The twilight saga

India's best way forward is not going back to their jaded veterans, but moving ahead with youngsters.

Players like Kohli, Pujara and Ashwin are India's best bet.

Miss Wormwood: What state do you live in?

Calvin: Denial.

The apocalypse is truly upon us. Not the one the 2012 doomsayers have been predicting, but the one in the Indian cricket establishment that has hit a new low after the recent losses to England.

There are embarrassments, and then there is this. It is the kind of moment where one starts entertaining thoughts of dumping the whole team to build a new one. To find a more thorough humiliation of a Test-playing country, you would have to go back to 1976 when England captain Tony Greig unwittingly announced to the world that he would make the visiting West Indians grovel.

Clive Lloyd’s boys whipped England mercilessly through that summer, and now Alastair Cook has buried MS Dhoni’s side in the dustbowls laid for them. Buried with them is the shard of respectability that came from being heavyweights at home. The epitaph carries their last words: “We will show them at home.”

Where do we start with India’s problems? There had been telling signs that Indian cricket would come to this tragic pass. They had been struggling at home for long against nondescript oppositions. But they were too arrogant to admit they had a problem.

The BCCI, like a quack treating cancer with an invocation, refused to react to the defeats in England and Australia. “Wait and watch, we will bounce back at home”, the board president had said after one such defeat. We also saw their pettiness when England were given a tour game without a single front-line Indian spinner. For England to still come out on top is commendable. After all of Srinivasan’s waiting, the team is in ruins.

PROBLEMS IN PLENTY

The top order is groping in the dark for runs. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the two players touted as Dhoni’s successors, have been in poor form. Sehwag has fared marginally better than Gambhir, who is past the point where he should even be considered for selection. Unable to score big runs in the conditions he was so confident about, it is time he gave way to Ajinkya Rahane.

There’s the demigod at No. 4 who seems to have a dark cloud over his head every time he comes out to bat these days. He won’t stop playing because the selectors can’t drop him. Joseph Heller became famous writing about situations like that. Is Tendulkar hanging around for another of his career-saving resurrections? What is he playing for and what is his motivation for playing on? It is unclear. He has reached that unfortunate point in a sportsman’s career where even die-hard fans have begun turning on him.

Then there’s Dhoni himself. Captain. Wicketkeeper. Batsman. It would take a superhuman effort to excel at all those three roles. Dhoni did for a while, and now he’s faltering in all three. The strains of the job have been showing for long. But he is N. Srinivasan’s man on the job and Srinivasan will not let go of the strings he pulls in Indian cricket. The least the BCCI can do for Dhoni is to gently ease in his replacement in one of the three formats. At the moment, they could start with making Virat Kohli the T20 captain – a route Australia took with Michael Clarke and England with Stuart Broad. (Update: But in naming him T20 captain against England, the selectors have shown no such inclination.)

What about Zaheer Khan? We keep hearing that he’s India best. But he is 34, probably won’t play the 2015 World Cup, and is half the bowler he used to be.

His strike in the New Zealand Tests was 120; against England it is 132 in the ongoing series. Those are numbers you would associate with part-time bowlers. If Umesh Yadav is seen as the next best thing, he should be the first-choice seamer instead of Zaheer.

Zaheer’s new-ball partner Ishant Sharma, the perennially “unlucky” bowler, averages above 40 in a large majority of the series he has played. It is perhaps time we stop beating around the bush and say that Ishant has been ineffective. His strike rates in his last four Tests series: 94, 130, 150 and 174. With his recent fitness problems, he was a poor choice for the Kolkata Test and Dhoni erred in not picking Ashok Dinda.

SPINNING OUT OF CONTROL

Coming to the spinners, you know the situation is desperate when people start asking for Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla to be included in the Test team. (Update: Incredibly, both have made the squad for the Nagpur Test. This is truly apocalyptic.)

Pragyan Ojha is India’s best bowler in the series, but both he and Ravichandran Ashwin have been underwhelming against an opponent famous for its failings against spin.

Ashwin’s saving grace has been his batting. His sense of poise, timing, array of shots – and to some extent, his slow movements – are all reminiscent of VVS Laxman. At any rate, he is proving to be a better Test batsman than Dhoni and should bat higher than No. 8. One also hopes he will work on his shortcomings as a bowler so that he emerges the fully-charged all-rounder that he could be.

Another player who has failed to live up to his billing is Yuvraj Singh. Like Suresh Raina in the preceding years, Yuvraj has had plenty of chances to make a mark in Test cricket. But nearly nine years after his Test debut, he hasn’t cemented his place in the side. He can only blame himself for it.

This leaves us with players like Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. Kohli has disappointed in the series, getting out to poor shots while Pujara has failed in his last three innings having made two hundreds earlier. But they still remain India’s best young players, the ones who will take the team into the future. And which is why you persist with them and let them learn from their failures, just as Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly had in their formative years. This also goes for Rahane, Manoj Tiwary, Subramaniam Badrinath, and the players who will come after them.

All said and done, here is what we expect the BCCI to do in the next few weeks. They will not probe these defeats. They will not consider replacing Dhoni. They will not ask Tendulkar if he plans to step aside. Instead, they will find a scapegoat, pin the blame on him and be done with it. Don’t be surprised if that scapegoat turns out to be the coaching staff led by Duncan Fletcher.

PS: In January, your writer had this to say on India's prospects at home. Scroll to the last sub-head and look at all that has come true!

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