India’s bitter humiliation in England raises serious questions about the priorities of our cricketing establishment
In the four-and-a-half months from 2 April 2011 to 13 August 2011, life has come full circle for Indian cricket. From being on top of the world after beating Sri Lanka at Wankhede to an ignominious crashlanding in England. A defeat against the English in English conditions, especially with Strauss and his men playing at the peak of their game, would not have been a disgrace in itself. What is disgraceful, though, is the abject surrender that has marked the three defeats, the complete befuddlement at sight of a swinging ball and the failure to get the basics right. On top of that, listless bowling and more dropped catches and misfields and rank bad shots and injuries than you can possibly recount, this has been an English summer to forget.
Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll know that this was waiting to happen. Individual brilliance had successfully masked the deficiencies in South Africa last December, and once the men who had heralded the turnaround were lost to injury, a tame surrender was the most likely outcome.
In South Africa, a series no less challenging, the Indians had lost the first Test at Centurion by a huge margin. But with Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh coming to the fore and with Sehwag giving a blistering start in the second innings, India, rather surprisingly, levelled the series at Durban. In England, Khan’s hamstring let India down on the very first day of the tour and an off-colour Harbhajan hobbled off at Trentbridge. Without these two premier bowlers playing at their best, India would always struggle to get twenty wickets in a match. And they did.
The way Zaheer’s injury was dealt with inevitably draws attention to the BCCI’s injury-management policy. To the sequence of events first: the first fitness update after Khan limped off at Lord’s suggested he might bowl in the second innings of the match. Physio Ashish Kaushik, we were told, was monitoring him, and Zaheer apparently making good progress. This, in hindsight, was a blatant lie. Was it said to keep the English guessing or was it to keep the hostile Indian media at bay? We will never know, but it is now clear that Zaheer should have been sent back right after Lord’s and a replacement brought in to reinforce the bowling and give skipper Dhoni options before Trentbridge.
That Zaheer trained at the MCC Indoor academy was used to demonstrate progress, evidence that India’s lead bowler could be fit for the second Test. Once that did not happen, and a fidgety touring media began to ask uncomfortable questions, Zaheer was fielded in the tour game at Northamptonshire. He bowled just three overs. At the end of the Northants game came the shocking revelation. Zaheer was out for 14–16 weeks and needed ankle surgery while also tending to his hamstring. This puts him in doubt even for the Australia tour at the end of the year.
The way Zaheer’s injury was managed raises serious questions about the quality of India’s support staff and the team management’s ability to respond to situations as they develop. How come it took the physio three whole weeks to understand that Zaheer needed ankle surgery? Why was Zaheer allowed to take the field against Northamptonshire? Why wasn’t RP Singh summoned earlier?
The Zaheer Khan case also puts the spotlight on the BCCI’s priorities. Knowing fully well that Zaheer is injury-prone, how is it that the Board allowed him to play the IPL soon after the World Cup? With 21 wickets in the World Cup, Zaheer was the highest wicket-taker and the star of India’s bowling effort. Had he broken down during the Cup, the Wankhede dream could have been in tatters. With so much hinging on Zaheer, wasn’t it the Board’s responsibility to ensure that he was fit to serve the country in a series such as this one, where second-string attacks would just not be good enough? With his IPL team, the Bangalore Royal Challengers, making it to the League final, it can be surmised that Zaheer overstretched himself. At what price?
If players like Mitchell Johnson and Michael Clarke can withdraw from the IPL to ensure they remain fresh for Test matches, why can’t Zaheer? Why can’t the BCCI compensate him for his losses and just ask him to cool his heels during tournaments like the IPL and Champions League?
To the latter first. Within a day of returning to India on 18 September, some of the players from this touring party will start playing the Champions League, a tournament launched by former BCCI czar Lalit Modi. It is well known that the current dispensation has distanced itself from Modi and has tried to overturn a lot of his decisions. For the sake of Indian cricket, it needs to be asked if they can abandon the Champions League once and for all.
While the IPL has a mass base, is watched by millions in India, and makes money for its broadcaster, Set Max, the Champions League is a damp squib. It doesn’t draw the crowds nor excites the players—evident from several off-the-record conversations here in the UK—and results in huge losses for host broadcaster ESPN Star Sports. In such a scenario and amid the growing clamour in all quarters to reconsider the burden of India’s cricketers, why can’t the BCCI scrap the Champions League?
In this context, Dhoni’s post-match press conference at Edgbaston was instructive. Asked if the Indians had worked hard enough in the run-up to the England series, the captain shot back: “We play 200 days of cricket a year. What else do you want us to do?”
Well, what we really want is for our players to not play 200 days a year. We want them to play less and keep themselves fit for marquee series like England, Australia and South Africa.
The defeat in England notwithstanding, India’s cricket schedule is inhuman. Sample this: India return from England on 18 September and the Champions League starts on 19 September. Even before the Champions League ends, the English are in India to play a series of one-day internationals and T20s. Just as the English tour ends, the West Indians come to India for three Tests and five ODIs. And within days of that ending, the Indians leave for Australia for yet another gruelling series, starting with the Boxing Day Test on 26 December at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And as soon as they return from Australia, the Asia Cup in Dhaka will be due.
The Indians will get just the one tour game in Canberra (18–21 December) before they play the first Test at the MCG on 26 December. Just like in England, where India played one warm-up game against Somerset before stepping into the Lord’s Test. Don’t be surprised if a similar script unfolds Down Under as well.
The press corps at the Edgbaston post-match easily acknowledged that 200 days of international cricket was way too much for any cricketer. So, they asked if Dhoni, as skipper, would take the responsibility of telling the BCCI. Dhoni chose to be diplomatic and suggested: “Whatever I say will further add to the controversy. So I will say ‘no comments’ to this one.”
That was saying a lot. Silence, as we know, is often more instructive than the spoken word. Summing up the sentiments of the players, another senior pro said on condition of anonymity: “We are playing so much these days that we often find it hard to remember if we are playing for India or for our franchise.”
With a 4-0 whitewash on the cards, it’s perhaps time to ask: where does Test match cricket rank in our list of priorities? Lower than one-day internationals and T20s because a Test match garners fewer eyeballs? Is all this chatter, then, about Test cricket still being the most valued format just that? Chatter? Make no mistake: unless we get our priorities straight really quick, worse humiliation awaits us in Australia three months later.
So much has been made of Test rankings lately that a word is in order. To be honest, India were never really the No. 1 side. India have never won a series against Australia in Australia or beaten South Africa in South Africa. We last beat England in England in 2007, years before we made it to pole position. By the same yardstick, it is difficult to accept England as the uncontested No. 1 Test side just yet.
To repeat what I have said in the past, being No. 1 is about ‘domination,’ about winning irrespective of the conditions, winning marquee series, winning consistently away from home and doing so over a length of time. Winning in the Subcontinent in hostile conditions, for example, is crucial to credible claims to pole position in world cricket. The ability to bat on spin-friendly tracks and bowling in the heat and humidity of India will be the big test for Strauss’ bowlers, and till such time as they have accomplished that, the verdict on their domination must wait.
There have only been two uncontested No. 1 teams in Test cricket—Clive Lloyd’s West Indies of the 1980s and Steve Waugh’s and then Ricky Ponting’s Australians at the turn of the millennium. So, hold your horses, English media—this English side has a fine bunch of players, but before you start heaping the superlatives, let them do a little more.