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By Suresh Menon
In the first Test following Sunil Gavasklar’s retirement, India were bowled out for 75 by the West Indies, and went on to lose by five wickets. It was another 19 Tests before India had a century opening partnership. The retirement of Sachin Tendulkar has left the Indian middle order similarly bereft, with only skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni having played over 20 Tests. And even if the middle order in South Africa promises more than the openers did post-Gavaskar, India’s recent record abroad – played eight, lost eight - does not augur well.
Their preparation for South Africa left little time for acclimatisation – a sin on their previous two tours of Australia and England.
Yet if this team in South Africa inspires something more than despair and despondency despite the losses in the one-day series, it has to do with the quality of two players in the middle, Virat Kohli and Cheteswar Pujara. Their records at home have been remarkable, and while each is yet to bring the same authority into their performances abroad, this could be the making of the new India. The media have anointed Kohli as the successor to Tendulkar at No. 4, and the 25-year-old has the game and the temperament to prevent a 0-2 rout of the team. Rahul Dravid said that Pujara is more accomplished than he himself had been at the same age.
Dale Steyn and company are perhaps more of a handful than Allan Donald and friends had been on India’s first tour two decades ago. That team had Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin, fresh from their heroics in England and Australia, yet struggled in South Africa. Donald was on record saying – much like Steyn this time – that Indian batsmen ran from his bowling.
Top batsmen don’t run from the bowling, but sometimes their techniques are exposed. Steyn, one of the all-time greats has pace, movement and bounce, and mastery over any one of those elements alone would have made him a difficult proposition at the best of times. For a young team starting the process of rebuilding, he can loom as a daily nightmare.
Rebuilding a team is a difficult process. And it is useful to remember that India have struggled abroad even in the golden era with the Tendulkars and Dravids and Kumbles and Gangulys in the team.
There are two phases in a team’s journey when they are at their most vulnerable. First, when a young bunch is beginning to come together, and then when an experienced lot is ageing. India lost their previous series because they were an ageing lot. India start as the underdogs now for the opposite reason.
Playing away from home is fraught with difficulties for most teams. England, who beat Australia so comfortably at home have lost the first three Ashes Tests in Australia. In the last decade, England have won 42 of their 68 home Tests (a win-loss ratio of 4.66) but only 17 of their 56 away, while losing 20 for a ratio of 0.85. Likewise, Australia have a win-loss ratio of 5.12 at home, having won 41 of 57 matches, but only 1.33 abroad in comparison. South Africa alone among the top teams have nearly similar ratios, 1.92 at home and 1.63 away.
India have won 28 of their 52 home Tests in the same period (eight losses) for a win-loss ratio of 3.50 and with the same number of wins and losses abroad, 18, they have a ratio of one. Impressive, till you eliminate the Asian opponents, and then the ratio drops to 0.69 after nine wins and 13 losses in 34 Tests.
It is a pity that the two top teams in the world play just a two-match series; it serves little purpose. Chances are that the losers, cricket-wise would be India. If they win a match, there is no possibility of asserting their superiority; if they lose there is little chance of a comeback. It would be futile to play for a draw from the beginning, for that is the road to disaster.
Skipper Dhoni has spoken about the tour being a “learning curve”. This is the language Indian captains of the past spoke. We are here to learn, they would say at the start of every tour of England. Indian cricket has moved on beyond all that. Perhaps Dhoni is trying to provoke his players into teaching rather than learning, and if so that will make for an inspired contest.