It’s time to consolidate

It’s heartening that India is number one in spite of several areas requiring attention. But it’s time to stop leaving things to chance; conscious action is the need of the hour, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Now that India has retained its position at the top of Test cricket, having prevailed over South Africa in a theatrical finish at Eden Gardens, it’s time to consider what needs to be done to extend the national side’s eminence.

But first a minor clarification, for it’s needed. There have been quibbles that India hasn’t dominated world cricket like West Indies or Australia have; can it really be considered the best in the world without evidence of mastery? Two points in counter before moving on. While it’s true India hasn’t managed the overwhelming success West Indies and Australia did for a prolonged period, it has built a worthy record — India is undefeated in its most recent bilateral series against every other Test playing nation. In fact, barring South Africa, with whom it drew 1-1, India has beaten each of its opponents in their most recent meeting. Moreover the ICC’s ranking system is designed to determine the best current team; domination, while useful, isn’t a pre-requisite to be ranked number one.

There were several points of interest in the series against South Africa. A full study of each of them is beyond the scope of this piece, but even a preliminary examination will reveal much. India is, as Richie Benaud wrote of Dexter’s England which toured Australia in 1962-63, “a strong all-round side with plenty of emphasis on batting, some on bowling, perhaps not quite so much on fielding”.

This emphasis in composition is central to understanding India’s cricket, but it doesn’t explain everything. It shows for instance why India has travelled well since the turn of the millennium: in several of its most famous wins overseas — Headingley, Kingston, Johannesburg, Nottingham, Perth, even Hamilton to an extent — India’s great batsmen have done enough, but the bowlers, their penetration enhanced by the conditions, have surpassed themselves. Extending the theme, India, contrary to perception, has done particularly well on ‘sporting’ cricket wickets, on surfaces that have had bounce — Kolkata the most recent instance.

On surfaces that have had little for the bowlers, India has laboured. This isn’t a problem limited to India — most sides struggle when their bowlers have been disarmed. But the best bowlers find ways to circumvent the surface. After the first Test in Nagpur the truth in Ian Chappell’s observation that India didn’t have the champion bowlers to stay number one seemed beyond doubt. While the toss greatly influenced how events unfolded for India’s bowlers, it’s clear the bowling needs attention.

A big part of the problem in Nagpur was Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma not triggering reverse swing — as they had so splendidly against Australia at home in 2008 — after encouraging first spells. Reverse swing didn’t play a part in Kolkata as well, but Ishant and Zaheer found penetration by other means. They unsettled the South African batsmen with short deliveries, both creating pressure and gaining wickets. Zaheer sustained a muscle strain and couldn’t contribute in the second innings, while Ishant had an interesting time of it. There were moments when he seemed to lose it altogether, spraying the ball like an errant scattergun. But Ishant persevered to shift two tailenders, including Wayne Parnell — caught at mid-on! — when it appeared as if the left-hander would stay forever with Hashim Amla.

How India’s system handles Ishant will be watched closely. Bowlers that can defeat great batsmen don’t come around too often. Already R. P. Singh, who played such a vital role in the victories at Nottingham and Perth, is languishing. Neither Ishant nor leg-spinner Amit Mishra can be allowed to slip away. A long-term bowling coach will help immeasurably, for at the highest level, skills need constant development and refinement. Consistency augments an attack’s menace, and consistency cannot be had if mind and bowling action aren’t sound. Ishant needs nurturing, but it’s just as important that he isn’t over-coached.

India has discovered several talented fast and fast-medium bowlers in the last decade, but the returns haven’t been commensurate with the ability. Is it a problem of technique or fitness or is it something else? The BCCI has shown great skill at making money; it falls on the Board to show if not the same skill then certainly the same dedication towards making bowlers.

Spin, if anything, requires greater attention. Mishra is the sort of wildcard every captain desires, but equally the creative leg-spinner must be deployed just right. Can India’s coaching staff find a way to improve Mishra’s control ensuring at the same time that he doesn’t lose his ability to produce wicket-taking deliveries?

What of Harbhajan Singh? As a recent article on Cricinfo pointed out, the off-spinner has since 2006 taken 136 wickets in 33 Tests at an average of 35.88 and a strike-rate of 73.8 — hardly the stuff of champions, and considerably below his performance between 2001 and 2005 when he claimed 198 wickets from 42 Tests at 26.74 (average) and 58.7 (strike-rate). Can Kolkata spark a return to his best days, or will it, like the feats in Galle (2008) and Hamilton (2009), remain a defining achievement but not one with a knock-on effect?

India needs systemic change that will empower bowlers — no country that has designs on dominating Test cricket can afford not to invest in its bowlers. Bowling remains cricket’s only act of creation, and if the creators are taken care of, the reactors — batsmen — will follow. Is it any surprise that the generation of Indian batsmen after the Fab Four don’t play spin as convincingly? The decline in the quality of spin at the domestic level has led to the decline in the craft of playing it.

As for India’s batting, talk of a middle-order transition has been doing the rounds for some time now. India has the best opening pair in the world in Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, and they will be around for a while, but the middle-order needs a succession plan. While we must be grateful for Dravid (36), Tendulkar (36), and Laxman (35), and hope that they continue for as long as is possible, it’s important the next generation isn’t condemned by comparison. As Laxman said, the likes of M. Vijay and S. Badrinath (and whoever else the selectors deem capable) need to be treated with patience.

“Every youngster who plays for the country knows the responsibility of performing and consistently delivering for the team,” said Laxman. “The transition definitely is not so easy from domestic cricket to international cricket but I am glad a lot of youngsters are coming up and winning matches for the team in one-dayers and now they are coming into Test cricket also and doing well. It is just about the mental transition from domestic cricket to Test cricket and once they get through that phase I am sure that they can do well. We have a lot of youngsters who can do well for the country in the future, but I think you need to be very patient. It is just a phase and once you settle down it is about the mental transition from domestic cricket to international cricket. I am sure we have the potential and talent.”

Dhoni’s evolution as a Test batsman has ensured an all-round batsman at seven, a batsman that can both respond to and shape situations. His wicket-keeping is solid, if on the conservative side when standing back, but it’s his captaincy that has the most room for improvement. He’s a singular leader of men and an original thinker, and often seems to bring a wicket with a bowling change; but he makes tactically curious decisions and tends to follow the ball with his field.

Sterner tests await, not least for the administrators who must ensure India play the top sides more often and in more meaningful series than two-Test affairs. An action plan that’s accessible to the fans is the very least the Board can do to show its commitment to transparency and progress.

It’s heartening that India is number one in spite of several areas requiring attention. But it’s time to stop leaving things to chance; conscious action is the need of the hour.