By Satadru Sen
When you have the opposition eight wickets down for 120-odd on the first day of a Test match, and still manage to lose by more than three hundred runs on the fourth day, questions must be asked. Are we to laugh, or to cry, for instance. (India supporters learn, over the years, to do both simultaneously. My upstairs neighbor is a West Ham fan, for no reason other than an accident of birth. He understands.) Other relevant questions might be, was it a terrible wicket (no), was the match fixed (I wish it was), and, well then, what the hell happened to what is supposedly the best team in the world?
Clearly, the ‘number-one team’ tag is now something of a joke. But it is a joke worth taking apart, because India’s rise to the top of the Test rankings has actually coincided with a fall in the absolute quality of the team. Now the decay has reached a critical level and become inescapable. After the first two Tests of the India-England series, cricket writers have typically pointed to weaknesses in the Indian bowling attack, and there can be little doubt that this is not quite a ‘number-one’ attack. With some exceptions, we have gone backwards to the days of dibbly-dobbly bowlers like Madan Lal, Karsan Ghavri and Roger Binny. The reason is new, however: utility bowlers can hold their own in T20 cricket, which casts its shadow on the Test team in more ways than one. Zaheer Khan, of course, has acquired a deserved reputation as a great swing bowler, but since the Man of Glass hardly ever shows up to play, that is irrelevant. It is one thing for a fast bowler like Dennis Lillee to break down once in a while, quite another for somebody who usually bowls at 125 kmh to be injured more often than he is fit. One hears Zaheer is a fitness fanatic, and shudders to think how he would have played if he was not.
But the thing is that even with Zaheer out of action, the Indian bowlers did alright, putting England on the mat twice before letting them get back up. And at Lords, the fault lay less with a depleted bowling attack than with the Indian captain, who inexplicably took Ishant Sharma off just when he was cutting through the England batting. M.S. Dhoni, too, has a reputation that is not quite right. India has won a lot of Tests with him at the helm, and the World Cup victory has put him in a position that is unassailable for the moment. He has been praised as a great leader and a genius of sorts. All this is highly misleading: Dhoni does not have Sourav Ganguly’s desire to fight, Mike Brearley’s analytical nous, M.A.K. Pataudi’s daring, Imran Khan's mentoring touch, or the all-round excellence of Mark Taylor. This is not to say that he is a poor captain, but to say that he is a very ordinary one, both tactically and strategically. (The decision to abandon the chase in the fourth innings of the Dominica Test is still fresh in my mind.) For a man who cultivates a cavalier image, he is a curiously timid leader: a sort of straw man, a typical product of the corporate age in Indian cricket. He has had the good fortune of being the Indian captain when the major teams in world cricket have been in decline, both absolutely and relatively. (England is the exception: they have clawed their way up the rankings quietly, without superstars, by getting the basics right: reliable fast-medium bowlers, a decent spinner, resilient batting, good fielding.) Dhoni's successes have disguised the fact that India, like Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, have been in sharp decline as a Test side.
The batting, more than the bowling, is the best evidence. It seems to have escaped the attention of cricket journalists that the last time India scored 400 in an innings was in the first Test against South Africa last year. Since then, seven Tests have gone by. Five have gone by without a score of 300, including three against that farce of a West Indies bowling line-up. (You know it is a farce when the best West Indian quick is actually an East Indian.) In fact, some big warning bells should have gone off after the West Indies tour, instead of the smug grinning and posing with trophy-stumps after a highly unconvincing 1-0 win. A few years ago, India would post 500+ scores almost routinely, both at home and away. Not anymore. The selectors and the BCCI have contributed to the problem, as always. Why was Tendulkar ‘resting’ in India when he should have been in the Caribbean? Apparently he could have used the batting practice. The so-called new breed – Mukund, Kohli, Vijay – are a joke. (You see, I am still laughing.) Ultimately it has come down to Rahul Dravid, who has quietly reminded us why he deserves to grouped with the all-time greats of the game: he learned to bat when Test cricket still meant something in India. I take back everything I muttered before along the lines of ‘why has the bugger not retired already.’ If the Indian team that went to Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04, probably the best ever to represent India, was reassembled in England tomorrow, they would do no worse than this current lot.
Having been quite harsh to M.S. Dhoni earlier in this essay, I will close by trying to be fair to him. Samir wrote recently that Dhoni was excessively generous to England by withdrawing the appeal against Bell. I understand Samir’s point, but after turning the incident over in my mind a few times, stick to my first impulse that Dhoni did the right thing. The reason has to do with how one defines sportsmanship. There are, I think, two ways of looking at it: one can say (like Americans generally do) that sportsmanship is about strictly observing the rules of the game, or say (like C.L.R. James) that it is about going above and beyond the law to what is loosely called the 'spirit' of the game. The spirit of an institution is necessarily a less well-defined thing than the law, but perhaps it is also the more important thing, because it can anticipate situations that the law cannot.
The Bell episode was different from Mankading. In Mankading, you run out a batsman who is attempting to gain an advantage by backing up early. Bell was not attempting to gain an advantage of any kind. He was at most being a little foolish. ‘Dead ball confusion’ is rare but it happens. If there had been unpleasant incidents on the field already, Dhoni’s gesture would have been unjustified, but so far there have been none in this series. (A bit of sledging and glaring do not count, and Zaheer and Sreesanth give as good as they get.) It should be said, however, that it was undignified and unfair of Strauss to ask Dhoni to withdraw the appeal in the first place. Strauss should have chewed Bell out for being absent-minded and left it at that. But under the circumstances, a request having been made, it would have been churlish to refuse and Dhoni made the call that is most compatible with the spirit of the game. Not every series needs a Monkeygate equivalent, and Dhoni has done his bit to reduce the risk of genuine bitterness on the field. It is, after all, a game.