Although India lost both the ODI and Test series on their recent tour of South Africa, the reactions to the defeats were less shrill than had been the last time that MS Dhoni’s team were trounced abroad, when their abysmal white-washes in England and Australia, in 2011, had pulled down morale drastically after the highs of a World Cup win at home and their coronation as the undisputable ODI kings.
Considering their uninspiring overseas record, not many had expected India to win in England and Australia. But even fewer had expected them to cave in the way they did.
Viewed against those eight consecutive away Test defeats, spilt across hemispheres, the recent shape-shifting draw at Johannesburg assumed greater significance. Not only did the Wanderers Test arrest a terrifying string of losses, it marked the first time in almost 25 years that India were traveling without at least one of the Big Three. The absence of Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid meant that the core of India’s batting was now to be reformed using newer ingredients.
And it will not be fanciful to say that Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, and to a certain extent Ajinkya Rahane, served ample notice of their precocious ability to counter a stiff opposition in trying conditions. They held their own in the yo-yoing first Test, before the pressure of saving a series and a couple of dubious umpiring calls put paid to their hopes in the second. No matter that – India, despite yet another away loss, had stood up gallantly to the might of South Africa’s fast bowling and emerged, if with nothing else, a moral victory.
Moral victories are alright for a young outfit that is expected to fight, primarily, without paying too much heed to the outcome, at least on tour. In what will be their first full season after a slew of massive retirements, however, mere embellishments to the mind and mindset will matter far less than actual results. This year will see India on three critical overseas Test assignments: New Zealand in January-February, England in June-September, and Australia later. Which means that at the end of the 2014 season we will know whether this nucleus of young players, which has been chosen to take over from the old guard, has in it the ability and resolve to make it count in environments not tailor-made for gargantuan batting exploits.
But finding the batsmen for the job is just half the job done. For the 20 wickets that win or lose a Test match, India needs fast bowlers who can fling it with the mightiest, unwaveringly, consistently, without buckling or breaking down. An aging Zaheer Khan and an erratic Ishant Sharma – the two main arrows in India’s bowling quiver – appear to be capable of anything but that. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami have shown promise, even as a string of the second rung – the Varun Aarons and Munaf Patels and L. Balajis – appear to be lost in the wilderness.
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One of MS Dhoni’s and Duncan Fletcher’s priorities should be to foster those they think are possessed of that rare quality that Wasim Akram says cannot be taught: raw pace. Only then can India be a genuine contender in Test matches outside the sub-continent. The ever-needling question of finding a place-saving all-rounder is also likely to be high on the agenda. The names that come first to mind – even before Irfan Pathan’s – are R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. The former is undoubtedly the better bat; the latter is a ‘paisa vasool’ cricketer who does pretty much everything his skipper commands him to. Both, though it needn’t be mentioned here, are Dhoni’s favourites and are likely to be groomed to play a more expansive role than merely their primary one.
That leaves us with Dhoni’s often criticized captaincy in the the longest format. In Tests overseas, he is considered to be ultra defensive, often with a safety-first strategy. But one cannot blame him for seeking safety for a team that has been largely incapable of putting up a fight in trying conditions. Maybe, with a youthful, fearless side under him, a team that he’s been involved with from a granular level, Dhoni will choose to be more innovative and bring some of that famous limited-overs chutzpah into his Test captaincy. For a man who has won so much, a correction of India’s dismal away record should now be his biggest motivation.
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