By Pradyut Hande:
MS Dhoni and his men arrived in England as the Numero Uno ranked Test team in the world… with their sky high confidence, fabled batting prowess, continually improving overseas record and not to forget; their skipper’s Midas touch… they would have definitely believed that the English could be toppled from their high perch at home. On paper, at least, Team India looked a more than formidable outfit; capable of great things…some would say, riding on the “purplest of patches”, they were destined for glory. Verbal salvos were fired from both sides on the eve of the commencement of the high profile series. “Clash of the Titans”, they called it. This was an opportunity for India to rise to the occasion, consolidate their position and reaffirm their credentials as a force to reckon with in all formats of the game. But alas! Games aren’t ultimately won by indulging in intimidatory mind games or by drawing up a list of your best eleven on paper! Team India were in for the rudest of shocks as they were trampled; nay; annihilated, decimated and what have you (there is no dearth of adjectives in the English dictionary that can aptly encapsulate their eventual fate!) at the hands of an enterprising, clinical and ruthless English side (again one could run out of adjectives!). Battered, bruised and bludgeoned…Dhoni and his men were razed to the ground…whitewashed 4-0.
For all their initial swagger and bluster, the fact is India came up woefully short. Throughout the course of the series, seldom did they look like even a shadow of the world’s best Test side. Their abysmal performances have certainly raised numerous eyebrows and questions alike. A lot was expected from a team that had slowly but steadily grappled against myriad odds to make it to the pinnacle. But their “spectacular capitulation” has left both cricket aficionados and pundits stumped! So what actually did go wrong? Here’s a fair insight into the anatomy of the debacle…
Meticulous preparation lays the emboldened foundation for any venture. But it was apparent right at the onset of the high octane series that India was grossly under prepared. They came straight from the Caribbean having beaten an exuberant albeit inexperienced Windies side without too much of a break. Key players like Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh were returning from an injury layoff or a self imposed sabbatical. So while the likes of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Suresh Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar had a fair bit of “game time” under their belts; the other returning big wigs were woefully short of match practice. With just a solitary practise game before the series, the squad barely had any time to acclimatize to the prevalent conditions. Add to that, the fact that the returning players -most of them sure starters for the first Test – were struggling to quickly find their feet, and India had a mild headache to contend with even before the series got underway. However, these were proven performers with impeccable track records, albeit loaded with fitness concerns and were expected to fire when the situation demanded it. But alas! To say that India were “under cooked” would be a gross understatement…they weren’t “cooked” at all! As the series progressed, their lack of adequate preparation and inability to learn from their past errors became glaring in the face of mounting English “hostility”. There is no substitute for match practise, no matter how great a player you maybe, and India blundered majorly by blatantly disregarding this basic sporting tenet. The manner in which India’s pace spearhead, Zaheer Khan, broke down on the very first day of the first Test at Lord’s was indicative of the fact that lack of real time match fitness cannot be neglected at any cost. That turned out to be a severe body blow as in Zaheer, not only had India lost their strike bowler but also a mentor to the young fast bowling brigade. Other factors that contributed to India’s losses include player fatigue, untimely injuries and mysterious illnesses to key players. A top side would prepare for such adversities but Team India appeared to be totally bereft of ideas out in the middle.
It was widely speculated that having the former English coach, Duncan Fletcher, in our ranks would equip us with the in depth requisite technical and strategic nous and insights essential to “take down” the English. But, a manager is only as good as his team! And all that speculation came to naught as not only did India fail to implement their plans on the field but they also appeared to have NO strategy in place at other times, especially when their bowlers were getting walloped around the park by the very same English batsmen…innings after innings! The Indian batsmen hopped and hopped and hopped some more…as they struggled to counter the short and seaming deliveries, courtesy some poor technique, imprecise foot work, dubious shot selection, accurate English bowling and impatience at large. The fact that India managed to muster a total of 300 only once in 8 innings is a testament to the realization that our famed batting order was found wanting in testing conditions against a combative and competent English bowling unit. When application was the need of the hour, the Indian batsmen chose to waft their bats at deliveries they would have been better served had they left well alone. The technical deficiencies in batsmen like Gautam Gambhir, MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were gravely exposed. The less said, the better, about Virender Sehwag’s swashbuckling approach in the final two tests! The Indians also had 3 different opening combinations in 4 Test matches, courtesy injuries and lack of form. That perhaps is an indication of how unsettled the entire batting order was, given how certain batsmen were shunted up and down the order. Amongst the ruins, one man who stood head and shoulders above the rest was undoubtedly Rahul Dravid. His sheer technical brilliance, hunger for runs, mental and physical fortitude and penchant for gritting it out at the toughest of times…made him a stand out performer as he notched up 3 sterling centuries (2 of them while opening the batting!). Unsurprisingly, those were the only 3 centuries registered by India in the series! While VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni flattered to deceive; Dravid nonchalantly went about his job in characteristic fashion. It was a great travesty that his efforts all went in vein, but suffice to say, India ought to be indebted to him for lending a modicum of respectability to their often modest totals.
While the batting floundered, innings after innings, the Indian fast bowlers toiled hard and long without much reward. The likes of Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth and RP Singh (in the final game); bowled their hearts out but to precious little avail. Consistency ought to have been their watchword, but unfortunately it wasn’t. Too often did they try too many things too soon, when they would have been better served by embracing a more patient approach. Much was expected from the “Turbanator”, Harbhajan Singh, but the beleaguered off spinner came a cropper as the English negotiated him with consummate ease. Again it was a grave inconsistency in line and length coupled with his disinclination to flight the ball and bowl slower through the air that proved to be his undoing. There were occasions when MS Dhoni actually threw the ball to a part time spinner in Suresh Raina ahead of Harbhajan Singh…the level of confidence or lack thereof, in his senior bowler apparent! Amit Mishra took his place in the final two Test matches and unfortunately failed to make much of an impact with the ball, but underscored his credentials as a gutsy lower order bat with some eye catching knocks! The bowlers often seemed aimless and appeared to be bowling to a plan alright…a plan to allow the English to runaway with the game and pile up monstrous totals!
While the batting and bowling tanked miserably, India’s woebegone fielding and catching left a lot to be desired. The simplest of chances were spilled at the most crucial of junctures. As the Indian bowlers clutched their heads in agony, the English batsmen grinned away…beneficiaries of our benevolent fielders’ well chronicled largesse! MS Dhoni’s captaincy also ought to come in for sharp scrutiny. Some of his “plans” and fielding arrangements simply defied logic. Granted the fact that he acts more on calibrated intuition and embraces the “out of the box” approach, but some of his moves were “head-scratching-mind-numbing-totally-puzzling” dead ringers that backfired most spectacularly – the price one must pay at times for thinking “too far out of the box”. His performances behind the stumps were none better than those while wielding his heavy willow. Barring a couple of half centuries in the third Test, form and his “golden touch” appear to have deserted the Indian captain.
In addition; Team India’s lack of intensity, poor body language and innate inability to “cease the moment” at vital junctures also put paid to their plans. The manner in which they capitulated without displaying the stomach for a fight was also glaring. Some of the batsmen appeared to be in a terrible hurry to head back to the comfortable confines of their dressing rooms. Suffice to say, this wasn’t the contest the cricketing fraternity anticipated. All it turned out to be a hugely one sided affair…a damp, damp squib. One would have thought that after surrendering their Number One rank, slipping down the ladder to Number Three and having already gone 3-0 down in the series; the Indians would have come up with a better performance in the final Test. “We’ll play for pride”, they thought… little did they know that the English were in no mood to repay our largesse…
4-0 it ended and India’s fate was sealed lock, stock and barrel! Blame the controversial UDR System, blame poor umpiring decisions, the conditions or multiple injuries…the fact is India never really turned up for the contest. They may have been pulverized out of shape, but as an optimist I’d like to see the bright side! Team India were a few notches below “pathetic”, but as an ardent cricket aficionado, I believe they can only get better from here on… ‘coz it would certainly be impossible to outdo their woeful displays on their torrid English sojourn!