Can India Make a Thunder Down Under?
As the Indian cricket team’s domestic season has ended on a high after defeating West Indies comprehensively, the team is yet again geared up for a grueling tour to Australia which is considered to be the toughest tour for any visiting side. The main focus of this tour has always been the four test match Boder-Gavaskar trophy for which both teams compete. This time, India has the best chance to win this trophy for the first ever time as the Australian side seems very unsettled. The reason being the absence of quality players like Steve Smith and David Warner who were shown the exit door from the national side after being caught in the spot-fixing debacle in South Africa earlier this year.
But even this doesn’t guarantee that India could improve its lacklustre performance in test matches overseas, which has been a consistent trend since the last decade. It seems that it has become a habit of the current Indian team to put up a fight in tough overseas conditions and then end up losing. This has become a trademark of Kohli’s captaincy overseas. The bad news is that this team is almost taking pride in losing after playing well, resulting in the promotion of mediocrity in overseas performances. The much celebrated Indian Test batting line up has been in deep trouble for quite some time now.
If one analyzes the causes behind it, one finds an interesting correlation between Indian team’s poor performances overseas with the rise of T20 leagues in the last 10 years. For instance, since the IPL started in April 2008, the Indian side has toured Australia and New Zealand twice and England and South Africa thrice. Out of these 10 series, India couldn’t even win one and got whitewashed 4-0 twice.
The biggest reason behind India’s lacklustre performance is its batsmen who keep getting out by playing outrageous shots, which many argue is the result of the T20-style of batting. The reason being that, earlier the batsmen used to spend more time on the wicket and tried adjusting themselves to alien conditions. The current lot of Indian cricketers has arrived into the scene in the era of T20 leagues like IPL. While the IPL has given financial security and stability to many, it has taken away the urge from young cricketers to perform in Test cricket. Prior to IPL, the cricketers who failed to perform in testing conditions of Test cricket had no choice but to go back to domestic cricket and improve their game because only playing Test Matches for India could earn them both respect and money. But IPL provides a shortcut to young cricketers where they can earn huge money as well as fan following.
Therefore, the fire in the belly to perform in tough and alien conditions seems to be fading away as the opportunity cost to perform in Test cricket has gone down as compared to eras bygone. When a young cricketer knows that he can become an overnight sensation by smacking each ball into the crowds, why would he want to refine his technique and put a prize on his wicket? Spending time on the wicket is an art which demands concentration, patience, technique and temperament. This art is under serious threat post IPL, with the Australia series lined up later this year, the prospects of Indian batting unit doing well there seems to be highly doubtful.
Now, one could argue that how come the same Indian team plays extremely well in home conditions, does the IPL effect not make its mark in these conditions? The answer is a big ‘NO’, the reason being that most of the Asian wickets are hard, placid tracks – almost a batting paradise where ball doesn’t do much movement in the air and doesn’t either swing or bounce like it does outside Asia. Secondly, home victories don’t prove the mettle of a side which is currently ranked no. 1 in tests because champion sides in history have won both at home and abroad. Be it the great side of West Indies back in the 70s and 80s or the Australian side of 90s and 2000s, they mastered the art to perform and win in alien conditions.
Test matches are the ultimate test for any cricketer as it needs both technique as well as temperament. One needs to put a prize on their wicket on difficult conditions which has not been seen barring a few occasions by the Indian batting unit in overseas conditions. Most of test matches end in 3 to 4 days now, because batting standards in general have dropped down due to the mushrooming of T20 cricket leagues all over the world, IPL being one of them. The fast nature of T20 cricket requires different skills for a cricketer to be good in that format but the lure to perform for the franchises is taking away the strength of character, especially from the batsman.
On the other hand, bowlers have improved because they have to hone their skills with the ball on wickets which are extremely adverse to bowlers. As a result, bowlers have improved their skill in bowling on tough conditions. This has been reflected in India’s overseas tours for a past couple of tours now where the Indian bowlers have managed to take 20 wickets in a test match consistently. It is said that bowlers win you test matches but what could bowlers do if batsmen fail to do their job.
Prior to IPL, the scenario was completely reverse where India had a solid batting unit comprising of batsmen of caliber like Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Sehwag. Here are some statistics to compare the scenario before IPL and post IPL. India’s away records in 2000s comprised of both 33.93% win and 33.93% loss. So, the win-loss ratio was 1:1. In 2010s, the win% drops down to 30.43% while loss % goes up by 43.48%. Now, win-loss ratio has gone down to 0.7.
The data shows that India’s win percentage overseas has dropped down to more than 3% and loss percentage has increased by around 10%. At the same time, other teams away records suggest that their win percent has gone down from 29.09% to 27.25% (a drop in less than 2%) and their loss % has gone up just by 5%. (46.34% in 2000s to 51.5% in 2010s).
The data itself points that Indian team of 2010s has been performing much poorly than the team of 2000s. This is when the data shows overall overseas performance. One can be absolutely sure that if India’s overseas performances outside Asia (except West Indies) are considered, the data would show even poorer depiction of India’s performances in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. One shouldn’t consider India’s victories in West Indies as something to celebrate, considering the poor quality of West Indies or for that matter Sri Lanka as well in last few years, which Indian cricket has been playing against quite often lately.
One could argue that as compared to batsmen from touring teams to India, Indian batsmen have not performed that bad either. But that’s not the point. The current Indian batting unit looks worse off when compared to its predecessors in the last decade. It was a much settled batting unit than today, where apart from Virat Kohli no other batsman is absolutely secure about his place in the batting line up. This reflects in the gap between Kohli as a batsman with all other batsmen in the Indian team.
It was only after IPL that India got whitewashed twice by 4-0 margin in England and Australia in this decade. While prior to IPL, India played its best cricket in the same conditions and went on to either draw and win the series. The point is when performances in T20 cricket can provide the same respect, accolades from the fans who throng to the stadiums, big pay cheques and other perks like advertisements etc., who would want to perform in Test matches, which are highly demanding and take a great deal out of a cricketer’s body and mind.
One can again argue that Kohli performs equally well in all three formats as well in IPL. Virat Kohli is an interesting case, because he just came into the scene along with IPL in April 2008. If one looks deeply, Kohli’s IPL record in 2008 was abysmal while playing for RCB. He showed his class in domestic performances and got picked in Indian side for these performances and not IPL performances. While IPL has been a launching stage for many bowlers like Bumrah, Ashwin, Jadeja and Pandya, in the last 10 years, no batsmen of high calibre has been produced due to IPL performances.
The one evergreen question which is always asked is that did Indian cricket team not lose matches and series prior to IPL? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, if one goes before 2000 when India did get whitewashed in Australia in 1999 or lost a series in West Indies and South Africa. No, because after Sourav Ganguly became captain in 2000, except New Zealand where India got whitewashed 2-0, the Indian side always performed very well. India drew against England in 2002 and won in 2007, against Australia, it drew in 2003 and lost by just 2-1 in 2008 (that too due to extremely poor umpiring by Steve Bucknor in the Sydney Test) and lost to South Africa by 2-1 in 2006.
Yes, India has lost matches and series before IPL too, but not in the manner in which Indian test sides have lost overseas post IPL. Also, if one goes back to 1990s when India lost most of the overseas series, the quality of opposition was much better. For instance, the Indian team which lost to Steve Waugh’s side in 1999-2000 was a much better side than Michael Clarke’s side in 2011 or Steve Smith’s side in 2015. A similar argument can be given about South African side under Hansie Cronje in the ’90s (to which India lost) which was a way better side than the one which India played earlier this year.
To conclude, the level of batting has gone down remarkably in away conditions in Test cricket, barring few exceptions. If not the entire blame, a large percentage of the blame should go to the rise of T20 and franchise cricket like IPL which has made the game about my bat versus your bat, but when there is a balance between bat vs ball and ball starts doing a bit, the batsmen have failed miserably. India’s forthcoming tour to Australia will show whether the Indian side has learnt from their lacklustre performances overseas or the same mistakes are going to be repeated again.