Chokers on the big stage

For the second time this year, following its debacle in the World Twenty20 Championship, India has failed to qualify for the semifinals of an ICC event. It has largely disappointed in major tournaments. S. Dinakar examines what is wrong with the Indian team.

Once again, it was a case of high hopes and faded dreams. The opportunity for India appeared and disappeared in a hurry. The team failed to seize its chances.

The Indian supporters at Centurion melted away after persistent rain ensured that Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men would not chase any kind of target against Australia. India was on the brink. And when Australia clinched a humdinger against Pakistan a t the same venue later, India, despite a comprehensive victory over the West Indies, was eliminated from the championship.

India’s debacle in the Champions Trophy sends disturbing signals. For the second time this year — after its failure in the World Twenty20 championship — India has not qualified for the semifinals of an ICC event.

It’s true that India has dished out consistent and often winning performances in one-dayers. It even occupied the No. 1 spot, though briefly, in the ODI standings. But then, rankings do not count for much unless a team wins the big tournaments.

In the World Twenty20 in England, and now in the Champions Trophy in South Africa, India didn’t even come close to winning the title. Is the team choking on the big stage?

If you look at India’s performances over the last five years, the side, despite a wealth of talent, has often flattered to deceive in the ICC competitions. Apart from the triumph in the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007 — the format was still in its infancy then — India has little to show for itself in major competitions.

The side’s victorious campaign in the three-nation ODI series down under in 2008 — India overcame Sri Lanka and Australia — was creditable but the team has largely disappointed in major competitions subsequently.

Along the way — despite the hype — some serious shortcomings in the Indian team have been exposed. In the World Twenty20, some of the young Indian batsmen came up woefully short against well-directed short-pitched bowling from the fast bowlers. India was taken by surprise by some hostile bowling from the West Indians, Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards, at Lord’s. The technical chinks of some of the young Indian batsmen — they tended to take their eyes off the ball or attempted meek pulls and hooks without getting into the right position — were visible. They were not rising on their toes and playing with soft hands and a straight blade or swaying away from the line or playing the horizontal shots with authority.

The English pacemen too harried the Indian batsmen with the short ball-fuller length routine. Tied down to the crease by the lifting deliveries, the young Indian batsmen were caught at the crease even when the fuller length balls arrived.

This has been an old failing among the Indian batsmen — there have been a few exceptions though — and the cause for this can be traced to the type of pitches on which Indian domestic cricket is played. The formative years are the most crucial ones for budding cricketers. Habits die hard.

The presence of Sachin Tendulkar in the ODI side and the return of Rahul Dravid — he had been unfairly left out from the side two seasons ago — strengthened the Indian batting for the Champions Trophy.

On the flip side, the absence of Virender Sehwag — recovering from a shoulder surgery — and Yuvraj Singh — he broke a finger before the start of the Champions Trophy — deprived India of match-winners in two crucial slots, at the top and in the middle-order. Yet, a team, as celebrated as India, should possess the depth in talent to overcome such hurdles. Look at how the injury-hit New Zealand rallied — with rare resolve and commitment — in the Champions Trophy.

If the Indian batting was a huge let-down in World Twenty20, the Indian bowling was ordinary in the Champions Trophy. The team missed the crafty left-armer, Zaheer Khan, and the competition did not present the depth in the Indian pace attack in favourable light.

When Pakistan put up a 300-plus score, it was always going to be difficult for the Indian batsmen to chase down the target against a varied and incisive attack. India did well to stay in the hunt for most part during the chase, but had conceded too much ground on the field earlier. And Australia, before the downpour ended the contest, was looking at a target beyond 280. India would have been hard pressed to win the match.

In a telling statement, the Indian team-management played only two specialist pacemen on the juicy pitch at the Wanderers against the second-string West Indies.

Ishant Sharma and Rudra Pratap Singh have been bowling very poorly; their bowling lacked discipline.

Ishant is struggling. The lanky paceman, who used to probe the batsmen in the corridor with pace, bounce and movement, now provides width and room to the batsmen with aimless short-pitched stuff. He is not hitting the deck consistently and needs to look again at the position of his wrist at the point of release.

The demands of the game’s abbreviated forms — constant changes of pace and length are required here — seem to have impacted the core elements of Ishant’s bowling — a relentless off-stump line with sharp inward movement, and the occasional delivery straightening.

Eventually, left-armer Aashish Nehra, a veteran, emerged as the best Indian paceman in the competition. This does not reflect well on the depth of India’s pace attack.

Some of the promising pacemen have faded away. The tall and well-built V.R.V. Singh, rated high by Greg Chappell, has been grappling with fitness concerns. S. Sreesanth, who is also recovering from fitness problems, is searching for his rhythm. At his best, he is a lovely, natural out-swing bowler, but his days are now few and far between. The zestful R. P. Singh can be lively and threatening when in the mood, but he can also easily go off the boil.

Praveen Kumar, a genuine mover of the ball, is an honest trier but is not quite there in the top bracket. And Irfan Pathan’s left-arm swing is dependent on conditions. Can he be at least a yard quicker at this stage of his career?

Almost every other side appears to possess a better pace attack than India. Not too many bowlers in the land bowl at around 85 mph and move the ball. The lanky Sudip Tyagi can work up pace and extract bounce but needs to be handled with care. Dhawal Kulkarni lacks pace, so does Pradeep Sangwan. And Ashok Dinda is not quite living up to his early promise.

Lakshmipathy Balaji has made a courageous comeback but has to lift his speed. Munaf Patel is a line and length bowler who hits the seam, but his fielding is a handicap in the shorter version of the game. The pace scenario in the country is far from healthy.

Dhoni has been a strong captain and a solid batsman for most part, but his management of overs — the use of occasional bowlers in particular — has not always been convincing. The part-time bowlers took the pressure off Pakistan after the Indians had struck early. The introduction of Harbhajan Singh into the attack was delayed and both Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Malik were allowed to settle into a rhythm.

On his part, Harbhajan did not exactly bowl well against Pakistan and Australia. Yousuf and Malik stayed back, played the ball late and picked runs off the off-spinner between point and third man. Harbhajans’s off-stump line — his area of strength — suffered and he drifted down leg-side. The Pakistani batsmen forced him to change tactics.

Leg-spinner Amit Mishra bowled with control and guile against Australia; he is not afraid to flight the ball and does rip it hard. The revolution on the ball is unmistakable.

Again, does India have serious options in spin? Piyush Chawla can be effective on his day but the leggie still needs to work on his stock delivery — the sharp leg-spinner. Left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha is a work-in-progress. Ravindra Jadeja is a promising cricketer but has to decide whether he wants to be a batsman-bowler or a left-arm-spinner-batsman. Sadly, there are not too many young spinners around.

India has a tough road ahead in the coming days. There has to be less hype and more substance.