Has it really been since August 2009 since India lost a Test series? Have I forgotten what an Indian loss even feels like?
Faced with a possible 4-0 whitewash, Indian fans have to contemplate two separate problems: 1) Was the last year or so a dream? Was it a mirage? When India’s detractors said the team wasn’t all that; the bowling attack was weak; the performance in South Africa and Australia so-so — were they right? 2) What does the future hold? This brings up two sub-questions. One, when the Fab Three retire, is the Indian backbench thin? Two, will we see not just the end of India’s greatest batting generation, but the end of a worldwide batting trend? Imagine a cricketing world without Ricky Ponting, J. Kallis and Chanderpaul. Will bowlers finally return to the scene?
Here are my (very tentative) answers: 1) India never truly performed to its potential. Over the past year or so, I have tried to overcome my Nervous 1990s Attitude and adopt a default position of believing in the Indian team’s abilities. There have been many moments that justified this shift (Napier is a good example), but the evidence wasn’t overwhelming. The truth is that India never played to win series; they played to win (or draw) Tests. I tried to deal with this issue by saying that the Indians played “meh” cricket — a style that implied superiority but never rubbed the opposing team’s nose in it. This may have been naive on my part.
2) Looking at the Emerging Players Tournament, I see more than a few acceptable replacements. Pujara, Badrinath, Vijay, the Tiwarys, Pandey — these guys could be part of a solid batting line-up. The same with the bowling department: Vinay Kumar, L. Balaji, R.P. Singh, Irfan Pathan (oh, Irfan!). But all these players need to be given time and guidance to prove themselves. Look at England’s approach: not too long ago, Alistair Cook was widely considered to be a failure and worked out. Ian Bell was considered beautiful fluff. J. Anderson was thought to be a one-swing wonder. Stuart Broad was fighting for his place in the side before this series. Kevin Pietersen had been out of form for a while (and the same with Andrew Strauss). But each was given some time and string to work things out. Some were sent back to county cricket, others were dropped. (Strauss even played a warm-up game before the India series.)
My point? Once promising players have been identified, India’s think-tank needs to look after them. That means asking some of them to give up an IPL season and spending time in England or Australia. That means keeping tabs on everyone’s injuries and fitness needs. That means giving each player specific guidelines and telling them how to improve. (I thank Samir Chopra for discussing some of these issues with me.)