Pant khule diyechhe
by Satadru Sen
There is a Bengali expression that goes ‘pant khule diyechhe.’ It refers to being suddenly deprived of your pants, and indicates a particularly comprehensive defeat. The expression is hybrid and slangy, but it is also very culturally appropriate. It conveys, for instance, not only a sense of violation, but also a combination of exposure, embarrassment and shame that is perhaps more comprehensible to Asians than to Europeans.
It would not be inaccurate to say that in England over the past three weeks, the Indian cricket team has been pantsed. It has been so thorough that it raises suspicions about whether the emperor of world cricket had been wearing pants to begin with. If this had been a Japanese team from a couple of generations ago, Dhoni and company would have been expected to commit seppuku with sharpened stumps. Being products of a shameless time and place, they are safe. Nobody will resign: the captain will probably not step down, neither will the coach, let alone anybody in the BCCI. There is too much money at stake; giving up the captaincy means jeopardizing future endorsement deals.
It may be unduly bloodthirsty to call for heads to roll. This is neither a war nor a bank meltdown. It is, as I wrote in the last blog, only a game. But you know there is a problem when you feel obliged to repeat that cliché in successive blogs. So now I want to touch upon two related aspects of the problem, or of any problem: explanation and responsibility.
On the face of it, the explanation for the ongoing Indian debacle in England is very simple: India has consistently played very badly, and England has been excellent in every facet of the game. But when we look a little under that surface, things are not so clear. The cores of both teams are unchanged from what they were three or four years ago. England is still built around Petersen, Cook, Bell, Prior, Strauss, Anderson and Broad; India is still Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Dhoni, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Yuvraj. No new Tendulkar or Murali has emerged on either side, and the old Tendulkar is still where he was. Even the supporting cast is made up of veterans, give or take a Swann or a Praveen Kumar. The roots of this England side go back to Nasser Hussain’s team, and the Indians are based largely on Sourav Ganguly’s outfit. While both men were outstanding team-builders, Ganguly undoubtedly had the more brilliant eleven. The tables have now turned emphatically, but they are still the same tables.
Obviously, one group of men have got better, and another have fallen apart. England’s improvement has been quiet and steady, rather than dramatic. Cook and Bell are fine batsmen. They have scored a lot of runs over the past couple of years, but they have done it against ordinary bowling attacks; nobody would mistake them for Sobers or Richards or Lara. Anderson, Broad and Bresnan are very good bowlers, but they are not Holding, Marshall and Roberts. Yet here we are: the Indian team, which includes the two highest run-makers in the history of Test cricket, have just made them look like Richard Hadlee bowling in tandem with Keith Miller with McGrath and Botham as back-up. And the Indians are all about drama, spectacle and superstars. You cannot get more dramatic than Sehwag’s ‘performance’ in this series: flying in late to save the team and promptly making two first-ball ducks, at least one of them due to horrendous shot-selection.
And then there is the Indian bowling. Earlier this summer, when the Indians were touring the West Indies, Andy Roberts rather unkindly called Munaf Patel a spinner. Munaf, mind you, was once impressively quick. But now Roberts is more or less correct. When he made his ‘spinner’ comment, my thought was that the rapid death of Indian pace bowlers was an aesthetic loss. Fast bowling, even fast-medium bowling, is one of the great pleasures of watching cricket, and the Indian bowling attack has ceased to be entertaining. (By way of comparison, you might recall Irfan, Balaji and Agarkar less than a decade ago. Or for that matter, Ishant Sharma bowling to Ponting in Australia more recently, and Sreesanth bowling to Kallis in South Africa last winter.) This year everything has suddenly gone flat, and in England it has become apparent that the loss is more than aesthetic. A boring attack will also, inevitably, be an ineffective attack.
In both batting and bowling, the team had lost its pants even before it reached England. Anderson, Broad and Cook merely pointed it out. The proven performers were patchy, and the others barely showed up to play, plagued by injuries, absences, exhaustion, under-preparation, and technical deficiencies. This is a side in which the ‘quality element’ is aging, ill-used and not replenished, complacency is endemic, and there is no joy. If the BCCI was inclined to be merciful, it would bring them home early from England.
This brings us to the issue of responsibility. I do not think that the players are blameless. If a Test cricketer like Tendulkar is going to pick and choose the Test series in which he plays, then he ought either to retire or to do a better job of staying ‘in practice.’ Ultimately, however, the fault lies with the Indian board, which has taken a great team, destroyed it by reckless overuse and artificially induced distortions (such as flat wickets tailored to maximize television revenues, and the IPL nexus of greed and intimidation that bribes and pressures players to hide their injuries until they are exposed by the longer game), and totally neglected the domestic first-class game without which the Test side can only wither away. The BCCI has, in fact, shown itself to be fundamentally unprofessional. It is driven by a corporate money-making mindset, it celebrates the new India of ‘brands’ and ‘products,’ but in its search for immediate returns, it unfailingly ignores the need to protect and nurture its most fundamental asset - the team – over the long term. It is, in that sense, the perfect example of an immature capitalism that is not responsible even to itself.
As a bureaucracy, the BCCI is perhaps impervious to the basic aspect of being pantsed, which is the experience of shame. It is institutionally averse to any admission of responsibility, and Sharad Pawar is after all a politician. All the more reason, then, for Dhoni to take responsibility. He should step down as captain immediately and speak candidly about what has gone wrong. (And while we're at it, Duncan Fletcher should be given his money and kissed goodbye.) This is not because a better captain is waiting in the wings; frankly, no automatic candidate jumps to mind, and we would probably get another mediocre one. Personally I would like to see Laxman given a crack at the Test captaincy in the time that he has left before retiring. But more important than getting a great tactician immediately is establishing the principle of responsibility in leadership.