin Tendulkar, he took on the world single-handedly in a dressing room infiltrated by match-fixers.

If the captain and coach believe this was the never-before-seen India, then on Saturday in Adelaide someone would have stitched together some resistance. If they are the best-ever, someone should have conjured an inspired feat. It needed something beyond mere skills, something more than just an expression of ambition or misplaced pride.

For a team so desperate to make history and yet so disdainful of it, 36/9 is an epic climbdown of cocky.

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