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By Suneer Chowdhary
At the outset I still believe that MS Dhoni, or any cricket captain should have the right to expect a home track that assists his team. It is hogwash to vilify a side wanting a pitch that works in his favour. Dhoni was well within his rights to wish for his choice surface and that the team exhibited an appalling on-field performance at Mumbai should not take away from this fact.
The point now, however, is that Dhoni is stuck in a catch-22 situation around the nature of tracks that he would want for the remaining games. Talks of a 4-0 victory evaporated soon after Monty Panesar scythed through the now-inexperienced, out-of-form and greatly weakened batting line-up on the third evening of the game. And on the fourth morning, India’s worst fears had come true. If losing at home wasn’t bad enough, they had gone down for the count on a track tailor-made for their side. That against a side with known deficiencies on these surfaces and with the capitulation completed by a spin bowling attack, an area perceived to be the Indian batting strength.
Not so long ago, the Indian batting line-up was classified as one of the best in the world at home. It oozed of class, led by modern greats like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, not to mention the grittiness of Sourav Ganguly down the order. All but one of them are now gone and the baton needed to be passed to the next-gen seniors, who along with the richly talented, but inexperienced greenhorns needed to take the side into the near future.
Except that when it comes to Indian Test cricket, the only experienced heads are at the top of the order and both struggling to retain their places in the team. Much has been made about their lack of run-making but more surprising is their defiant stance in the media, one that reeks of stubbornness and a refusal to admit that things have gone pear-shaped for them.
A third such senior is the captain and anyone else in his place would have had his position in the team questioned repeatedly by now, both as a leader and a batsman. Strangely though, he remains immune from the repercussions of these prickly issues, especially in this format of the game.
Tendulkar’s form has been dissected ad nauseam as well. Retirement has been a topic that has never been as vehemently discussed as it is now, after what the pundits regard as a clear slowing down of reflexes and the resultant no-shows as far as run-scoring is concerned. The chinks that were first exposed and then put down to greenness of English and Australian tracks in the last 18 months, have widened considerably enough for spinners to sneak through his defences.
A middle-of-series retirement of an iconic player that Tendulkar is, can only add as a distraction to the fledgling Indian chances of winning it convincingly.
And as if the prolonged rut for the four of the top seven was not enough, the Indian spinners were average at best on a Mumbai pitch that seemed to suit them as much as the one on a green Headingley track. Except that it was much browner, took more turn and had Monty Panesar taking 11 cheap wickets.
So what does the Indian captain do going into the remaining two matches? Does he still clamour for a pitch that will take turn from day one, at the expense of ruthlessly exposing his underwhelming batsmen while hoping that his spinners come good? Or does he go back to the age-old and tried and tested formula that the previous captains have fallen back upon – try and get the curator to dole out a flat track that allows the batsmen to score a truckload and play the game of patience with the opposition batsmen, much like what happened in the English second innings at Ahmedabad?
The former is an aggressive ploy; one if back-fired could see India looking at the stunning possibility of a home series defeat. The second is a slightly defensive ploy that might stoke the collective batting egos but may not bring the results India wants from this series. Truth be told, one way or the other, this tricky situation could make following the lead-up to the Kolkata game a lot of fun.
(Suneer Chowdhary is a Mumbai-based sports journalist who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)