Indian Cricket on the Road to Somewhere

0-8. Never forget.

Over the course of two tours, to England and Australia, Indian fans were treated to soul crushing and legend shattering performances from the team, as the number 1 ranking was surrendered, and then the retirements of long-time servants of Indian cricket were hastened. Indian cricket was well and truly forced into the transitional phase, which it kept talking about for years, but never really took any steps towards it.

That is why, the series against New Zealand raised a lot of interest and expectations towards how India is going to plan ahead. With tough home series against England and Australia, and an overseas assignment against the current number 1 team to follow, the situation called for some bold and visionary thinking from the selectors to pick a squad keeping the future in mind.

Well, if you know anything about Indian cricket and its selectors, you know what was always the most likely thing to happen. Kris Srikkanth and gang opted for the safe route and picked pretty much the same squad which had been failing overseas, but could be trusted to deliver in home conditions. Retirements forced the hand of the selectors, allowing come-back opportunities for Che Pujara and Suresh Raina, but there seemed to be no tangible measures taken in response to the drubbing in two consecutive overseas tours.

On the basis of the two Tests against the Kiwis, most of the issues remain un-resolved. I’m going to take a look at some of them and give my ideas about how to tackle it.

The opening conundrum

When Gambhir and Sehwag notched a 50 run partnership in the second innings of the Bangalore test, it was their first in 12 innings. It is hard to believe that this is the same pair, who just a couple of years back, formed one of the best opening pairs in international cricket. They were instrumental in India’s rise to the top of the rankings, and it is not a surprise that India’s fall coincides with a decline in their performances. Of late, Gambhir seems to be more assured in the shorter formats than in Tests, and his dismissals mirror that fact. He keeps edging deliveries to the slip cordon while trying to run the ball down to third man, and for an opener that kind of misjudgment is career suicide. All the qualities which made him one of the best openers in Indian cricket history, seem to be in short supply and it doesn’t help that his partner is going through a similar crisis himself.

Sehwag has never been a conventional opener and his success to date has defied belief. He averages over 50, has two triple tons apart from several other big centuries, and gives rapid fire starts just about every time he gets into a groove – all this despite a very unorthodox batting style bordering on the very definition of risk. Most of the time, he gets out to a poor shot and immediately is excused, saying “that’s the way he plays”. Unfortunately, nowadays we are treated to short cameo knocks from Sehwag before he gifts his wicket away, and coupled with Gambhir’s inconsistency, his inability to play the big innings he is famous for, is starting to cause headaches for India at the top.

So what is the solution? Can we afford to drop either or both Gambhir and Sehwag? Should India stick with them, trusting and hoping, that the proven performers will shine against England and Australia?

Personally, if there was any time to drop either opener and blood new batsmen, it was the series against a low profile team like New Zealand. With England dropping in soon, it is unreasonable to expect a replacement to perform immediately against quality opposition, when under a lot of pressure. The next best step is to give the pair another go, against England and hope they regain their appetite for huge knocks. If it doesn’t work, it is time for the team to take a leap of faith and try new players, regardless of reputation. Pujara and Kohli are good examples of youngsters who have grabbed their opportunities to replace batsmen who were considered irreplaceable till recently, and there is no reason why the likes of Rahane or Mukund can’t do the same.

The middle-order blues

While two batsmen established themselves firmly in the plans for the upcoming contests, Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina had a forgettable series against the Kiwis, despite looking good in patches. Tendulkar is the last of the old guard and while he may resist any overtures, his time is drawing to a close. It is a just a matter of, how he is going to leave the game – in a blaze of glorious run-scoring or a series of painful torturous innings. On the other hand, Raina is still trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone that he can handle Test cricket. These are two batsmen at different stages of their careers, but at a time when the team is going through a metamorphosis, the management has to decide whether they figure in their long term plans.

In the case for Tendulkar, his experience is invaluable considering the newly re-modeled middle order is still finding its feet. While the manner of his dismissals in the series indicate a slowing of reflexes, I have seen many a Tendulkar slump before an inevitable deluge of run scoring silences the critics. He is a proud cricketer who will be hurting from the whitewashes in England and Australia, and I wouldn’t put it past him to raise his game one last time against high quality opposition.

As for Raina, he’s got to go. The likes of Rahane, Badrinath and Tiwary will wonder what else they can do to get a place ahead of him, considering his inferior record in first class cricket. Despite a scratchy fifty in the first innings of the Bangalore Test, his dismissal in the second innings confirmed the fact that he does not have the temperament to be consistent in this format. If he continues to be in the XI, England and Australia are bound to feast on him. This should perhaps be the easiest decision to take for Dhoni, when the next series starts.

The captaincy question

While many agree that MS Dhoni is one of the finest skippers in international cricket when it comes to the short forms, the opinion is more divided when it comes to Tests. The arguments are mainly ‘he is too defensive’ and ‘he doesn’t deserve a place in the XI’. They have some merit, but are they really viable at this stage?

Yes, Dhoni was captain during the two disastrous tours, but would any other captain have made a difference? If your batsmen experience a collective loss in form and your bowlers cannot maintain a consistent line and length, it wouldn’t matter if you were Mike Brearley. Apart from that, there are no quality alternatives at this stage. Gambhir and Sehwag are not in the best of form, and Kohli is too raw. Instead, it would be wise to groom Kohli for the captaincy, so that there is a smooth transition at the appropriate time, at least when it comes to leadership. At the moment, Dhoni is still our best bet as he commands respect and more importantly, with his performances in this series, no one can ask questions of his place in the team…for now.

Whither the fast bowlers?

India has never been known for producing quality speed merchants, or for that matter any pace bowler who can compete with the best in the world. Despite that, India had two decent options this series in Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav. Thanks to the spinners, they didn’t really have to do much apart from taking the shine off the ball and occasionally coming on, to provide the spinners some respite after long spells. That is why it was disappointing to see their underwhelming performances, even in limited roles.

Zaheer Khan is in a steady decline at the moment. He is no more the bowler he was at his pomp, and at the moment, its his guile and experience which still warrants him a place in the side. It is up to the team management to use him wisely in the coming months, as contests against quality teams are lined up. Stop using him in ODIs and T20s; preserve him for the Tests. Use him to mentor the youngsters; and given the way, Yadav bowled in the series, he has his work cut out.

Umesh Yadav was one of the rare positives from the ill-fated tour down under, and much is expected from him. Unfortunately, his pace seems to have dropped off a little and he still has trouble with control. Given that Ishant Sharma faces the same issues and the remaining reserve of fast bowlers are even more inexperienced, there doesn’t seem to be any easy solution on hand.

This is where the role of bowling coach Joe Dawes is amplified. By this time next year, India may have to depend on a completely fresh pack of fast bowlers  and it is imperative that between now and then, the management identify who they think are going to stick around for a long time and prepare them for the long haul. If India are serious about retaining their number 1 ranking, they can ill afford to neglect their fast bowling resources.

To summarize,

  • Give Sehwag and Gambhir one more chance during the England series. If they continue to fail, bite the bullet and blood replacements for them.
  • Tendulkar’s presence is vital for the team till the South African tour to provide experience and guide the freshly re-modeled middle order. Raina has run out of chances, and it is time to try someone else.
  • MS Dhoni remains our best option when it comes to captaincy. Make Kohli the permanent vice-captain and groom him for leadership in the future.
  • Manage Zaheer wisely and build a good reserve of fast bowlers.

Indian cricket is notorious for its disregard to planning ahead and taking corrective measures. Here is hoping that there is someone in the Indian cricket hierarchy, who can look past the eye-pleasing win over New Zealand  and identify the short-comings. Then, hopefully we won’t need to experience anything as painful and harrowing as an 0-8 score line.

Never forget.

19 comments

  1. Nice piece, please take a read at my Series Review: http://cricketnns.blogspot.com/2012/09/india-vs-nz-test-series-review.html

    Also, I’d like to disagree with some of your points. Raina should not be taken out of the team yet. How many times has Gambhir played the same shot over and over again, that poke outside off? Also, who would replace Raina?

    Next, I think Tendulkar’s time is up. For South Africa, I’m sure players will adapt. After all, if SL could win a Test there, then we can too. Even if SA are #1.

    Finally, it’s time to drop Zaheer in a year or so. He didn’t have much of an impact this series, and his frequent break-downs are no longer needed. It’s time for Yadav, Ishant, Irfan and the rest to step up.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Hey..I read your article..here are my thoughts on it and your comments here:

      1- Harsh on Raina, but he should have never made his jump ahead of Badri, Tiwary and Rahane in the first place. In fact, if it wasn’t for Rohit’s dramatic drop in form and confidence, he would not have found a spot on the team. So, it is only right that he is sent back to first class cricket to work on his temperament and improve on his middling stats. Even in the one innings where he got a decent score in this series, he always looked like getting out any moment. If India is serious about building a strong middle order, it cannot rely on hope. It needs to bring in players who are cut out for Test cricket. As for Gambhir, he had seemed to work on this issue and cut out that habit…until it resurfaced recently. Unfortunately, I don’t see any dramatic change in Raina between now and the last time he played Test cricket.

      2. I’m not comfortable going with a completely raw middle order to South Africa. As you mentioned, SRT had been getting out like this in 2002..but remember what followed? Sure, age is not on his side….but if there is any one person who has consistently defied any limits and overcome challenges, it is SRT. Right now, it is a case of where the mind is willing but the body is not. Based on history, I back him to produce one final flourish before he leaves the game. He has proved his mental fortitude before and I expect him to do it again.

      3. I agree that Zaheer is on his way out. I’m sure the management believe he is a vital cog when the South African tour comes along; but they will need to manage him well to get the most out of him. After that tour, I don’t think he can do much more. Time for the young guns to step up, and while they don’t look promising, let’s just wait and watch.

      Apart from that, some good positives from the likes of Pujara, Kohli, Ashwin and Ojha. More than their scores, the way Pujara and Kohli batted, I’m confident they have the skills to succeed overseas. The next 8 tests will be a good way to build up their confidence before they head abroad. As for Ashwin and Ojha, it was good to see that they delivered on the hype. Bigger challenges await, but they seem to have a good head on their shoulders.

    1. yea, I forgot to mention the slip catching. Sehwag was brilliant, and Dravid-Laxman’s absence in the cordon was not felt. Umpiring? Well, that’s another topic, totally🙂

      I was initially a big fan of Sehwag moving down the order, but after taking a quick look at the way Sehwag has fared against spinners recently, I’m not too sure if that is going to work as well.

  2. I have completely given up on the Viru middle order idea because off late he just can’t resist himself against spinners.

    MSD has made it clear that he wants turning tracks against England & Australia and I genuinely think we may well be looking at 3 spinners and just 1 seamer

    1. If at all, Dhoni decides to go with 3 spinners, he has to to go in with 6 batsmen and include Pathan as an all-rounder. Going in with just 1 fast bowler is, in many ways, a regressive step.

  3. The IKP thing just can’t happen sadly because our top order is playing so poorly . I don’t see 3 spinners as a regressive step at all, if MSD gets the tracks he wants he is going to do it I reckon

  4. Wonderful analysis. There was plenty to be done. Plans should have been in place before the World Cup irrespective of the result of that tournament. Be that as it may, there was a seriously long break after the 0-8 during which the delayed protocols and plans could have been sorted out.
    If Sachinism propped up Indian cricket in the past, today the same is dragging it down. Other stars are riding on the non-performance consideration given to the precedence setter. Yes, we also have to take a hard look at the openers. and develop a bowling unit as well.

    I somehow am of the opinion that Raina will prosper with eventually. But he is skating on thin ice.

  5. Fast bowling is the biggest problem, that should take top priority, I think. A declining Zak, a wayward Umesh and an unlucky Ishant aside, I see no other names cropping up. Irfan cannot be picked for Tests, but Praveen Kumar should.

    What the selectors are doing now is using Tests as match practice for Yadav and Ishant instead of sending them off to play more FC cricket… county cricket would do them good. If anyone would have them.

  6. I agree with all your points..
    But just feel you haven’t justified the reason why SRT is allowed to fail and be retained for his ‘experience’ while Gauti and Viru (very experienced batsmen) should be axed after 1 more chance..
    IMO, give all 3 one more series.. If the performance repeats, then give way to the next gen..

    1. Experience is of no use, when there is lack of performance. SRT averages 48.45 in the last two years despite all the talk about his travails. Sehwag averages 37.26, and I will grant that he might just have more leeway than Gambhir who averages 30.31 in the same time period with no centuries.

  7. In the last year, Gambhir (27.12), Sehwag (35.68) and Tendulkar (35.50) have all been disappointing, and there is not much to separate between them. This period also coincided with India’s falling performances in Tests. That is why I went one year further and accounted for when India were doing relatively well.
    Apart from that, dropping Tendulkar would mean that there would be extreme pressure on 4 youngsters to perform straight away against top class sides. In the case of the openers, I concede that it might not be possible to drop both of them at the same time, but if I had to pick between the two, Gambhir would have to go, considering his Test form has been relatively worse than Sehwag.

    1. That’s my point.. they have all been equally disappointing in the last one year. Hardly contributing in any sense. I am not anti-SRT, but your article hardly gave any justification as to why keep him over the other two, and that’s why I asked you the question. I’m one of those who follows the game but doesn’t know the stats, but you guys who write blogs seem to know more and hence we come read.
      I would not mind taking the chance of 4 youngsters against top class sides on home ground vz when we tour outside and Eng minus Strauss and KP are also without their 2 top players.
      Gambhir will remain a mystery.. I can’t believe that there was talk about him being Test captain with the form he’s had.

  8. I think if you look above the stats and just look at the batting you would realise that before this Nz series even though Sachin wasn’t getting big runs but he was looking good with the bat , some of his batting in Australia was absolutely top class but I do agree that in the end the runs you score is all that matters . I am a huge SRT fan so this will seem like a biased opinion but at the moment GG deserves to be dropped much more than Sachin . I have no problem if the selectorp want to go tough and drop all 3 (unlikely) but I just don’t think you can justify dropping Sachin and keeping GG in the team .

  9. I didn’t mention Viru in that for two main reasons, firstly because he hasn’t got big scores but there has no obvious weakness in his batting that I have seen so I think if he applies himself better he would be ok , also I think at home he will be needed with his bowling too. The issue I see with GG and to some extent SRT too is the obvious weaknesses that have cropped up , you can be certain that England will come well prepared and sadly GG has shown nothing to suggest that he is working on his poking problems

  10. Very nice.

    On Dhoni, I am unwilling to pass any judgement on his Test captaincy until this becomes truly his team.

    It was very un-Dhoni like to try nothing different as we lost match after match on the 0-8 run. It tells me that he does not run things independently. I like Dhoni because he has to live with so many seniors in the team who all are legends, great in their own way and who also have influence whether exercised actively or passively; deliberately or by accident

    I think he deserves a run with “his” team where he runs Bell out and does not have a Sachin/Rahul/Laxman second guessing his spirit. I have no basis for this optimism but I believe that India’s best days will come when Sachin retires. If Sachin were captain like Border was and busy laying a foundation for sustained dominance, I would say be my guest and play as long as you wish. Over the last 18 months after the WC Sachin is a liability to the team and I think he has been showered enough love and affection for whatever he has achieved. Kohli lifted him as a symbolic guesture after the WC we are now literally ‘carrying’ him in the team

  11. Sorry but considering he averages more than Viru,GG and Raina over the last one year I don’t so who exactly is ‘carrying him’ .

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