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By Suresh Menon
Where do India go from here? Even in the days when they were lambs abroad, they were usually tigers at home. Now they are pussycats, rolling over to have their tummies tickled. What is needed is not so much a new team, as a new culture. Mahendra Singh Dhoni might have saved his place in the eleven with his 99 in Nagpur, but he did little to suggest in the final Test that he would be the man to lead the team out of its current mess.
For one, he seemed more keen on ensuring England did not win 3-1 than in attempting to throw everything into a victory charge. There was no urgency, no sharpness, no attempt at hustling the opposition, no understanding of the simple fact that a defeat is a defeat is a defeat. Whether 1-2 or 1-3. The rudderless batting on the fourth morning when just 29 runs were put on in the first hour said everything.
For a new culture to develop – these things take time – two things are essential. Dhoni must make way for a more committed, energetic captain. And Sachin Tendulkar, who is part of the old culture, and sadly, seems to be perpetrating its worst elements – smugness, individual ambition over team needs – must go. And the support staff, starting with the coach Duncan Fletcher, must be replaced.
England played superbly as a team, and there is no shame in losing to such a professional, self-aware outfit. It is not the loss that rankles so much as the manner of it, the fight knocked out of a once-great team, the debates at the level of pitches that turned from day one. England had the better spinners, the better medium pacers, the better fielders and the better batsmen. But that wasn't apparent in the first Test at Ahmedabad where India won comfortably.
What India did not take into account was the determination of the captain Alastair Cook, a determination that communicated itself to his colleagues. The story of the series is the story of one team building itself around the pillar that was their captain while the other disintegrated under the a tired, unimaginative, uninspiring leader.
Perhaps the defeat was the best possible thing to have happened to India. Sometimes you need a poke in a sensitive place to be made aware of the obvious. This team had been on the downswing for at least a year, cetainly since the tours of England and Australia. Yet, the sheer momentum of past performances was expected to carry it through.
What didn't work for the team, the momentum of the past, is not working for its most successful batsman either. If it wasn't clear earlier, then the recent series has made it obvious even to the most ardent fans of Tendulkar. That such a great judge of length and line can no longer trust his judgement on either, or indeed be relied upon to bring his knowledge of time and space into the question of quitting means that the decision will have to be made for him. By the selection committee. Unless, of course, someone like Rahul Dravid can speak to him and explain how Tendulkar is torturing himself and his supporters around the world with his struggles. How much longer can he bat from memory?
Had Tendulkar retired after the World Cup victory last year, he would have retained his aura forever, and perhaps even earned a Bharat Ratna. Now it will take a while before the final desperate innings are forgotten.
Tough, unsentimental decisions have to be made – Indian cricket has been stagnating for long enough.
Indian cricket hasn't been big on accountability. It is a reflection of the policy of the cricket board, and has kept the captain in his seat without having to take responsibility for defeats.
Indian cricket is at the crosroads. One path leads to the IPL, the other to more Test match defeats if these are seen merely as the price for wearing white clothes on the field.
Transition is never easy. Four decades ago, India's most charismatic captain was removed from his post when the chairman of the selection committee used his casting vote. Thus did Vijay Merchant bring to an end the Pataudi era. The man who took over had not even been sure of his place in the team, yet Ajit Wadekar led the side to series wins in the West Indies and England and a new era was born. India put their faith in youth.
It is time to put faith in youth once more.