With their worst performance in 12 years, the crown finally slips out of India's loose grip. A thought goes out to Anil Kumble's vision document, written when he had become India’s Test captain in 2007.
Kumble outlined eight ways to take Indian cricket forward. The document called for — among other things — transparency in selection, better inter-personal relationships in the team (particularly between seniors and juniors) and the need to play aggressive cricket while adhering to the game's spirit. You don’t associate long-term planning with Indian cricket. Kumble’s vision was a rarity.
The objective of playing sport is winning — series, championships, medals, trophies and World Cups. Champions set themselves big targets. Rafael Nadal plays for Grand Slams. He no longer turns up at Chennai Open. Usain Bolt ran for Olympic gold. The CWG didn’t matter.
When Australia won the 1999 World Cup, they made winning again their No. 1 priority. They sought players who could help them do it.
Champion teams win more often because they know what it takes to win — talented players, their best replacements, investing faith in their abilities. Above all, they know when to unleash these players.
Clive Lloyd identified his need for speed in 1976. His army of pace bowlers changed the course of cricket’s history. It led to legislations seeking to blunt their lethal effectiveness.
In 1984, when Kim Hughes walked away in tears, Allan Border instilled mental toughness in the team. He and Bob Simpson made Australia the team that snatched wins from the jaws of defeat. They prepared a cricketing behemoth for the future.
India’s Short Reign
This brings us back to India. The parameters of success defined above hardly explain how India won top honours in all three formats. But it may explain why they are no longer No. 1 in Test cricket.
India in Tests after Ganguly's captaincy How did India get there? Between Sri Lanka in 2008 and England in 2011, India played 11 Test series, won eight and lost none. In the same period, Australia also played 11, won five and lost five. South Africa played eight, won three and lost one.
Clearly, there was only one team worthy of being No. 1 in this small period. India won in most conditions, against most opponents, in some of the direst situations.
The BCCI didn’t plan on being No. 1. But once there, they could only offer short-term fixes to keep India there: by hastily arranging more Test matches. Resultantly, this exhausted, injury-hit squad has now produced its worst show since 2000, when they were beaten 3-0 in Australia.
This was a series that carried weight and context, something not offered by cash-rich T20 competitions, which have provided cheap thrills and countless injuries. Imagine George Foreman winning the Rumble In The Jungle because Muhammad Ali came to the fight with his right arm sprained from playing carrom. That is what India's predicament feels like.
Going forward, India have a cricket calendar packed tight as a Virar local. And they must ask themselves: from this huge buffet of cricket, what is most important to them? What do they want to win? What do they want to give to their millions of fans, who took great pride in the team’s champion status?
Disaster in Australia?
Just six days after the England tour, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh and a bunch of other Indians will turn up for the Champions League — a 17-day cash-rich exercise in frivolity, which has more in common with the WWE than proper cricket.
No doubt, exhausted muscles will be strained more. Injuries will be worsened. But it’s not the players who seem to be bothered. When the Board has its cricketing priorities warped, why blame the players?
Then follow England and West Indies’ tours to India, which will occupy all mind-space from October to December. And then starts the tour which matters. India will be in Australia till March for four Tests and 11 ODIs.
Sourav Ganguly said recently that he had asked for three warm-up games a year in advance for the 2003-4 tour. Having prepared well, India went into the first Test at Brisbane — where Australia have not lost a Test since 1988 — and punched above their weight. And they did so throughout the series.
This time, India will have just one practice game. Meanwhile, Australia would be ready for them having played New Zealand at home. What chance will you give this tired, under-prepared Indian squad of winning in Australia?
With such poor short-term planning, what chance will you give India of becoming No. 1 again in the longer run?
Who Are Your Replacements?
Remember Jaidev Unadkat? He made a shock debut in Centurion when Zaheer Khan broke down. This was a statement from India’s selection panel. That if the 19-year-old uncapped rookie could substitute India’s best pace bowler, he must be a special talent.
If so, why was he dumped after one Test? If not, what was the thinking behind his selection?
What wrong did Abhimanyu Mithun do to not be considered in Zaheer’s place when he had bowled his heart out in Sri Lanka only months before? The only thing Unadkat’s selection achieved was — surprise, surprise — pump up his price at the IPL auction because he was now a ‘capped’ Indian player.
Also consider the case of Ranadeb Bose. 57 wickets in 8 Ranji matches in 2006-7. Selected for the tour of England. Benched throughout. Never selected again. How does a cricketer considered among India’s top 30 drop off the radar without getting a chance to play?
There are other examples.
Sudeep Tyagi, Pankaj Singh, Umesh Yadav, Mithun, Vinay Kumar and Ashok Dinda have all represented India in recent times. Irfan Pathan is on the fringes. Yet, when Zaheer gets injured in England, RP Singh — who hasn’t played a Test since 2008 — is named as the replacement.
How India became No. 1 This tells us two things.
One: our selectors can’t decide who India’s best players are. Players will be used and thrown as seen fit (Dravid is a great example), and they won't get as much as a phone call explaining why they’ve been dropped. When selectors can't determine who their No. 1, 2, 3, 4 players are, they will pick and drop them in any order.
Two: Nobody discusses this enough but perhaps these selection decisions are influenced by external forces — king-makers and sports marketers with dressing room access. These are people who stand to gain financially when their players get air-time.
Many cricketers such as Dhoni and Harbhajan have business interests in talent spotting and management companies. As for Dhoni, he has a clear commercial interest in picking players backed by Rhiti Sports — Harbhajan, RP and Suresh Raina.
Could this explain why Harbhajan was given a long rope despite his horrifically bad form and how RP is back when he wasn’t even part of India’s plans all this while?
Despite the wonderful things that Dhoni has done as captain, it is worrying that some of his selections may have not been influenced by cold, hard cricketing reason. If so, it betrays a cricket-loving public that believes these men represent them, the republic of India, the tri-colour, not a management firm.
Long story short, our selectors — despite being paid well — could do a far better job. But then, what hope do they have when they are led by a man who can’t see the problem in naming his mediocre cricketer son on the India ‘A’ team? What does the son do? He turns in mediocre performances. This isn’t the way to build a great team.
What About Fitness & Training?
As the England tour showed, too many players returned to the team having certified themselves fit. Nearly all of them broke down again. What about the rehabilitation process? What about gently bringing them back into the team after a few practice matches? Where is the independent opinion on their fitness?
Take a look at the NCA. Is it a finishing school? A starting school? A rehab centre? The country’s premier cricket academy does not even have a clearly defined role in shaping the future of Indian cricket.
Yesterday, Ravi Shastri asked Ganguly on air where India’s next crop of pace bowlers is. The irony is hard to miss here. Shastri should have known the answer. After all, he was the chairman of the Academy for three years. Except that he was rarely available for NCA duties, thanks to his media commitments.
These are symptoms of larger problems of conflicting interests within the BCCI ecosystem. Why bother about the small matter of playing bat and ball when you have court cases to fight and money to make?
Meanwhile, the man who didn't tire giving India's batsmen throw-downs has moved to South Africa. And Duncan Fletcher, a British citizen, brought a team full of young bowlers to Lord's and forgot to tell them about its famous slope. He also expressed surprise that the ball swings and seams in England.
... let’s throw a look back at the moment when India became No. 1 at the Brabourne.
Remember these moments. They may not return for a long time.