On a day when the Indian athletes and grapplers were sweating it out and winning medals, unknown names like Mohammad Anas and Jinson Johnson, also familiar faces like Saina and Sindhu, at the Asian games in Jakarta, and lanky tennis players were grunting in the grass and clay courts in cities like London and New York, the much vaunted Indian cricketers, the unofficial world champions and hailed as the best team in recent times, went down to hosts England 4-1 in a five test series. This has left fans and pundits and even punters in total disbelief. How could this have come about?
The head coach of the team, Ravi Shastri, was unflappable and continued to hail this grim looking and mostly bearded cricketers for their great fighting spirit, while he was flayed by his old buddy Sunil Gavaskar and a former captain Sourav Ganguly who had at one time bravely waved his shirt and showed his bare torso at the Lords.
On Shastri's assessment of the current team as the best, Gavaskar was to remind him, ‘What I can say is that teams in 1980s have won in England and West Indies. Rahul Dravid also won a series in West Indies in 2006, in England in 2007 and captained when India beat South Africa for the first time (in South Africa)’.
Ganguly also branded Shastri's comments as 'immature', suggesting no attention should be given to what the 56-year-old says. ‘These are immature comments. You should not pay much attention to what Ravi Shastri says. What he says and when he says things, no one knows. Whichever generation is playing for India, be it Chetan Sharma’s or when I played for India or when Dhoni played or now when Virat is playing, we are all the ‘Indian Team’.
Undoubtedly, England and India played a cracking five-match Test series as genuine cricket fans can attest, and there is something magical about the longer version that none of the abridged ones can match. And it is after a long time that a five-test series had sustained excitement till the end. There were tall scores, centuries by the predictable stars and all the tests went to the wire. It is after a long time that such a thing has been happening and the first and fourth tests were real standouts.
India were competitive, no doubt, which was admirable but the 4-1 defeat should not be sugar-coated though some might contend that several results could have gone India’s way but the harsh truth about Test cricket is you get the result you deserve. Not for no reason that they were at one time described as ‘chokers’.
To be fair India had moments aplenty through the series to showcase their abundance of talent. They dominated sessions, days and even one Test, but they were just not good enough for the long haul. In short India lacked the killer instinct and caved in at the critical moments. And this must be the moment of introspection for the combative Virat Kohi and smug manager Ravi Shastri. This hodgepodge of an England team that had a miserable Test track record in recent times quietly and efficiently demolished the myth of invincibility.
An unruffled Kohli was proud of his players’ attitude underlined by the final day’s counter attack by Rishabh Pant and KL Rahul and said that unlike so many embarrassing times earlier,’ India didn’t roll over like a puppy wanting a treat.’ But the reality is that being competitive in spurts abroad is not enough. The harsh reality is that India has now suffered consecutive failed tours after losing in South Africa early this year. The reality is that once again, they have fallen short in tough conditions abroad. One has to keep on waiting for the breakthrough moment for a defining overseas triumph. This just has not happened. Now another tour stares at them, a four-Test series in Australia starting in less than three months and this might well be their hardest.
For such a populous country that is cricket crazy and backed by a governing body that is flush with money, there are other factors that have to be reckoned with to clobber up a great team. Some of the traits that define great teams, like unwavering attitude, innate match awareness and a knack rising to the occasion at critical key moments, India seems to be deficient in.
Test debutant Hanuma Vihari's comment after the end of the test provides a clue. The 24-year-old who got 56 in his first innings, said he called Rahul Dravid ‘the day before I made my debut. He spoke to me for a couple of minutes and that eased my nerves. He is a legend and his inputs, especially in the batting department, have helped. He told me 'you have the skill set, have the mindset and the temperament, just go out there and enjoy yourself'’.
A clue to the problem can also be got from historian Dr. Ramachandra Guha’s observations on the team’s performance and his call for moderating of Kohli’s influence over the board and team management. He commented that ‘Indian cricket today, including administrators, selectors and coaching staff, are all pygmies before Kohli’ and this, he believed, was one of the reasons India have not been able to achieve overseas success.
As part of the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators for four months last year, Dr Guha also had a chance to witness at close quarters ‘the reach and range of Kohli’s dominating self...The BCCI’s officials worshipped him even more than the Indian cabinet worships Narendra Modi,’ he commented. ‘They deferred to him absolutely, even in matters that were not within the Indian captain’s ken.’
The BCCI insisted on the captain’s consent to be taken to discuss things such as the Future Tours Programme and the functioning of the National Cricket Academy, he said. ‘The BCCI men always used the captain’s first name in referring to him, perhaps to indicate intimacy; however, in concrete behavioural terms, the proximity was more akin to that between servant and master.’
Dr Guha said, ‘To the corruption and cronyism that has so long bedevilled Indian cricket has recently been added a third ailment; the superstar syndrome. Kohli is a great player, a great leader, but in the absence of institutional checks and balances his team will never achieve the greatness both he and his fans desire.’
This recalls the saga of the head coach last year, when Anil Kumble made way for Ravi Shastri. Kohli had clashed with the spin bowler because he alone probably was in the same league as the captain as a cricketer and a character. Dr. Guha questioned why Kumble was replaced ‘by someone so strikingly inferior, in character and cricketing achievement’ and someone with no coaching experience.'
Even the CoA chairman Vinod Rai had ‘surrendered his liberties and his independence when confronted by the force of Kohli’s personality and Shastri was chosen over candidates with more coaching experience, such as Tom Moody, because Rai, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman ‘were intimidated by the Indian captain into subordinating the institution to an individual’.
At the end of the last test, as star English batsman Cook announced his retirement from test cricket after a 12- year tenure quietly and walked away that message might have got lost on Kohli and his manager. This is a subtle game and it can be played without flexing muscles, like professional wrestling, and the flicks and glances and the late cuts are what lingers in the end and not the grunts and the thumping of chests however broad they might be.