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Team India and the merits of minnows: Lessons from history
by Suneer Chowdhary
Jun 26, 2008
The Asia Cup pits the three better teams of the cricketing world against Bangladesh, U.A.E. and Hong Kong, and had it not been for the total lack of excitement that the tournament has generated, question marks may just have been raised over the participation of the latter two. In all probability, it is the involvement of these meaningless international matches that has taken the sheen off this tournament. Many arguments have been placed for and against the participation of such minnows, but as one saw in the 2007 World Cup - or any of the previous ones for that matter - the more fancied need to resist the temptation of becoming a little too complacent, else, the combination of a bad day in the office and a worse format to boot, could spell doom for such teams. It would be worth mentioning here that the World Cup 2007 had seen two of these Asian teams crashing out after losing to the likes of Bangladesh and Ireland.

Team India on its part; have been guilty of almost seeming bored on occasions, when the opposition has been an unheralded one. Time and again, the opponents have seemed to be in woeful touch, the Indian team has had a measure of them, and then, against the run of play, lost an encounter they should have never lost.

It was as early as in 1979 that Team India had crashed to a rather lop-sided loss to Sri Lanka, a team that had yet to win Test status. In the list of the 'yet-to' there was another entry, and that was the fact the Lanka had yet to win an ODI till before this win! The Indian bowling may not have been extraordinarily great at that time, but getting rid of only five Sri Lankan batsmen in 60 overs was definitely shocking and India went on to lose the match by 47 runs. Shock assumes different meanings to varied entities, but beating West Indies in the first match of the 1983 World Cup was a definite shocker. However, since the topic of discussion is not wins, this was followed by a match against first-timers Zimbabwe. But for, what was then the only ODI century by an Indian, the pleasantness of the win against West Indies was all set to get embittered. At 17/5 and then 78/7 against some innocuous swing bowling, India looked all but beaten, when Kapil Dev smashed an unbeaten 175 - deemed as one of the better ODI innings - to pull the Indians out of trouble.

The country of Sri Lanka has generally been a bugbear for the Indians, and for some reason the Indian teams have found it difficult to adjust to the slowish wickets there. This was the case even in 1985, when after winning the Benson and Hedges World Championships and the four nations Rothmans Cup - without losing a single match - the Indians toured Sri Lanka. They scraped through in the first encounter, but did not get so lucky in the second - and lost by 14 runs. Totally against the run of play, one may add! And just like Sri Lanka in the 1980s, Zimbabwe began to trouble India with their never-say-die attitude and sticky fielding in the 1990s. One such encounter was the tied ODI of the Hero Cup in 1993, when the Zimbabweans made a couple of comebacks into the match. From almost 200/3, India was restricted to 248 only, and then with four batsmen making contributions of 20s and 30s, Zimbabwe managed to score one out of the two runs they needed for a victory. I may be crucified for including South Africa in this list, but in 1991, they were only playing in their first ever ODI series. India had won the first two and the final match was being played at Delhi. In a day and age when the score of 300 was a luxury and an almost definite match winning target, India had got to 287/4, riding on the acting captain Ravi Shastri and Sanjay Manjrekar's centuries. What was expected to be a facile win for the Indians - and a 3-0 final scoreline - turned out to be South Africa's win with consummate ease. South Africa had triumphed with eight wickets and almost four overs to spare!

Getting back to Zimbabwe, they were not done with India yet. They held the Indians to another tie, and then beat them in the same tri-nation series in South Africa in 1997, to make it almost impossible for the Indians to qualify for the finals. The tied match at Paarl, had almost slipped out of India’s hands, and it was Robin Singh's calm under pressure that even brought his team back into contention. It was only due to a masterful century by Sachin Tendulkar that India puffed and gasped its way into the finals. Immediately after this series, Zimbabwe actually managed to win an ODI series against India 1-0. The match that Zimbabwe won was at Bulawayo, and the Indians were roundly thrashed by their now arch-rivals! However, the crescendo for Zimbabwe arrived in the 1999 World Cup, when Team India donated the match away to them; a match, no Indian cricket fan worth his salt could ever forget. I remember the sense of disbelief and helplessness that engulfed my muscles as I watched Robin Singh, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad do a Humpty-Dumpty to lose a match which the team should have won 9,999 times out of ten thousand. This, unfortunately, turned out to be that one lone occasion.

In between the above couple of games, India hosted an as-meaningless-as-meaningless-could-get tri-series against Kenya and Bangladesh in the not-so-cool month of May. Agreed they rested some of their top players, but losing to Kenya with the batsmen of the ranks of a Tendulkar, Sidhu, Azharuddin and Dravid was a strict no-no. It happened. Then the year of 2000 could have seen India exact an appropriate revenge from Zimbabwe by white-washing them 5-0; instead M. Nkala - whose career average barely touched ten - decided that he needed to entertain the Jodhpur audience with some delicate boundaries. Coming in at number eight, his 27-ball 36 ensured that the Indian total of 283 was not going to be adequate to win it for them.

A loss to Kenya and Zimbabwe followed, but the biggest coup would have been an opening match defeat to Netherlands after having being shot out for just over 200. The bowlers came to the party at the nick of time to save the day for India. Then, in 2004 India toured Bangladesh and won all the Tests and ODIs, save one. This sole ODI was India’s for the taking after having restricted the hosts to a 229/9 in the fifty. But none of the batsmen took any onus on to themselves, and complacence cost India dear. Another potential 3-0 rout down the drain.

When India lost the ODI series 4-0 to South Africa, it should have been the signal of the things to come. Yet, when India crashed out of the 2007 World Cup after been outplayed in all the departments of the game by rank outsiders Bangladesh, it had come as a rude shock to sundry and all alike. After all, the thought had almost never passed anyone's mind that a loss to any of the lowly teams in their group could send them packing.

More often than not, these shock losses could be attributed to the combination of the lack of mental preparation, coupled with a healthy dosage of lethargy and the opponent's sudden rise from phoenix to play some out-of-the-skin cricket; not due to India's lack of potential.

Here is where the Asia Cup format evokes a feeling so similar to the 2007 World Cup; especially for the Indians and Pakistanis, who are pitted in the same group. Hong Kong may not be a team which deserves too much respect for now, but in the highly unlikely event of an Indian loss to them, it could be curtains. Team India’s problem over the years, has been the lack of ruthlessness in demolishing opponents. It almost comes across to an observer that the team derives a special thrill in trying to establish level-playing fields against teams that should be brushed aside with disdain. Killer instinct is a notion still alien to the Indian psyche. Despite all the cynics, the minnows still have reason to be optimistic.
 
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