Outsmarted at Melbourne, outclassed at Sydney and outgunned at Perth. India started this tour with, what many called, their best chance of winning a Test series in Australia. They will end it in shambles.
Four years ago a big chunk of this team traveled to Australia. They had been outsmarted in Melbourne. Dravid, asked to open, was struggling to put bat on ball; Laxman was suffocated and Tendulkar dazzled with a first-innings fifty before falling to an expansive stroke. India, bogged down by maidens, struggled to score at much more than two an over in the second innings. Just as in the 2004 series in India, their batsmen were frustrated out.
At the end of the match, Kumble spoke of the fine line the team needed to tread: to try and score freely, yet not venture into irresponsible territory. The late Peter Roebuck summed it up when he said: India need to meld beauty with grit.
There was a further blow on the eve of the Sydney Test: Zaheer was ruled out, leaving India with a new-ball pair with a combined experience of ten Tests. And to top it off Australia, on the verge of a record-equaling 16th consecutive Test win, won the toss. The odds were stacked as high at the Harbor Bridge.
But nobody told RP Singh about this. In only his ninth Test, he made up his mind to lead the attack and turned in two inspired spells. Ishant, in just his third Test, ran in hard and induced an edge off Symonds when he was on 30 (his reaction to being denied the wicket was to try and bowl faster). On a day dotted with horrific umpiring and a belligerent partnership, India kept striving. They were down but those walking in for the second day’s play knew they were far from being out.
Then came the fightback. Laxman brought the beauty, Dravid came with the grit. One scorched crisp cover-drives, the sweet sound of leather on willow prompting gasps across the SCG; another played, missed, edged, blocked, played again and missed again. One flew, the other dodged. Here was beauty, in all its splendor, melding with hard-as-nails grit. The series was alive.
None of this would have mattered if not for what followed: Tendulkar arriving with masterful control. This was not a diamond-studded half-century but an immaculately paced hundred. Like a perfectly-oiled machine, the gears neatly enmeshed, he gradually clawed India back. India led by 69 in the first innings. This team was kicking.
Three days later, they were flattened. Defeated in the gloaming, done in by shoddy umpiring and insulted by an opposition captain who didn’t see the need to shake hands with his counterpart at the end of the match, India endured what was possibly their most painful Test defeat. One of the younger players in the team, his head bowed, sitting distraught in the dressing-room, felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Kumble. His message was brief: “We’ll win at Perth.”
And win they did. Barring perhaps Kolkata in 2001, no Indian Test victory could have been scripted against such odds. Australia hadn’t lost at the WACA since 1997; India had never won there. The pre-match talk was about pace, pace and more pace. Shaun Tait was set to be unleashed as Australia aimed for win No. 17. India won the toss. Conventional wisdom suggested they field. Kumble chose to bat.
Dravid, back to No.3, regained his confidence, Tendulkar innovated, those magical wrists guiding short balls over the slip cordon, and Laxman showcased his steely side. RP continued to lead the attack manfully and Irfan Pathan, making a comeback, swung the ball at delightful arcs. Ishant devoured Ponting in that spell and the tail wagged – RP adding valuable runs with Laxman as India stretched the lead in the second innings.
Adelaide followed. An even contest deservedly ended in a draw. A series that had begun like a nightmare ended with plenty to cheer. Sydney and Perth were inflection points: it was a point from which Australia lost their aura, the team losing its sheen with every series that followed. For India, it was the start of an ascent. They won the one-day tri-series that followed. Many players, including Dhoni, has spoken about the effect that the tour had on the players, the confidence they gained in battling adversity and the satisfaction in clawing back from what was seemingly an abyss.
Sydney and Perth in 2008 epitomised the Indian Test side of the last decade. These were teams which rose to the top by finding a way to fight back; by putting behind a demoralising defeat; by disrupting the opposition’s rhythm when the bowlers were on top (Sehwag at Galle, Laxman at Sydney); by scrapping when the pitch was hard (Dravid in Headingley and in Kingston, Tendulkar in Nottingham, Gambhir in Napier); by seeking battling performances from the tail (Nottingham, Sydney, Adelaide, Kingston); by the dint of rookies exceeding expectations (RP, Ishant, Dinesh Karthik, Sreesanth, Bangar, Irfan); by believing that they will only improve as the series goes along; by understanding that beauty means nothing if not infused with grit.
And here we stand in 2012 when an Indian team has competed in Melbourne, shriveled in Sydney and collapsed in Perth. Zaheer and Sehwag have been fit for all Tests and Dravid hasn’t needed to open. Ishant has more than 100 Test wickets now and Dhoni – despite the shellacking in England and here – remains, statistically, India’s most successful captain. The team had two practice games before the tour and were up against an Australian side in a transition – a side that will struggle to match up to the Australian squad from 2008.
These results are not purely a matter of ability. Zaheer is a far more capable bowler than RP and Irfan; Gambhir has a far better Test record than Bangar, Karthik and Chopra; the crux of the batting line-up knows what it takes to win Tests in Australia; Dhoni knows what it takes to win cricket matches; and the bulk of the tail – Ashwin, Zaheer and Ishant – are more than capable of sticking around than many of their recent predecessors. This was supposed to be a team that had a judicious mix of youth and experience – a chance for the old guard to say a cheerful goodbye as the young guns took charge.
And yet it’s all up in smoke. You can analyse the defeats until the cows come home, you can debate the merits of selection, you can dissect Dhoni’s captaincy threadbare, you can grapple over an apparent flaw that has crept into Dravid’s technique, you can criticise Kohli for not seizing all his chances, you can curse the hype over Tendulkar’s 100th hundred, you can slam the IPL, you can hurl your kitchen sink at the BCCI, you can list umpteen ways in which domestic cricket can be revamped, you can wonder if India is even prepared with a succession plan once the veterans retire and you can question what Duncan Fletcher has brought to this side (if he has brought anything at all).
But I am more interested in that one quality that’s gone missing. Call it belief, call it bounceback-ability, call it an unshakeable resolve, call it a desire to reverse the tide, call it the X-factor, call it anything. I am more interested in when and how this side lost its ability to fight the odds.
I am not suggesting the players aren’t trying. That has never crossed my mind. But it’s quite clear that something intangible is missing. Some have called it ‘hunger’, others say it’s called ‘desire’. I am not going to invent a new term here but, as someone who has watched India’s Test side over two decades, I sense a gaping absence.
I’ve missed the Ganguly-inspired ballsiness. I’ve missed the ‘fuck you mode’ that John Wright asked the team to adopt during the 2003 World Cup. I’ve missed the unshakable belief that helped us come back in Headingley, 2002 and Durban, 2010. I’ve missed the spirit that won us the Mohali Test in 2010.
I’ve missed Laxman’s steely side. I’ve missed Tendulkar avatar that shelves shots. I’ve missed Dravid’s over-my-dead-body efforts on a spiked pitch. I have missed the team’s ability to counterpunch. I have missed Sehwag. Which senior player is going to reassure Umesh Yadav with ‘We’ll win in Adelaide’? Does anyone in this team even believe we have a chance?
And herein lies my anguish. This team is making me lose hope in turnarounds, they’re whimpering from one game to another, they’re acting like hesitant, shy schoolboys and walking into well-laid traps. They are showing no inkling to think out of the box. And they are bizarrely surrendering meekly rather than going down swinging. It’s a team I’m not used to. It’s a team that has forgotten how to respond. It’s a team that’s lost its bearings.
I don’t care which eleven Indian players walk out at Adelaide. I don’t even want to suggest who to drop and who to retain. Losing 4-0 isn’t the end of the world (after all, we’ve been there a few months ago). I am not paying any attention to all the speculation about impending retirements.
All I ask for is a sign. All I ask for is more of what Umesh did on the second day at Perth, more of what Kohli did on the third. All I ask for is any sign that tells me that this team is willing to reverse the tide, a sign that shows me that that these players haven’t forgotten the art of fighting the odds, a sign that reassures me that the wheels haven’t completely come off at the end of an ardous journey that began – thanks to many of the same players – a little over a decade ago.