"When nobody showed up, I said the heck with it and decided to play another year."
— John Fitzgerald, Dallas Cowboy's centre, on his retirement
The cricketing ecosystem has its checks and balances. India and Sri Lanka are struggling abroad, thanks to their classical ineptitude against fast bowling. On the other hand, the No. 1 Test team – England – were made to look silly by Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal. This has been the one constant in international cricket: Asian teams struggle against pace and bounce; but the rest can’t wrap their heads around the spin wizardry of Asian bowlers. And so no team gets too ahead of itself.
In the last decade, India bucked the trend. With wins in Australia, England and South Africa, they showed the miracles of self-belief and endurance. This was the team that, in the 1990s, played 39 Tests abroad and won just one – the same as Zimbabwe. Even the weakest Test team at the start of that decade, Sri Lanka, won more: five out of 36. So did Pakistan, the best travellers from Asia by a mile, winning 17 and drawing 10 out of 41.
The following decade and a bit would pass as Indian cricket’s finest. Since the turn of the century till they stepped foot in England, they had 24 wins and 22 draws in 67 away Tests. The World Cup was the cherry on top. It was a period of unprecedented success, but this is where it ends.
BACK TO THE 90s
To Indian and Sri Lankan fans, these days may seem like a return to the 1990s. Everything looks great on paper – they have the superstar seniors and the young turks. But the moment they take the field, they seem to have the resilience of an eggshell trying to stop a bulldozer.
What’s happening in Sri Lanka? Like India, their losses are piling up. They’ve won just won Test out of 17 since Muttiah Muralitharan’s retirement. Their cricket is being asphyxiated by an interfering government that denies players their wages and frequently subjects them to questioning. There are talks of reinstating Mahela Jayawardene as captain — a retrograde idea pushed by their inability to replace their ageing heroes.
Panicking, wholesale changes and backward-looking moves don’t help transitioning a team. Neither will maintaining status quo, which is what the BCCI has been doing.
LEARNING FROM CHAMPIONS
So what would a champion team have done in this situation? It would conduct a thorough, scientific assessment of itself – from the grassroot to the top. They would assess the academies, pitches, coaching staff and injury management systems. They would align the goals of the national team with the state teams’. Everyone moves towards the same targets: winning the World Cups, taking the No. 1 rank, winning the big-ticket fixtures. And they will create processes and find the players to help the national team attain these targets.
They will employ specialists to enable these processes and hold them accountable for their deliverables. They will recognise that the Test match is the greatest theatre of cricket and take steps to make it compelling. They will create succession plans: for players, captains, coaches and everyone else with a limited shelf life. Lastly, it will respect the game’s biggest stakeholder – the fan.
This isn’t a cricket romantic’s wishlist. These are the recommendations of the Argus Review amidst Australia’s worst slump in three decades. Australia’s problems are far from over. But they’ve realised they’re in trouble, and they’ve set out to solve their problems. India too are going through a major slump. But the best the BCCI president N Srinivasan could come up with was “we can’t win everything” and “I will wait and see.”
THE END OF AN ERA
So this is how Indian cricket’s finest era ends. The BCCI will wait. VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar will eventually retire. Maybe this year, maybe the next, maybe the year after. Replacements will finally arrive. They will fail. Miserably so. More replacements will arrive. Maybe they’ll fail too, maybe they won’t. For a while, India may forget what it’s like to win a Test match. Then, maybe another Ganguly will arrive, and things will be okay for a while.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth, chairman of selectors, said this Indian team was the best he could send to Australia. He’s right. His committee played it safe for too long – they could have prepared plenty of young players for this moment – and so they had no choice but to send these old warhorses to their ends.
If you’re thinking India will fail abroad and do well at home, you’ve got another thing coming. You only need to see how India’s batsmen fared in home Tests against the lower-ranked New Zealand (2010) and West Indies (2011), and on the slow wickets in the Caribbean (2011) to realise how much they struggled, even when they played full-strength.
The next few years belong to Australia and South Africa. They have the young players. They have the coaches. They have the honesty to admit they'd messed up. And they have the desire to get things right.
As for India, they have the IPL. And they have Srinivasan, waiting to see.