After he put the phone down, Dalmiya must have chuckled. The International Cricket Council (ICC) has said that it doesn't care if he has to walk on a legal minefield but he better send the "best team" to the World Cup. It now seems that the only team India has is a B-team. In New Zealand, on wickets that Navjot Singh Sidhu would say "are like wives, you never know which way they will turn", Indian men showed that they have little understanding of such fickle things. The 'best batting line-up in the world' prodded, missed and looked stupid. In the end, they made New Zealand look good. After losing the Test series 0-2, and the one-day series (1-4 at the time of writing), the Indian team gave the New Zealand media the rare opportunity to comment authoritatively on international affairs. Dominion Post wrote: "To label India the worst cricket team to tour New Zealand might be slightly over the top, considering Bangladesh were here last summer.... India have been shown up as spineless and directionless in the Test and one-day series this summer, which would not be such a bad thing if they did not go round the world parading themselves as the most talented batting line-up in commission." And when Bangladesh toured last, they survived more overs than India in the two Tests they played.
Rahul Dravid was the best man on the job in the Tests on this tour. When that happens, normally the news is bad. It means that the circumstances have demanded grit over flamboyance and labour over genius. The statistically superior Indian batsmen, said to be the most entertaining in the world, fail miserably in such situations except for Dravid who always tours with the circus team but is chiefly the grim security officer and never the stunt master. If the Tests were tragic, India lost the first four one-dayers without ever surviving the 50 overs, scoring an average of 139 per match. All this lays the ground once again for the nervous question that will be asked many times, till the mathematical possibility of such an eventuality is extinguished: Do we look like a team that can lift the World Cup?
When you are dining with a demon, you got to have a long spoon
In the requiem to the Indian team, as usual, unfair alien conditions are mentioned as a cause for the demise. Coach John Wright says: "I believe our batting line-up is the most attractive, certainly the most entertaining. They were kind of set up on these pitches. I do feel strongly about the pitches we've played upon on this tour." (See interview) The breeze too was somehow anti-Indian. The ball swung both ways. So we saw lateral movement and vertical collapse. Same old story. But how many times should we hear this excuse?
True, the hosts may have used agricultural methods to prepare pitches, but that's legally defined as the home advantage (except its own). Indians have had a problem with every nation's home advantage. As long as the cricket calendar includes matches outside the subcontinent, it's high time the famed Indian batting learnt to impress in foreign lands. "They should have shown more application," says Kapil Dev, adding: "They should have adapted themselves to the conditions." The vastly experienced Indian team has always shown, despite some dramatic victories overseas last year, that it doesn't have the ability to adapt quickly to new conditions.
But the World Cup doesn't give a lot of time to the visitors to learn about the host's soil and wind conditions. The art is in acclimatising to alien conditions fast. The fear is that in the West Indies and England, India didn't show any such skill. By the time they managed to come good, they were a few weeks into the series. That's fatal in any World Cup as previous Indian teams have learnt. In the 1999 World Cup in England, India lost to Zimbabwe in the preliminary round. It was a loss that virtually made its task impossible in the Super Six round as it went into the second phase without a single point.
India is in the tougher of the two groups this year, sharing the pool with Australia, Pakistan, England, Zimbabwe and, for the sake of giving complete information, Holland and Namibia. The first match is against Holland. Since it's cricket and not hockey, it may be safe to presume India will win easily. But the next match is against Australia. Then against Zimbabwe who appear respectable these days, especially when they play India. After what may be an inconsequential match against Namibia, India play England and Pakistan. All this over a period of two weeks. If Indians don't adapt fast in South Africa, where in the past they have won only six of the 22 one-dayers they have played, they will have to take an early flight back home. It's with a win ratio of 27.27 per cent in SA that the Indians go for the highest cricketing honours. Pakistan, with 11 wins out of 27, have a win ratio of 40.74, while Australia has won 14 of the 25 it has played in South Africa.
Also, on its way to the Super Six phase, India cannot afford to achieve the transition through too much struggle. It will be carrying over points from the preliminary stage and so, every result in the first leg will contribute to India's chances. That's a lesson it learnt bitterly in the last World Cup. So the most beautiful batting line-up in the world simply cannot take as much time as it did in New Zealand to understand the behavioural nuances of the cricket ball.
This team is like bicycles in a cycle stand,one falls and the entire row caves in
The way Indians lost the two Tests and the first four one-dayers in New Zealand gave someone like Stephen Fleming, who may have never got into the Mumbai Ranji team if his destiny were different, the chance to comment on the Indian batting line-up. He said that the megastars are no good if they cannot bat on his grasslands. Here some understanding of the Indian team is required. Understanding, not analysis, for one has to choose the option that is possible. There is no adjective that can convincingly and safely describe the much-touted Indian batting. It has a dual property: a) It can demolish any attack in the world. b) Any attack can demolish it. It's a mystery. Captain Ganguly himself says about this phenomenon: "I wish I had an answer." (See interview) If you are a seasoned bettor, you too will have a dual character. You will bet all your money on India. And also nothing. But it's about time to share Stephen Fleming's doubt on whether India is really the best batting side in the world. Ganguly is one of the very few men on the planet with a career average of over 42, who is disrespectfully greeted by bowlers all over the world with a short one. For a man who has played over 215 matches, anything that goes over his chest also goes over his head. But it was not just the short ones Ganguly could not negotiate in NZ. It was as though he would take any opportunity to go back to the pavilion and watch the match from the best view. In the first five one-dayers, his scores read 14, 0, 4, 2 and 0, a total of 20. Remember, this was the same man who in the last edition of the World Cup may have brought the Sri Lankan government close to declaring him as the second biggest foe after LTTE chief Prabhakaran.
If Virender Sehwag were your father, you will lead a very nervous life, though spectacular in parts. When commentators add "on his day" to a good word about a batsman, it invariably means that the player is inconsistent. Which is what Rahul Dravid is not. But with a career average of about 39 and a strike rate that is never impressive, Dravid's worth unfortunately is in disaster management and not in heroic invasion. As mentioned earlier, when Dravid is the top scorer in a match, chances are something has gone wrong. Now we come to the man whom a dwindling number of commentators are calling "the best batsman in the world". A certain redefinition of his own batting style and technique that he has been attempting in recent times has made him look a touch less lethal than before. There was a time when Sachin Tendulkar was a free man. Today he looks a bit worried and unsure, as though objects are always trying to get past his defences. In the Tests in NZ, Sachin gave too much respect to the Kiwi bowlers, looking as though every delivery was a grand conspiracy. And his injury after the Tests extended his one-dayer hiatus to 11 international games in a row. When he returned for the fifth one-dayer, he was wrongly given out leg before. There is a big gap between Sachin's performance in the subcontinent and outside. While he has a career average of 44, he has barely managed 40 outside the subcontinent. In South Africa, his average is less than 35. So, one asks, is he the man who will save us? It's not that one doesn't believe in God anymore, but one wants God to do what Gods do. All the time.
One who doesn't throw the dice can never expect to score a six
Though it was obvious, perhaps even to Ruby Bhatia, that the pitches in New Zealand will not suit spinners, Anil Kumble was sent on a plane to join the team. He bowled seven overs before the series was decided. Why wasn't an all-rounder sent in his place instead? Answer: We don't have all-rounders. At least no one good enough to be in the team for one of the two departments alone. When Ajit Agarkar is called an all-rounder, it means we have taken liberties with the language. The reason why we don't have a good number 7 is, as Madan Lal says, because "coaches at the under-17 or under-18 or other levels are not taking risks while composing the team. They are reluctant to send their bowlers in to bat at 5 or 6. Unless these boys are made to feel they can bat, how will they develop the skills? Even at the nets, I have seen that many times the bowlers don't even bat. That's why we don't have all-rounders. The coaches are responsible for this". Even the Indian bowling attack, which impressed in NZ where conditions favoured the bowlers, may suddenly seem wanting in South Africa. The bowling was considered the problem before the batting department vied for the honour. Unlike in NZ, there will be no magical movement of the ball in Africa. "Worse, the ICC is planning to make batsmen-friendly wickets," says Ajit Wadekar. "They don't want boring low scoring matches."
That may worry the limited Indian bowling attack, but the batsmen may be licking the lips along with the wounds. The best batting line-up in the world on new batsman-friendly wickets. Sounds like a good marriage. But, it is said, you can never bet on Indian men.
By Ashish Shukla in Wellington and Manu Joseph in Mumbai