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By Suresh Menon
The American mathematician Sam Saunders has a lovely analogy about how certain truths creep up on us. A frog placed in hot water will struggle to escape, he points out, but the same frog placed in cold water that is slowly warmed up will sit peacefully until it is cooked. Indian cricket is in hot water, but it has become hot so slowly that no one has noticed. But after six away defeats in a row, it is time to shed sentiment and wield the axe.
Some veterans will have to be politely asked to hand in their resignations, others will have to be told to perform or perish and youngsters will have to be given the confidence to fill in the rather large shoes. Easier said than done, of course. But changes are best made when the team is en route to the bottom, not after they get there.
Of 27 Tests abroad since Boxing day 2007, the start of their last tour of Australia, India have won only four outside the subcontinent while losing 12 overall. More to the point, despite the reputation as the finest batting side in the world during that period, they have managed to play 100 overs in an innings just nine times in 53 outings. In the same period, they lost only two of 22 home matches (both to South Africa).
Perhaps we were spoilt by the proximity to the natural born strikers of the cricket ball. The Tendulkars, Dravids, Laxmans, Gangulys and Sehwags made everything look so easy and performed with such authority for so long that we turned a blind eye to their diminishing powers. The selectors got caught up in the hype too, and seemed to have no plan for the transition with the result that like a frog jumping out of hot water, an entire middle order will abruptly retire, leaving a gaping hole.
In recent years, India have looked down upon the craftsman, the one who builds an innings, who shows patience and above all the one who stays. On a previous tour of Australia while the middle order scored individual centuries and double centuries, the one who set it up (and with specific instructions to see the new ball through), Akash Chopra, was dropped for slow scoring. All he had been doing was following orders, and the results were apparent. This strategy has been understood only two tours later when the lack of a good start exposed the middle order.
And it isn’t just Chopra. Unglamorous but effective players like M Vijay, Wasim Jaffar and others have paid the price for the obsession with flamboyance.
Watching Clarke and Ponting run threes with ease and the entire team chase down everything on the field, the essential difference between the teams was clear. Indian sportsmen are not athletes. Whether it is a cultural or a temperamental issue, the fact remains that Indians lack the confidence that comes from physical fitness. Boundaries are compensation for the reluctance to run. Physical fitness can make the ordinary player look outstanding but lack of it makes the outstanding player look ordinary.
It is never easy to tell a long-serving employee that his time is up. But it is a job that has to be done, and done with as much dignity as possible. V V S Laxman certainly looks out of it – making big hundreds needs fitness and he doesn’t look the part at the moment. Dravid is not the same player who stood alone on the burning deck in England.
Before the start of the slide in England, India had won more matches abroad than they had lost in the new century. But the dream is over. It is time for change.