First things first. India won a Test series. An away series. Ishant Sharma took a few big strides. Rahul Dravid reiterated his worth in a crisis. MS Dhoni remains unbeaten in a Test series. I repeat: unbeaten.
India traveled to the Caribbean with a relatively inexperienced side and avoided a few banana peels during the way. They were expected to win. They did.
A few points:
1 I was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly impressed with Dhoni’s declaration in the second Test in Barbados. We’ve endured some uber-conservatism over the last ten years – especially Ganguly in Sydney and Dravid at The Oval – and this felt like a defining moment (I had felt the same about Dravid at Multan but over time I’ve felt conflicted about that decision but anyway …).
Here in Barbados we finally had a captain who’s not burdened by the weight of history, I told myself. To set 281 in 83 overs was a fine way to go.
2 There were several reasons why the final two matches ended in draws. Rain played its part. As did some slow scoring at various stages. As did some toothless bowling. As did some dropped catches. As did some poor captaincy. As did some fine resistance from West Indies (especially Chanderpaul in Dominica) on pitches that called for hard graft. To single out one factor would be naive.
3 Dravid dropped a crucial catch in Dominica. India’s bowlers failed to run through the tail. Fidel Edwards blocked the bejeezus out of them. And Chanderpaul glued himself to the crease with Araldite. By the time India needed 180 off 47 overs, the game was well on it way to stalematedom.
4 Yes, Fidel Edwards had comfortably pitched a tent on that surface but one mustn’t confuse the ease of survival with the ease of scoring runs. They’re different beasts. So to say, ‘If Fidel Edwards can bat for so long, India could have gone for the target’ would be to compare apples and oranges.
4 Now I have one crucial question. Was there a clear plan to go for a win? Was there some thought given to changing the batting order? Duncan Fletcher doesn’t really answer that (maybe he wasn’t asked it) but I would like an answer to that question. Because if India were wishy-washy at that point the debate must start and end there.
I am carrying on this post, assuming that India were going for the win. I would like to think the world’s best side started their innings wanting to win that Test.
5 A wicket fell in the first ball. But that wicket was not Virender Sehwag (whose dismissal could have no doubt changed the team’s mindset). That wicket was Abhinav Mukund. In his third Test. Still finding his feet. I didn’t expect him to fire-start the innings. Nor was I shocked that he fell so early.
So I continue to assume that India were still going for the win. If they decided to shut shop at the fall of Mukund’s wicket, the debate starts and ends here. Again, I don’t know the team’s plan, so I will continue to assume that a win was in their sights.
6 Dravid and Vijay add 73 in 24 overs (Vijay scores quicker which I am assuming is part of the plan to allow Dravid to stay on as insurance). They’re scoring at a shade over 3 an over. It fits well with my assumption that they’re going for the win. 107 off 23 overs. Required RR: 4.65. Not easy by any means. But not impossible with nine in hand. Far from it.
Meanwhile Bishoo has been bowling from around the wicket, getting it to rip off the rough and making it really tough for the batsmen to score. And the batsmen haven’t tried anything unconventional (like a reverse-sweep). I am assuming they are OK with the current run-rate.
Again, if the team saw Bishoo bowl this angle and said ‘Oh no, there’s no way we can win this’, let’s start and stop the debate here. But I would like to assume they were confident of putting Bishoo away. Or maybe they saw the ghost of Clarrie Grimmett. But I digress.
7 Vijay falls. In walks Raina. So they’re going for the win after all. A left-hander is here to combat the leggie. Raina and Dravid add 13 runs in 3.5 overs. The rate has definitely dropped but not by any alarming margin. Raina is realising that scoring is not going to be easy but he’s scurrying between the wickets and showing some urgency. He is constantly trying to turn the single into a two.
Raina falls. Tame dismissal but he was trying to get a move on.
I must bring in Fletcher here.
Once Raina was sent in he found it very difficult. He had gone there as the left-hander to take on the legspin bowler. But it was turning straightaway; they block off one side and it’s always difficult to chase four runs an over in a Test match because you can do what you like with the field; there are no fielding limitations, and the most important thing was the wicket was very slow. Once it’s so slow you can’t play your shots, and that’s a huge advantage for the bowling side. Unless there was some real bad bowling it was difficult to score.
So was Raina’s dismissal the final straw? Did the team tell themselves, ‘If a left-hander is struggling what chance for the rest of us right-handers?’
I personally hope not because I think shutting shop then would have been a gross underestimation of the rest of the line-up. Dravid and Laxman still not out (yes, the same miracle workers who have created rain when asked of them), Kohli and Dhoni to come (on the back of a 74 in the first innings) and Harbhajan to follow.
There was nothing dicey about this situation. I would honestly be shocked if India even harboured the thought of defeat at this stage.
8 Laxman walks in. It was slightly surprising that Dhoni didn’t promote himself (especially after “I wanted to prove a point to myself” etc in the World Cup final) but this is not some baffling decision. VVS has scored quick runs in the past and VVS is probably our best batsman on current form. So VVS it is.
Dravid and VVS add 8 runs in 3.5 overs. It’s nowhere close to the required run-rate. Scoring was hard. And if Dravid and VVS are struggling to score it’s fair to say that Dhoni and Harbhajan would struggle more.
9 India need 86 off 90. Seven wickets in hand. Will they, won’t they? Can they, should they? Poof. Power cut. Gone.
Sure 86 off 90 on the fifth day of a Test (with a leggie bowling around the wicket) is quite improbable. It wasn’t an easy pitch and the fielding side always holds the upper hand in these situations because (unlike in ODIs or T20s) there are no major field restrictions. So an Indian win was a long shot.
But an Indian defeat was a longer shot. A much longer shot. I did not, for once, even consider the possibility of seven wickets falling in 15 overs. I have lived through worse collapses but this Indian team was almost incapable of such ineptitude. I knew it, you knew it and I’ll be stunned if Dhoni and the rest didn’t know it.
And I’m amazed that Fletcher is even saying things like: “ … what’s the point in going there and ending up maybe with just one side able to win it.”
One side able to win it? Seriously, Duncan? You actually even considered that?
10 Of course Test cricket needs to look at this silly rule (as Andy Z says). Of course it’s great for a Test to have an exciting finish. And of course the fans (both the thousands who walked through the turnstiles and the millions who stayed glued to their TV sets at the death of the night) deserved better.
But Test cricket and its fans can handle all this. They’ve handled worse and they will be fine. The future of Test cricket did not depend on this one Test. Thankfully Test cricket is more durable than that.
11 My point is this. Indian teams from the ‘90s were never expected to win abroad. So when Tendulkar’s team had 120 to chase in Barbados in ’97 we felt we were within touching distance of glory. We lost. When Ganguly’s men got so close in Sydney, we imagined the start of an epic journey. We drew. When Dravid grappled with the follow-on decision at The Oval, we hoped for an Indian team that had turned ruthless, twisting the knife in when the opposition was down. He batted on.
All these men traveled abroad with the weight of history in their baggage. They knew that winning a Test or a series was paramount. They didn’t have great line-ups and were constantly wondering whether they had the team to pull off wins. They were constantly battling with themselves.
Dhoni has reached a stage when he’s expected to win Test series abroad. When a captain has never lost a series, is this really an unreasonable expectation? And this was against a lowly West Indies. Sure they fought hard but there was no way in hell the West Indies bowlers were going to run through this line-up in a session.
At Wellington, we could give him the benefit of the doubt (one of his first series as captain, hadn’t won in NZ for many years, had a point to prove etc). Ditto Cape Town (potent bowling attack, not the easiest pitch to bat, series to salvage etc).
But Dominica is baffling. Because Dhoni can keep totting up as many series wins as he wants but there must be some point where his team aspires to a higher, loftier goal. Good teams are remembered for what they win but the great ones are forever cherished for how high they fly.
When Gordon Greenidge walked out to chase 342 in less than 70 overs at Lord’s, was he thinking of a draw? When Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist began that partnership at Hobart, were they looking to play safe?
I offer these examples not as comparison points per se but as moments when some awesome teams stretched the boundaries, moments when the best teams were bestowed with a sprinkling of immortality.
It’s pretty clear that India isn’t ready for that flight yet. And it’s disappointing, simply because I seem to believe in this team more than they believe in themselves. Those stupid expectations. Must. Tone. Them. Down.
There was another point that was irritating me. How is this Indian team so comfortable with confidently foreseeing the future? Sure, run-scoring was hard and six and over was close to impossible but haven’t these players been around long enough to know that it takes precisely one over to change the dynamic of the whole match?
Yes, Bishoo was bowling around the wicket into the rough. But was there absolutely no chance that he would have a bad over? And was there absolutely no chance that Sammy would fret and make a few dumb field changes? And was there absolutely no chance of India’s batsmen trying some unorthodox shots and pulling them off?
Isn’t cricket a funny game? Haven’t stranger things happened? How does the No.1 team in the world confidently shut out all these possibilities?
I find that the most disappointing. This is a beautiful game because of the possibilities it throws up. This is a beautiful game because despite lasting for five days, it just takes one ball or an over to turn it all inside out. There are possibilities and there are possibilities.
And even without giving those possibilities a chance, Dhoni pulled the plug.