A Special Guest Post from my friend Leo (Vinay) who writes wonderful poems, stories and haikus at his space - I Rhyme Without Reason and is an ardent cricket fan...
Hype. That was what I felt when the ads of the soon-to-start England tour of India began to air on multiple channels. The ads were an insult to the talent the English team possessed, and one which, having home advantage, India underestimated. It was touted as the revenge series, four test matches which would show why India's blip, the whitewash of 4-0 against the same opposition, was nothing but a bump in the road of the world champions. Come to think of it, I personally am not going to refer to them as that any more. It seems to be, and probably is, an excuse and a reason to brush off any loss, or series of losses that the Men in Blue come by.
I think ego comes a lot into play when I see India play nowadays. The fact that they have a brilliant home record always seems to affect their play, and affect their selection for that matter. Be it the BCCI or our charismatic (?) captain MS Dhoni, ego seems to be a problem. You'd think one test match was proof enough to show this wasn't going to be a walk in the park. England's second innings resistance at Motera was the signal to the Men in Blue that be wary of the English Lions. Though the match went in India's favor, it was in no way one sided, and whatever the pitch did or didn't do, it got 5 days of enthralling cricket. From the four pitches, it perhaps ranked the best, and the performance of Pujara and Ojha in particular impressed. Apart from Pujara, the batting held no plus points, and once again, the future of the out-of-form players like Sachin, Sehwag, Gautam, Yuvi, Zaheer and MS Dhoni was called into question. Yet it was, as usual, met with resistance from BCCI who retained the squad for the next match as well.
Fitness is called into question during every series, I agree, but I think calling for a super-spinning pitch so the match couldn't go into 5 days was showing off, underestimating England's ability to play spin right from the get go. To top that, India went with 3 spinners to complement Zaheer as the lone pacer. Would all that help notch another win and the series? No. That was an emphatic no. Panesar and Swann together notched 9 wickets between them on a spinning track to restrict India to 327. Had it not been for Pujara and Ashwin (yes, a spin bowler), India wouldn't have had even half that score. Even at the end of India's first innings, the onus lay with England. Surely, Indian spinners could thrive on a spinning track in home conditions? No. Another emphatic no. England's batting prowess played with patience, and accumulated a high score, taking their lead to just over 80. India had to battle for a day atleast to get a solid lead. If England, unfamiliar and mostly uncomfortable with subcontinental pitches could bat with patience, India definitely could. They had the batting strength to do it. But Panesar had other ideas, as by the end of day 3, India had been reduced to a paltry 117 for 7. a lead of just over thirty, with two days to hold England off, and their batsmen all returning to the pavilion for single digit scores. Ashwin (yes, a spin bowler) managed 11, and Gambhir for the most part, battled with a patient fifty. Panesar who had 5 in the first innings, went one better with 6 in the second. India folded for a meager 142, leaving England with well over a day and a half to notch 58 runs. Easy work. They did so with ease, by ten wickets, and calls once again resounded for a change in the line-up, dropping of out of form players, and yes, the retirement of the little master.
India's battling batting lineup had misfired with much gusto, yet no change was seen in the attitude of the captain, or the BCCI, who selected the same lineup. The only change was including Ishant for Harbhajan Singh. India continued to underestimate the Englishmen, and much controversy resulted in the days prior to the game, with MSD's demand for a spinning pitch similar to Mumbai being pushed through, even against the will of the curator. Batting first, India made a lowly 316. The headlines on the second day morning read, "Tendulkar answers his critics". Really? Scores of 13, 8, 8 prior to this innings, a patient 76 wasn't indicative of form, of any kind. One score in the fifties was enough to satisfy the media and the nation atleast. Gambhir continued atleast his run of some form with another fifty. But if anyone was in form, it was Panesar. Another 4 wicket haul for the in-form spinner. If India was hoping for an English collapse, they had another thing coming. Top 4 English batsmen made past the fifty mark, and Cook took it to their spinners, going till 190 before a quite unfortunate leave saw him run out. England played on, and went to 523. A lead of 206. India behind the 8 ball. If it was spin that made the difference in the first innings, pace did in the second. India folded cheaply again. The out of form batsmen continued their form, Tendulkar gone for 5, Pujara unfortunately getting run out for no fault of his (Gambhir getting a second partner run out in as many innings). At one stage, India were 159 for 7, and an innings loss looming. It was Ashwin (yes, a spin bowler) who put up his hand, and struck 91 to get England a target of 41. It wasn't going to challenge England. After a couple of early hiccups, England strolled home, and were now leading 2-1 in the series. Cue those calls agin for the out of form players.
BCCI somewhat took a stand, or so the media said. "Axed" from the squad were Harbhajan (he didn't play in Kolkata though), Yuvraj (why was he there in the first place?) and Zaheer (one sane axing). Incoming players were Parwinder Awana (he was just named), Piyush Chawla (another spinner? what for?) and Ravindra Jadeja (two triple hundreds in the domestic season). People were somewhat satisfied. But I ask... Dhoni wasn't in form, one fifty in much innings, and captaincy that was no longer cool. Tendulkar had one fifty plus score, and 4 scores below twenty. That's no form either. Why weren't they dropped? If anyone was in batting form, it was Pujara, Ashwin (see the irony) and Gambhir (atleast he got consistently past forty). India needed a win, a must win game in Nagpur. Would these changes make a difference?
On a slow track, England felt uncomfortable against 4 spinners. (Yes, India went one better with playing Chawla, Jadeja, Ojha and Ashwin). But patience from Pietersen, Root and Prior saw England end Day 1 at 199/5 and then Swann's blitz on the morning of day 2 got England past 300 with a final total of 330. On the slow track, where runs were hard to come by, it was a chance for the Indians to be patient and take a big lead, but Anderson got 3 and Swann 1 to leave India at 87/4 at the end of day 2. Sehwag and Tendulkar had their mid stump uprooted and for scores of 0 and 1. India's chances were slim, but Kohli and Dhoni finally showed a resistance to the collapse, and stitched together a partnership. India managed to go the entire 3rd day without losing all their wickets, and ended day 3 at 298/7, just 33 behind. All logic called for an immediate declaration, giving their rested bowlers a shot at the English batsmen, and Dhoni opted not to. India ate a little more into the lead, declaring at 326/9, one hour into day 4. For any chance at a win, India needed quick inroads into the English top order. They got it courtesy two howler of decisions from umpires Dharmasena and Tucker, the former giving Cook out caught behind when the ball was nowhere near the bat, and the latter giving Compton leg before when there was an inside edge. The latter one was agreeable, coz it was caught anyways. but India couldn't capitalize, and England got through the day to 161/3 and then batted out the rest of the match, with Trott and Bell completing hundreds. Dhoni's decisions are again under scrutiny. Jadeja (in the team for his batting) got more overs than Ashwin in the first innings, and nearly the same in the second innings. Though he was miserly, it didn't help in taking wickets.
This was touted as a revenge series, yet after 4 matches, this series can only be called the continuation of the nPower 4-0 whitewash. England winning 2-1 in the subcontinent is as good as winning 4-0 in England, if not better. This series calls for change in the lineup, and wholesale ones at that. It is about time either Tendulkar thought of retirement, or the selectors spoke to him and put country ahead of player. I understand his not wanting to go out when he was on top form, but he isn't in form and that's affecting the team. I am the first to agree, respect and honor the record he has in world cricket, it is one that will be unmatched for a long long time, but the more time he stays out of form, the more time we are losing to blood youth like Robin Bist, Badrinath and Rahane. One score of 99 in the series isn't enough to put past what Dhoni didn't do in the other innings. That, plus his decisions like playing 3 and 4 spinners, demanding spinning tracks and openly questioning Gambhir's form and calling him selfish one day before the decisive test (when he himself was in no excellent form) affected the team's morale too. Gambhir and Sehwag are openers who are lacking in form. "Sehwag will play like Sehwag" is no longer an excuse to keep him at the top, and Gambhir has had blotches too. No longer can Zaheer be called India's spearhead, that baton must now be passed to the likes of Ishant and Yadav. If you ask me "Have we found the replacements for Tendulkar or Dhoni that you tell they must go?" I ask you, "How long will we keep hunting? How will we know Bist or Badri or Rahane aren't the replacements if we don't give them the chance at the highest level?" No. This isn't the time to keep them on so we can "look for replacements". We have been looking long enough, now it is time to act.
This final test at Nagpur has now ended the vengeance. If instead of touting it as a vengeance series, we focused on playing excellent cricket and on balanced, challenging tracks, this furore might not have happened. It is our pride, and a false one at that, that we are unbeatable on Indian pitches which led to our downfall. Next time, when we play the Aussies, it should be cricket that takes the centre stage, not a revenge for the 4-0 whitewash down under. Else Australia can, and yes they have the strength for it, beat us as well. It's time for change, and it's high time BCCI realized that and stopped hiding from the issues that need to be sorted out.