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By Suresh Menon
During a break in the Oval Test, perhaps as an antidote to the embarrassment being dished out by the current Indian team, television showed matches of the 2002 tour. Four of that top order – Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman – are in this team, but what has gone out of it is the sheer joy of playing the game. Admittedly, the current Test was the fourth in a series where India had lost the first three, and obviously, everyone was nine years younger, fitter, and at the peak of their powers in 2002.
Still, the change is startling. Gone is the spontaneity, the enthusiasm, the thrill of competition, the sheer passion of playing a sport at the highest level. Tendulkar had already been playing for 13 years by then; Dravid for six. Every fall of wicket was celebrated with an abandon that only those who enjoy what they are doing can bring to their reactions.
Even Dravid, the most poker faced of men on a cricket field, broke into a smile when he took a catch. Harbhajan Singh was all bubble and hustle, he beat batsmen in flight and didn’t seem particularly fussed about keeping the decimal points in his averages under control.
The contrast is significant. It doesn’t look like the Indians enjoy their cricket any more. Their movements are lugubrious, they look like they are merely meeting a contractual obligation. It has got progressively worse since the first Test at Lord’s. Fitness is a serious issue. But watching Dravid carry his bat with amazing strokeplay at one end only heightened the disappointment at the other end where batsmen walked in with the attitude of sheep approaching the slaughter house, and returned with the relief of sheep discovering the butcher was on leave.
India got it wrong from the start, picking a team where the key players were carrying injury and unlikely to contribute. And when a replacement had to be found, they turned back the pages of history for R P Singh.
Why were the medium pacers doing duty for India in the Emerging Players Tournament ignored? They might not have set the Thames on fire, but at least there is a logic to choosing one of them, for theoretically they are just a step away from making it to the national team. And they are in touch. And fitter than a 26-year-old man with the body of a 40-year-old. It is difficult to sympathise with an active cricketer who lets his fitness go haywire merely because he is not in the national team.
The only positive (as losing captains say at the post-match interview) for India has been the emergence of Suresh Raina as a wicket-taking off spinner. He dismissed England’s two best batsmen, and never mind that they had made over 400 runs between them by then. From a batsman who can bowl a bit, he is turning into a bowler who can bat a bit, which is not such a bad thing if it helps the team balance.
It is unlikely that the highly paid selectors will pay for their crimes of omission and commission, and for either knowingly or unwittingly allowing unfit players to tour. If it was done knowingly, they are complicit; if not, they are incompetent.
If a new set of young, enthusiastic players can be readied in time for the tour of Australia at the end of the year, the England debacle might yet have done Indian cricket some good.
Already Sehwag, Zaheer, Harbhajan look like they might be out for the season. The off spinner might return, but he is no longer the attacking bowler he was. If the axe has to be swung, there is no better time than after a debacle.