When it was announced last year that in 2018-19 India would be travelling to South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand, Indian cricket lovers were excited. This was the chance for their team to show that they were the real number one by winning in these countries and not simply by the accumulation of points with wins in their own backyard and neighbouring countries. They had every reason to be optimistic as the performance of the Indian team, albeit in familiar conditions and against none too strong opposition, had been tremendous. The optimism was also built on the fact that for once India had bowlers who were capable of taking 20 wickets anywhere in the world. That, along with a strong batting line-up led by their skipper Virat Kohli, would give them enough runs to win in the SENA countries.
There is an old saying that if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. The uncertainty in the BCCI with all their office-bearers being rendered ineffective and inactive thanks to the Supreme Court appointed CoA and the CAC not being reconstituted meant that there was hardly anybody to take cricketing decisions that would help the team get a schedule where they could prepare for these tours.
The commitment to the TV rights holders meant that instead of going to South Africa two weeks in advance and play some practice games the team had to play meaningless one-day and T20 internationals against the Lankans. A two-day practice game was also cancelled and so the team entered the first Test without being match tested. Not surprisingly, the batsmen were at sea against the bouncing and moving ball and couldn’t chase a paltry score in the fourth innings. The story was still the same in the second Test where the much vaunted batsmen were unable to support the magnificent effort of their bowlers. Then, in the third Test on a pitch with variable bounce they won when their bowlers defended a smallish target.
One would have thought they had learnt from that tour but they got carried away with their performances in the limited-overs white ball cricket that followed the Test matches and thought that it was the acclimatisation that did the trick. So, when it came to the tour of England where the limited-over internationals were played before the five-match Test series, they thought they would be ready for it. They didn’t reckon that the red ball moves a lot more and for far longer than the white ball does and playing on the rise and through the line, like in limited-overs, is extremely risky. There was a 14-day gap between the end of the one-day series — India lost 1-2 — and the start of the first Test. Guess what? They had families in London so they were given time to switch off and even a scheduled four-day game was reduced to a three-day game.
The captain went on record saying what’s the point playing a practice game where the opposition may not be Test class? But then a county team or a State or Ranji team will seldom be Test class though some of their players may be, with some aspiring to play for their country. And, wasn’t the captain the one who was prepared to miss a Test match and go play county cricket so he could be ready for the tour? So then, why does he think the practice games don’t matter?
Make no mistake, the captain is an exceptional talent and like he showed in the series he didn’t need any practice to score heaps of runs. But what about the others? With the greatest of respect they are not as talented and needed the practice games more than the skipper did. Irrespective of the quality of the opposition, the fact of staying at the wicket and scoring and running singles, twos and the occasional three and getting miles under their feet and oxygen into their lungs is unmatchable. Similarly, for the bowlers bowling into the wind or with it behind them and watching for no balls and getting a good rhythm is much more valuable than bowling 30-odd deliveries in the nets. There is no point trying to shift the blame on a departed soul saying he had fixed the schedule a couple of years back and so it couldn’t be changed. One phone call or e-mail is what would have had counties scurrying to host a team with Virat Kohli in it.
Then the selection of the playing XI was hard to understand. The great West Indian and Australian teams in the past always played with four bowlers, with one of the batsmen turning his arm over mainly to relieve the regular bowlers, but these were too far and few in between.
Despite repeated failures in batting the stubbornness in going with only five specialist batsmen was not just inviting trouble but taking its hand and bringing it into the change room.
Australia, without Smith and Warner, may be vulnerable but unless the Indian team gets out of its bubble and opens its eyes to possibilities other than the stereotype ones we have seen in South Africa and England, our cricket lovers will have little to celebrate when 2019 arrives.
Believe me, those who criticise do so only because they know the potential of this team and are hurting as much as the players at the wasted opportunities in the last nine months.