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By Suresh Menon
It is a bit unfair. Ashish Nehra has become the convenient whipping boy in India after his final over against South Africa in the World Cup cost 16 runs. Nehra was, like an undertaker, merely the last man to let the team down. He was low on confidence, on match practice, and perhaps on fitness too. After ignoring him for most of the games, he was suddenly thrust into a crucial game at the deep end.
It was India’s vaunted batting that had ruined it much earlier. When you lose nine wickets for 29 runs in just nine overs, you have no moral right to expect victory. That the bowlers brought them so close is a tribute to them; not that theirs was a particularly inspiring performance either. Munaf Patel looked out of place as he has through the tournament. Skipper Dhoni’s last-over gamble failed – on other occasions they have succeeded – and that was that.
Dhoni volunteered the information at the post-match interview that his team’s fielding was terrible. We knew that. He also said something far more interesting. “You don’t play for the crowd,” he said, speaking of the loss of wickets in the power play, “You play for the country.”
The charge – that his batsmen were a bunch of show-offs who placed personal glory over team effort – is a serious one. Players who are too easily satisfied do not become world champions.
Just how dependant are India on a man approaching his 38th birthday? Sachin Tendulkar is forced to play so many roles in the team that it borders on the ridiculous. First, he is expected to get the team off to a breezy start in the company of Virender Sehwag. Then he is expected to calm down and guide the middle order. Finally, he must ensure that he bats till the 50th over or there is disaster. What are the others in the team for?
At 267 for one, India were fantasizing about a total in excess of 400. Then Tendulkar gets out (reminding us he is human after all), and eight others are so upset they too return in quick succession to keep the Master company in the pavilion.
However well Dale Steyn bowled, he had help from the Indian camp. What was Yusuf Pathan doing at number four with Steyn in action? It upset the rhythm of a youngster like Virat Kohli who has shown in recent months that he is a fine all round batsman. And what was Yuvraj Singh doing slamming a full toss down the throat of the long on fielder?
Batting is meant to be India’s strength, but not on the evidence at Nagpur on a beauty of a wicket which held no terrors. Perhaps that was the problem. The Indians were overconfident, too casual, and believed sheer momentum would carry them through. Such things happen only in fairy tales. In real life you have to work at it.
So far ahead were the batsmen on the run rate (upwards of seven an over) that a typically Indian attitude was dismissed as a minor glitch at the time. But it is an attitude that has cost them matches in the past. This is the habit of slowing down as individual milestones approach. It happened with Tendulkar as he was getting to his 99th international century as well as to Gautam Gambhir en route to his half century.
A double century seemed to beckon Tendulkar, and both his batting and his intensity seemed to suggest that he would get there. It was an intensity lacking in the rest of the batsmen.
Dhoni needs to bang heads together, read the riot act, threaten, punish. He has to get his own captaincy onto a more logical track. If this is not a wake up call, then the alarm has rung in vain for India.