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By Suresh Menon
The world’s best cricket teams have either a swagger or a quiet confidence that sends out a message. When the West Indies were steamrolling the opposition in the 1980s, it was swagger, and built around their ferocious pace attack which destroyed the minds and bodies of the opposition. It was part of the tactics to go for the opposition’s best batsman and rough him up. Once the best got into trouble, morale seldom rose above boot-lace level. The close-up of England batsman Mike Gatting’s broken nose was the emblematic photograph of the period.
With Australia , the next generation of the world’s best, it was more a quiet confidence, especially under Steve Waugh, not a man given to making dramatic gestures. Shane Warne might have been a showman (and unlucky not to have led Australia in his time), and exuded self-confidence bordering on arrogance. But the Glenn McGraths and the Mark Taylors and later the Pontings and Gilchrists saw no need to make a big deal of their superiority. It was taken for granted; a psychological ploy that was just as effective.
What was common to the two phases, however, was the penetrative bowling attacks and an attitude to risk-taking that led to positive results. Confidence in their own ability under pressure was so complete that the No 1 teams could conjure victories from impossible situations.
Somehow the current No 1 team in the world does not inspire quite as much as their predecessors. Admittedly, India are handicapped by injuries to their leading bowlers and are loath to take chances that might knock them off their perch at the top. This might be the flip side of the ranking system – teams become so conscious of retaining their spots that the cricket they play tends to be defensive.
It is now established that India do not need to win the third Test in Colombo to keep their ranking. This means they could well go into it seeking a safe draw rather than a risky win.
India are yet to acknowledge that their once powerful, attacking middle order is now an uncertain, defensive one. Domination has been replaced by survival. Cracks have developed, evident even on the batting paradise that was the SSC ground in Colombo where some of the stalwarts looked careworn.
After Suresh Raina’s success, the selectors ought to be kicking themselves for not bringing in youngsters who could play alongside the stars and ensure the transition to the next generation is smooth. Greats do not last forever except in memories and record books.
In his partnership with Sachin Tendulkar, debutant Raina probably learnt more lessons than in his previous five years as an international cricketer. Murali Vijay has done enough in his six Tests to be considered in the middle order even when Gambhir returns. His scores of 33, 41, 87, 30, 32, 58 suggest that a big one is round the corner. He is in the Rahul Dravid mould, but needs to be given the confidence of a long run.
In the short term India need to win the final Test to square the series. In the medium term there is the question of rankings. The long term has suffered in all this because with one generation on the verge of bidding goodbye, we are still uncertain about the replacements. We should have got to know by now.