Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Season of Shame - I

With England finally completing their tour of India & the Ranji season being a couple of days away from its end, it feels like the right time to look back on Indian cricket over the past season. Yes, the Aussies are yet to tour but I will come to it later. Also, this is the first of two parts as writing about the entire season in one post would've made it too lengthy for my liking. (Part 2)

India's home season started amidst a lot of turmoil. While Rahul Dravid had announced his retirement well in advance, VVS Laxman decided 5 days before the start of the first test against New Zealand that it was time for him to retire. There were reports that he had trained hard at the NCA and played club cricket to prepare for the test series but when he was given an ultimatum by one of the selectors he decided to walk away.

If these reports were indeed true, this was one among many cases of poor planning and co-ordination among the people running and representing Indian cricket. The selectors, the coaching staff, and the captain had months to figure out if they wanted Laxman in the side, whether they had a deadline in mind after which Laxman wouldn't be picked even if he were available. Yet, none of this happened and we were left with a major hole in the middle order.

The two-test series went by with Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli showing a lot of promise with the bat while Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha continuing to dominate batsmen who were ill-equipped to play spin.

There were, however, concerns about the opening pair as neither Gambhir nor Sehwag managed to score a hundred. Gambhir's run of innings without a hundred went back to January 2010 & spanned 40 innings while Sehwag hadn't scored a hundred in his last 30 innings going back to November 2010. Gambhir went so far as to pointing out their average as an opening pair was 53 and that people who talked about them not contributing should look at the stats. Equally worrying was the form of Sachin Tendulkar who hadn't scored a hundred in his last 24 innings - his longest run of scores without a hundred in his 23-year career.

None of this seemed to worry the new selection panel which picked an almost identical squad for the England series. The only changes were Yuvraj Singh replacing Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh replacing Piyush Chawla. Neither Yuvraj nor Harbhajan had put in a prolonged run of good performances in first class cricket. Harbhajan, infact, had struggled to take wickets for Essex in the second division of County cricket in the 2012 season.

Things were just as ridiculous off the field as BCCI officials claimed that the India and England would not be competing for the Nawab of Pataudi trophy, as the trophy was named after Anthony de Mello - One of the founders of the BCCI. Never in all these years had the board informed its fans about this, not even in 2008 when England toured India for the first time after the Nawab of Pataudi Trophy had been so named. Clearly, the babus took precedence over the cricketers when it came to being recognised.

The first test came & went as most people expected it to. India put up a big first innings total thanks to typical knocks from Sehwag and Pujara. It helped that England made the mistake of playing a third seamer in place of Monty Panesar. They appeared clueless in their first innings and although they put up a spirited fight in the second innings, India went on to win the match by 9 wickets. There was some bad news for India as Umesh Yadav was declared unfit for the second test. He had looked the most effective of the five seamers in Ahmedabad with his ability to reverse the ball at high pace and an unusual accuracy. There was no comment on how long he would be out, although anyone who has followed Indian cricket long enough would have known he would play no further part in the series.

The second test was played on a proper turning track. Both teams played an extra spinner. India seemed to have an advantage by winning the toss but threw it away with an awful start which saw them reduced to 119-5. They recovered to post a decent total of 327 but followed it up with some very average bowling from Ashwin and Harbhajan. Alastair Cook laid a rock-solid platform with his second hundred of the series, but Kevin Pietersen played the innings of the series to give England a lead of 86. India lost 7 wickets in a session and that was pretty much the end of their challenge as England won the test by 10 wickets.

Those who thought it couldn't get worse were proven wrong in the third test at Kolkata. Some incredibly terrible running from Gautam Gambhir cost the side Sehwag and Pujara in the first and second innings respectively. The two were the only ones to score a hundred in the series upto that point and seeing them get run out thanks to someone who has always been terrible between the wickets was all the more frustrating. To make matters worse, the musical chairs in the slip cordon saw Pujara in shin pads fielding at first slip when Alastair Cook nicked one on 17. The England captain went on to score 190. The incident epitomised the difference in the fielding of the two sides. The visitors took the series lead after another horrible session for hosts in which they lost 6 wickets.

The fourth test was one of the most snoozeworthy matches in recent memory as neither side was able to score freely or take wickets. It was baffling to see such a pitch when the home team was in desperate need of a win. England were more than happy to play out a draw and win their first series in India in 28 years. It was also India's first loss at home since 2004. Gambhir and Tendulkar extended their run of innings without a hundred by 7 innings while Ashwin proved that he had a long way to go before people consider him a top class test bowler.

To put things into perspective, the team that beat India in 2004 had Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, and Michael Clarke making his debut. Even they needed a rained out final day in Chennai, a green top in Nagpur & a half-fit Tendulkar who missed the first two tests to conquer their final frontier. Siddharth Monga captured the decline of India's test side with a collection quotes from various people over the past few months. You know things are bad when everyone right from top board officials to players still making a mark in test cricket refuse to accept the reality of India's decline into an average test side.

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