Once upon a time, cricketing reputations found ballast and mortar from the manner in which a player countered the marauding West Indians. This might surprise the millennial generation, tuned to the domineering traits of Australia, South Africa, England and India. But in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, cricketers yearned to do well in the Caribbean islands or compete hard while hosting the men wearing the maroon cap.
A splendid performance against the then No. 1 team added heft to an individual’s profile and ensured that his name figured in after-dinner conversations when nostalgia soared and the alcohol flowed. Sunil Gavaskar, G. R. Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Dilip Sardesai, to name a few, found that scoring runs against the Windies was considered the ultimate barometer for excellence.
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Hell, even the India coach Ravi Shastri found validation for his batting repertoire through a knock against the West Indies. Shastri scored a gutsy 107 against a fiery pace attack comprising Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop. The venue was Bridgetown, the year 1989, and yes the West Indies, led by the peerless Viv Richards, won by eight wickets.
The back-story is essential to understand how the mighty have fallen — the West Indies is in a state of tumult — and to also appreciate some irony. In the past, there was this iconic poster held in Australian grounds: “Rain, rain go away, come when the Windies come.” Now, in a tragic role reversal, cricketing boards tend to invite the West Indies for a shoe-horned series, featuring Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s, the obvious reason being it is easy to quell the visitor, while old-timers get their tear glands into overdrive. Make no mistake, for every seasoned fan, besides his national team, the second favourite is always the West Indies.
True to the repetitive patterns of history, India, after suffering a 1-4 Test series loss in England and wearing the blue shade to chase Asia Cup glory in Dubai, has welcomed the West Indies again. Through October and the initial weeks of November, two Tests, five ODIs and three Twenty20s are expected to bolster Kohli’s bunch besides gifting a windfall to the broadcaster during the festival season of Dussehra and Diwali.
And yet, a question lingers: What purpose do these matches serve? The query emanates from the dregs of memory, dulled by ennui. Cast your eye to 2011 and you will remember that India suffered a 0-4 whipping from England in Old Blighty. The team then boosted its self-esteem by defeating the visiting West Indians 2-0 in Tests, but the subsequent tour to Australia resulted in a 0-4 drubbing. Back in 2013-14, in a home series seen as a farewell gift to Sachin Tendulkar, India blanked Darren Sammy’s men 2-0 and Rohit Sharma scored two tons. It was a tussle high on feel-good vibes thanks to twin triumphs and, equally, it wrung our hearts as the maestro bid adieu. But what followed was disaster during the away tours of South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia.
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Now, as another set of games between familiar rivals unfolds, we have to accept that the after-effects of this series will be minimal when Kohli’s men fly to Australia for a year-end battle. The Twenty20s might throw up a few players who might keep the IPL talent scouts happy. The ODIs may give a few clues to how the squad can crystallise for next year’s World Cup in England, but the conditions will vary and that awareness will remain a constant headache beyond the ambit of aspirin. And in the Tests, India, still ranked No. 1, has to obviously win against an eighth-placed West Indies.
But, can these Tests in Rajkot and Hyderabad be the ideal base for the searing ones expected in Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney? When observed through the prism of the last decade, it is evident that a bull run against a lame unit has no bearing on the subsequent tours.
Still, there could be some silver linings. Perhaps Kohli and the rest of the think tank can find ways of stabilising the team’s core. The playing XI has been a revolving door and that has bred insecurities.
India’s opening combine is still a work in progress. Murali Vijay has been benched, K. L. Rahul has luminous talent but fails often and Shikhar Dhawan remains tentative in Test whites once he leaves the subcontinent. It doesn’t help that both Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara have been dropped for the odd Test, be it in South Africa or in England. Recently, Test triple-centurion Karun Nair was resigned to carrying the drinks while Hanuma Vihari was flown in from Hyderabad. And Sharma has been tried and dumped.
The only certainty is Kohli, but one man can never build castles. There was a phase in the 1990s when Tendulkar was always the boy on the burning bridge, trying his best and yet finishing on the losing side. But once he found himself within the buddy-embrace of Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman, India had regained its batting mojo. There is a lesson there for Kohli. It is time he lends confidence to his fellow batsmen.
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India’s bowling is more settled and that is one worry less. It is time for Team India to find its unified voice. It is a goal that has to be achieved in the coming months and it is also time to stop this endless bout of self-congratulation with the dubious claim that the present group is the best-ever.
If the coach could turn the clock back, he would find himself scoring a 206 in Sydney in 1992 and also putting to the sword a debutant leg-spinner answering to the name of Shane Warne! Press ahead by all means, but don’t turn a blind eye to previous summers wrapped in the mists of time.