MS Dhoni may have dismissed it as a media-generated ‘tagline’ but there is no denying that India, even in their current, dominating avatar, have always been found wanting on tour, for almost as long as they have travelled. If whitewashes under Dhoni in England and Australia were put down as the throes of an aging team past its best, the latest reversal in South Africa was interpreted as the fightback of a young side in transition, a cause for celebration than worry.
In either case, what stood out was that India had lost nine of their last ten Test matches on tour. Dhoni has confessed to be desirous of improving ‘away’ returns on both a personal and collective front. And after several significanat retirements in the Indian camp, he remains, by a long way, the most deified cricketer in the dressing room.
Dhoni now returns to a country that was his first away series as captain. A land that also witnessed India’s first ever series victory on foreign shores, under MAK Pataudi, way back in 1967-68. Interestingly, Pataudi masterminded that triumph by putting his trust in the three-spinners formula. He was vindicated as Erapalli Prasanna, Bapu Nadkarni and Bishen Singh Bedi ran circles around clueless Kiwi batsmen. But India had to wait 41 more years before they could savour a series win in New Zealand again. That second victory arrived under Dhoni in 2008-09, when India stormed to a win in the opener at Hamilton, thanks to Sachin Tendulkar's daddy hundred, but were subsequently held to draws in the two remaining Tests.
History is bunk
History, however, is bunk. Dhoni began captaincy in a blaze of glory and had just two losses in his first 12 overseas Tests. Since, he has had eight defeats in his last nine (he was suspended from the 4th Test at Adelaide in 2011-12 on account of India's slow over-rate at Perth). There are matters that require redress, failing which Dhoni’s poor overseas run may be extended by the unheralded Kiwis, who, as the captain himself acknowledged, are no pushovers at home.
The first concerns the opening combination. Even as Gautam Gambhir languished in domestic wilderness, Murali Vijay showed glimpses of the stubbornness and technique that are the perquisites of success abroad. Vijay floundered and then stabilised, and missed out on what would have been a deserved hundred at Durban. His partner Shikhar Dhawan was a different story. After a fairytale debut season at home and success in the Champions Trophy in England, Dhawan had a rude awakening in South Africa. Across two Tests, he perished twice to the short ball, once to the full and fast one, and only in the last essay at Durban did he show any intent of building an innings. Unfortunately, the Delhi batsman had that knock terminated by a stunning catch from Faf du Plessis.
A two-Test tour allows players very little time to grow into their new roles or suroundings. The tour of New Zealand too is a two-Test one, although India would have played five ODIs and a tour game before they encounter the Auckland Test match.
Now that Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have passed the Proteas examination, India’s next worry is their No.5. Rohit Sharma’s 'boundless' talent came a cropper in the Rainbow nation when he failed repeatedly to get bat on ball. What were his bread-and-butter shots on sub-continental pitches were suddenly inappropriate and suicidal on wickets with some juice. Only the third batsman in history to have scored an ODI double-hundred, understandably on an Indian shirtfront, Rohit has his best chance to make amends in New Zealand, for the going will only get tougher when India tour England and Australia later this year. There are also several others, including the able Ambati Rayudu, breathing down his neck.
The role of spin overseas is also a point to consider. The fastest bowler to 100 Test wickets in over 80 years, R. Ashwin is half the man on tour as he is at home. He has 95 wickets in 15 Tests in India. Abroad, his record pales to nine scalps in four games at 75 runs per dismissal. So much so that Dhoni actually dropped Ashwin for Ravindra Jadeja in the second Durban Test. Jadeja responded with a six-wicket haul, further jeopardizing Ashwin’s chances of making the eleven when India play away. Increasingly, as Dhoni has often mentioned, Ashwin and/or Jadeja will have to play an all-rounder’s role, until India discover their 21st century Kapil Dev – a job easier said than done.
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