Ashen India, England & the Ashes

RAJU BHARATAN

Tiger Pataudi is of the opinion that Indians create heroes only to pull them down.-R.V. MOORTHY

EVEN as Michael Vaughan's England demonstrably deserved The Ashes, Sourav's India plunged into a Zimbabwelter of controversy. Zimbabwe and India thus illumined none but each other. For Team India, after that ODI Harare final fiasco, emerged — for all its Bulawayo Test resurgence — as an ODI side eminently forgettable. Eminently forgettable because not all the eminence of the `Best Test Batting Side In The World' is any longer of any tangible ODI worth. Indian cricket stands most disturbingly devalued.

The very way Vijay Hazare's India shed all credibility when our team was bowled out twice (in less than a day) for 58 and 82. Kasturi Srinivasan, as The Hindu's path-breaking editor, keenly motored down from London to the Manchester Test scene that Saturday afternoon (of July 19, 1952). Only to be a mordant historical eyewitness to the fateful fall (all within five hours) of India's 20th wicket — Ghulam Ahmed c Ikin b Lock 0. Zero hour for Indian cricket it so was, even if no one had accused the to-be-Sania-connected Ghulam Ahmed of batting talent! Just hours before the 58-&-82 nadir in that July 1952 third Test, what an Old Trafford object-lesson — in the grammar of batsmanship — had been neo-skipper Len Hutton while crafting 104. On an OT wicket wearing visibly, as the Manchester rain fell in intermittent filaments of silver.

Ha, Len Hutton! I was there at the London press conference called to announce that the MCC was breaking with long-time tradition in announcing this `opener's opener' as the first professional to captain England. This for the 1952 four-Test series due against India. India therefore should have been the theme of certain sharp media questions during that press conference. But Vijay Hazare's India, believe it or not, earned not a media mention at that conference! So healthy was the English Fourth Estate's contempt for our cricketing skills. Indeed every single query to Len Hutton, as England's breakthrough professional captain, pertained to The Ashes series to follow a full year later — in the 1953 English summer! Pertained to the series Len Hutton's England was to win 1-0. For Jack Fingleton to come up with the topically titled book: The Ashes Crown The Year (Elizabeth II became the Queen in 1953).

How diminished I felt to be viewing my India's being overlooked as of no cricketing consequence whatsoever! It is, stuntingly, the very same parlous position Sourav's India is leading up to — by end-2005. There is no indictment more severe than for Indians, as a viewing tribe, to have dismissed their team as inevitable chokers where it comes to making an ODI meal of the opposition. So often, by now, have watchers forgiven The Men In Blue that India, as a team that really ODI-delivers, stands all but forgotten. Looking a team born with a wooden spoon in its mouth!

Look at the pride of performance that went into England's retaining its 2-1 grip on the rubber. For a fiercely motivated team to hit, at long last, The Ashes trail. Rewind to the grim resolution with which Ricky Ponting's Australia approached The Oval Test, right up to the finish, in a never-say-bye effort to retain the mantle of World Champions. Picture the way Shane Warne struck all through The Ashes face-off. For all his off-field peccadilloes, Shane thus came through as the quintessential Australian. From villain to hero, Shane Warne came full circle with his parabolic slows.

Could we ever hope, now, to view this scale of Aussie commitment in the India team of today?

Never was India's cricket image so tarnished. Not even when Len Hutton handed Vijay Hazare's India a `0-for-4' beating. Actually, 4-0 Len Hutton should have swept that 1952 series, not won just 3-0. Rain alone saved India from an abysmal `6-for-5' predicament in that fourth and final Oval Test.

Any wonder Len Hutton chose summarily to ignore India, as any sort of opposition, at his maiden press conference as England captain? His attitude of mind is to be gauged from the resonant retort with which Len Hutton came up to the poser whether England — having been totally outplayed by Australia after The War — could entertain any hope, at all, in The Ashes series on the 1953 anvil. "I'd be surprised if my England didn't go on to beat Australia 5-0!" came back Len Hutton. `O Captain! My Captain!' said it with total conviction. Going on to turn the tables on Lindsay Hassett's Australia.

Sourav's India, too, did once threaten to take on Australia with that sensational 2-1 March 2001 rubber win at home. Followed by that upbeat 1-1 finish in Australia, when Parthiv Patel stumped — with his Sydney Test pads — Adam Gilchrist (0). But any such world challenge we hurl ultimately turns out to be a mirage. Border on the Gavaskar-absurd does the idea of Sunil's venturing to offer India's seasoned strikers batting lessons on TV, instant TV. This after Sourav's India had won the esteem of such a no-holds-barred England captain as Nasser Hussain.

The (1971) way here, of course, had been led by Ajit Wadekar, returning to India (from England) with his `team of world-beaters' on, coincidentally, September 12. India then, following its first-ever (1-0) rubber-win in the West Indies (over Gary Sobers & Co), had overcome — again 1-0 against near insuperable odds — Ray Illingworth's England. A Ray Illingworth fresh from having won back The Ashes. Won no less English head-spinningly than now. So that Ray Illingworth's England, logically, should have just overrun Ajit Wadekar's India. Yet England, when riding Cloud-Nine high, had no counter to the Indian spin revolution. Masterminded, with flair and air, by Chandra, Bedi and Venkat. Oddly, so full of The Ashes was all England (by June 1971) that its shock maiden loss of a home series to India, here, did not appear really to sting the nation. Only Ken Barrington, always the pragmatist, frankly conceded: "The emergence of India as a leading cricket power has not surprised me."

"That 1-0 win over England by India was the non-event of the year!" dismissively noted Paul Waide, as he interviewed me in the `Sportscall' programme of the BBC World Service while I was in England, end-1972. "After The Ashes win to treasure, may be Ray Illingworth and his England didn't really feel disposed to take India too seriously," rationalised Paul Waide.

"We paid for complacently underestimating your world-class spin, of course. Tell me, what's the mood in India, now that you are a rising power in the game?"

"The mood in India," I observed, "is one of dangerous self-deception. With no pace at all, are we really a rising power in the game?" We weren't, as Ajit Wadekar found out upon India's being whitewashed 3-0 by Mike Denness's England in the Blighty summer of 1974. Tiger Pataudi put it in a walnut-shell when he wrote: "We Indians create heroes so that we could pull them down. We have this extraordinary habit of collapsing just when there seems to be every reason to succeed." Are things any different to this day — when we encounter quality opposition? From the Bhopal Tiger to the Bengal Tiger, the style of seesawing is pre-eminently the same.