Will India Retain Its Number-One Test Ranking?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark that there are many skeletons in the opposition’s cupboard’, ironically made on the day two of the second cricket test between India and England, was meant to embarrass the political rivals but instead it hit the most unlikely target—Dhoni-led World number one team. It is still a matter of debate whether Prime Minster was able to achieve what he wanted while making that hurtful remark about his opponents but it did pierce through the Team India, as skeletons came tumbling out of its dressing room.
In just over 20 days, Men in Blues (barring few exceptions) have become object of ridicule. The two huge defeats against England halfway through the four test series have turned most of the players from heroes to zeroes. At the end of the Trent Bridge Test, India has suffered two defeat by 196 and 319 runs, with four innings scores of 285, 261, 288 and 158 in the series so far.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his boys, till middle of July, were basking in the glory of World Cup victory and to some extent of winning the test and one day series against rag-tag the West Indies but now questions are being raised about the authenticity of their number-one ranking by the same people who have written millions of words praising their heroics. One writer even described team India as the statistical miracle that sadly is over.
Everybody knew that 77-day-long tour of England was going to be very tough but in the beginning nobody questioned the team’s preparedness or player(s) fitness, simply because God(s) could not be questioned. They don’t have to prove themselves, the experts told the rookie journalists. Their record speaks for themselves was another retort for those who were still not convinced and the end argument was—if Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Gambhir, Harbhajan, Dhoni, Raina etc still have to prove, then you do not know your cricket. These very experts have now changed their colours and are not only thrashing the players for their abysmal showing but also questioning the validity of the number one tag the team is having. The maxim—winner takes all, loser is despised—fits on the Team India. For Dhoni and his men the defeats and consequent reactions must have come as stunning blows.
Modern-day sports are all about commerce, as long as player(s) win, every weakness or failing is swept under the carpet but once he or she starts losing the ugly face of the same system which propels them up to stardom starts devouring them. This harsh reality must have dawned on Dhoni as from being dubbed ‘Captain Cool’ he is now being labelled as a “listless skipper” and, mind you, the series is not yet complete and India still has a very good chance of coming back. Yes, the fact is that India after losing first two matches can now only hope to draw the series but Dhoni’s aura seems to have suffered a jolt. As one cricket writer has already pronounced his final verdict saying: “For a tired and ill-prepared team with a listless captain at the helm, the World No.1 tag seems at the moment to be too heavy a responsibility to shoulder.”
Those writers who made millions of cricket crazy Indians happy by pronouncing Men in Blue as number one squad are now coming out with the bizarre statistics trying to prove that Dhoni and his men never deserved to be number one. They argued: “This team hasn’t beaten England, South Africa—the three-Test series last year ended in a 1-1 draw—and Australia at home. India’s series victories have come against lowly-ranked Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka.”
Well, these are damning facts and why they were not highlighted while Team India was being hailed as cricket world’s best squad? Why these statistics were not brandish before the start of this series billed as contest between “the Champion and the pretender”? After humbling loss at the Lords, India’s defeat in Trent Bridge was painful not only because of the huge margin but also because the visitors were in full command of the match in first five sessions before surrendering tamely. India had reduced England to 124/8 in the first innings before letting them reach 221. When they batted, the visitors were firmly in control at 267/4 in the first innings before slumping to 288 all. It was not an impossible pitch to bat on but the batsmen, generally, failed to put up a fight. Also before this second successive defeat England have always been at the receiving end against touring India for last three decades.
India had suffered a 3-0 white wash way back in 1974, but after that they did not lose more than one Test match in England in their next seven series; and more significantly after 1996, they have not been beaten by England in a series nor have they lost a series in England. And till this second test defeat on August 1, India had not lost back-to-back Tests since its defeat to Australia at the SCG in January 2008; having played 38 Tests with 18 victories and six defeats in between.
The main point of criticism of the team now is why India took things for granted? With the fickle ranking to maintain England series was the acid test. So, why did the “champions” embark on the tour with total lack of preparation, both physically and mentally? Why did they come with some players with niggles and injuries, and some others, like Harbhajan Singh, just because of his past reputation?
Yes, Harbhajan is a bowler with 400 plus wickets in his kitty and has been off colour and in dismal form in this series. In this test he hardly bowled, as he seemed injured. However, his injury seems to be a bit of mystery because he looked perfectly alright when batting the next day. The demand for his sack is unanimous—a demand which was unthinkable till a month ago. Also India were without opener Virender Sehwag and have also missed Zaheer Khan and Gautam Gambhir for most of this series, but that is no excuse for caving in without a fight. Former champion teams like West Indies under Clive Lloyd and the Aussies under Steve Waugh also were without their top stars from time to time, but they didn’t simply throw in the towel.
“The truth is that this Indian team does not seem to have a champion’s strength of character,” wrote a journalist covering the series adding that Indian batsmen once again failed to display courage and determination while facing the swing and bounce English bowlers extracted. India need a win and a draw in the next two test to retain the number one position. A 2-0 or 3-1 win for England will take the hosts to number-one spot and the visitors will be relegated to number-three position behind South Africa who will take the number-two place. Interestingly, it is being pointed out by almost all the writers and experts that not a single top player—and each of them is a multi-millionaire—decided to rest during the IPL-4 but several of them opted out of the West Indies series. As former England captain Nasser Hussain rightly lambasted India, saying: “Do they really care for number-one ranking?”
India’s much-talked and feared batting has not clicked collectively. The trio of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman have not been able to amass the runs which team needs. Their individual brilliance such as Dravid’s back-to-back hundred, Laxman’s good showing at Lords and in the first innings of the second test and Sachin’s half century have not been of any help to the team. Team India have the potential of hitting back with a vengeance. But for that they must field the fully fit 11 players at Edgbaston in the third Test and the hype of Sachin’s 100 should stop. The team needs good contribution from every player and not record from one individual. With the return of Sehwag and Gambhir, batting line up will be more solid and Zaheer will add strength to bowling department and it is time that Amit Mishra is given a chance as Harbhajan needs rest.Time has come to get rid of emotions and sentiments .
There were more dramas during this test which threatened to take the sheen of the England’s victory but mercifully things did not go out of control. English players alleged that Laxman used Vaseline on his bat to avoid detection of a nick by the camera used in DRS and they were supported by their former captain Micheal Vaughan, this infuriated Indian commentators Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri. Gavaskar went to the extent of advising Laxman to take Vaughan to court for casting doubt on his integrity. But it seems the matter was sorted out without going to court.
Though Dhoni’s captaincy came into a lot of flak but he earned plaudits by his fine gesture of recalling Ian Bell after the batsman was involved in controversial run out. But here again views differed. Former captain and ace spinner Anil Kumble lavished praise on Dhoni for recalling Bell saying it was a very positive decision and said he was proud of the team for playing the game in the right spirit. Kumble said: “Mahendra Singh Dhoni had around 20 minutes to decide on the decision that was taken. If you notice during the break in the studio, Alan Wilkins confirmed that the umpires had asked Dhoni whether he would take back the decision and Dhoni had said No.
“When he went back during tea, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss walked up to the Indian coach requesting them to take back the decision, which they did after consulting the team which in hindsight I think was a very good decision,” the veteran revealed.
For most of the British media and some other former players Dhoni’s decision was a generous but illogical gesture. Most of the cricket writers felt that Dhoni was well within his rights to reject England’s request for a reprieve for Bell. Michael Vaughan was of the view that Bell knew he had “messed up” during his controversial run out but gave the impression of not really knowing what all the fuss was about to get a reprieve from the visiting side. He said: “Dhoni made right decision but Bell was in the wrong.” Former England spinner Derek Pringle gave it a totally different twist saying that Indian skipper’s decision was governed more by the bilateral Board ties: “When there is potential horse trading to be done at Board-level, laws can obviously have a coach. India usually adopts a hard line on such matters though with Duncan Fletcher being a former England coach, perhaps a more conciliatory tone was struck.”
By Harpal Singh Bedi