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By Suresh Menon
The social media has made instant pundits of casual fans to such an extent that it is possible Virat Kohli would have been told all about his weakness outside his off stump, his misguided insistence on playing at everything there and what Shane Warne thought of his batting even as he walked back to the pavilion at Old Trafford – if he bothered to pull out his phone to check.
From 24-hour news cycles we know have instantaneous appraisals. In the old days, captains and managers insisted that no player should read the newspaper while playing a Test match. It is a little more difficult to tell today’s players not to look at their messages on the phone.
When he was captain, Sourav Ganguly called his job the second most important after that of the country’s Prime Minister. It may have been an understatement. When India lose a Test match abroad – something that happens with alarming regularity now – it seems more people are affected than a misplaced comma in a WTO statement that throws the government into a tizzy.
Three years ago, when India lost 0-4 in England, it was put down to an ageing team; now we lose because we have a young team. Too much experience (is there such a thing?) is the same as too little. There are calls for the captain’s head; luckily for him, his anointed successor Virat Kohli has been failing with a dogged consistency, and we are back to the old Indian cliché of TINA – there is no alternative.
Yet, everybody is convinced that something needs to be done. Whatever Dhoni’s skills as a limited-overs captain (and his record is remarkable), in the Test arena he swings between the sublime and the ridiculous, some of his moves earning the former label only in hindsight. A reluctance to make changes, to hustle the opposition, to make things happen rather than let things happen has been a characteristic for years now. After the Lord’s Test which India won, Ishant Sharma gave him credit for insisting that he bowl short. It worked, and India went one-up. And then Dhoni decided to sit on the lead – always a mistake in any sport – and this negative approach cost India.
Now Ishant is injured, Bhuwavenshwar Kumar looks tired, Mohammed Shami has already been dropped, Stuart Binny does not have the skipper’s confidence – yet it is the batting which is the cause for the bigger worry.
How much has an overload of IPL matches – where it does not matter where your feet are so long as the ball is hit out of the stadium – affected the techniques of India’s players? And what is coach Duncan Fletcher doing about this? The top half of the batting is struggling with swing – neither reading it correctly nor responding with confidence. But when they struggle against an off spinner like Moeen Ali who might struggle to find a place as a bowler in some of our Ranji teams, then you know it is about both technique as well as temperament.
In different circumstances, the likes of Gautam Gambhit would have torn into Moeen, yet here they were offering him their wickets on a platter. Then too there is the matter of India’s catching, especially close in. Alistair Cook was not only reprieved early at Old Trafford, he was allowed to bat himself back into form. Only a few days earlier, he had appeared to be on the verge of losing both his captaincy and his place in the team; now he is a national hero.
When a team is dismissed twice in fewer than 90 overs, questions must be asked of everybody. Especially when the best batting on display comes from the No.8 Ravichandran Ashwin. The English bowling was good and professional; the Indian batting was terrible and amateurish. One team’s peak coincided with the other’s trough.
Dhoni’s choices at this stage are limited. The Ravindra Jadeja experiment has come unstuck. Perhaps there is a call for picking two different national squads – one to play at home and the other away. Jadeja might wear the mask of the all rounder at home, but abroad he does not make it as either batsman or bowler. If for nothing else, he should be dropped for giving Jimmy Anderson the charge the first ball. A great all rounder like Kapil Dev was dropped for less.
It is better to play five (or six) pure batsmen and five (or four) full bowlers than a half-batsman and half-bowler who contributes in neither discipline. Perhaps the call is for five bowlers for the Oval Test which India have to win to restore some credibility and pride. Accommodating Jadeja has meant that the team has lacked balance – the opposite of what including an all-rounder is meant to do.
Since July 2011, India have played 16 Tests abroad, and lost 12, all but one under the captaincy of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. This is a miserable record for India’s most successful captain. In 57 Tests overall, Dhoni has led India to only four wins outside the subcontinent. There is pressure on him as India prepare for the final Test at the Oval. No longer will the odd series win in India compensate for the embarrassing performances abroad.