Questions remain as India retain #1

After a tense finish in the Kolkata Test match against South Africa, Team India retained their #1 Rank in the ICC Test rankings. This means that the players and the BCCI will collect some small change on 1st April when the ICC hands out the Test Championship and a few dollars of baksheesh.

But some key questions remain for Team India.

Let us not take anything away from the Indian victory. To put things in perspective, India was without Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and V. V. S. Laxman (for the 1st Test only) and Sreesanth. India lost the toss in both Tests and ceded charge of easy day-1 and day-2 pitches to South Africa. India was without her key strike bowler (Zaheer Khan) on the last day. And India played against a full-strength South Africa team. Moreover, after a debilitating loss in the 1st Test (in Nagpur), most teams will have buckled to another demoralising defeat. This Indian team, however, showed that it can come back at oppositions in a tough manner and pass stern tests of resolve with rare (and hitherto unknown) resolve. India were down and out at Tea time on day-1 of the Kolkata Test. But India did come back strongly and compellingly.

But some key questions do remain.

I have said it before and will do so again. Unless India can beat Australia in Australia and South Africa in South Africa, even though I am as one-eyed as they come, I am not quite willing to accept the #1 ranking as easily as I might or should. This is more so because Australia has beaten India in India and RSA in RSA and RSA has beaten India in India and Australia in Australia.

I would like to see India achieve series victories in Australia and RSA. Her chance of a win in RSA will come later this year when India travels to South Africa. India will have to wait longer to see if she can win a series in Australia.

And for these to happen, India will need to ask some serious questions of her personnel.

From what I have seen in these last two Tests, India had better start “preparing” replacements for Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar from now. While we may claim a strong bench strength in M. Vijay, S. Badrinath, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, et al, these are mostly untested. Questions remain to be asked of Vijay and I am really not to sure that Badrinath belongs. Given that Yuvraj Singh himself hasn’t quite cemented his Test-team place in a compelling manner, I do believe that the “what happens next after the departure of Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman” question needs a really strong answer.

The difference in batsmen’s approach between the 1st Test and the 2nd Test was obvious. Even if we remove the superb spell of fast bowling by Dale Steyn in Nagpur, the difference in the approach of Sehwag and Tendulkar was clear to see in Kolkata because they were — it is quite likely — comforted by the knowledge that Laxman was there at #5 in case one of them were to depart. The absence of that middle-order solidity led to a mind-freeze in Nagpur, in my view.

India needs a match-ready pair of batsmen and she needs them now. VIjay did have that swagger and that approach that inspired confidence. He has that “I belong here” body language. I am not convinced that Badrinath has it. While I am willing to discount his performance in Nagpur, where the ball was talking and the team was really under the pump, there can be no excuse for his approach and performance in Kolkata. He could have played calmly and with a clear head on a placid pitch. The team was in a solid position and the pitch was really doing nothing much. Badrinath did not inspire confidence in me at all and questions must be asked of his place at this level. Perhaps a great opportunity was missed.

The other concern is the bowling. Without a fit and in-form Zaheer Khan, the attack looks pale. Harbhajan Singh has his days when he can be menacing, but with him it is a bit of a lottery, in my view. For India to win consistently overseas, the team needs an all-weather bowler in the Anil Kumble mould. For that to happen, Harbhajan Singh needs to accept that he is the teams’ lead bowler. He needs to ensure that he wakes up on the right side of the bed every day. I feel that it is all in his preparation and nothing else. Someone needs to sit him down and convey to him the responsibilities that come with being the lead striker. On off days and on pitches that do not offer assistance, he needs to bowl maidens and keep things tight. An off-form Ishant Sharma and a low-key Amit Mishra are other concerns for India.

The team does boast of strong reserves in Sreesanth, Sudeep Tyagi, Praveen Kumar, Abhimanyu Mithun, Dhawal Kulkarni, Ashok Dinda, Munaf Patel, Pankaj Singh and others, but these bowlers need to be tested in situations that are far tougher than the the various domestic competitions.

Another concern is team balance. Unless India finds a good/strong all-rounder, the team is stuck with a 4-bowler policy. If any one of these bowlers is off injured — or has an off day — the pressure on the other resources becomes enormous (as we saw in Nagpur).

There are some all-rounder contenders around who are either not given enough opportunities — or appear and disappear with alarming consistency. Players like Abhishek Nayar, Yusuf Pathan and Ravindra Jadeja have to be given longer ropes to work with.

I feel that unless India plans plenty of A-Tours to Australia, South Africa, West Indies, England and Sri Lanka in the next year, I am afraid these questions will continue to be asked.

South Africa does have some deep questions of their own to answer. At the start of the series I did say that my main concerns with them were (a) the form of Duminy and Ashwell Prince, (b) the ability of Paul Harris, (c) their ability to play quality spin.

Questions (a) and (b) remain, while the team has thrown up a few players (Amla, in the main) that have the technique and temperament to handle quality spin!

I do believe that Paul Harris is an ordinary bowler. Any bowler who constantly bowls 2 feet outside leg-stump is essentially telling the world that he is an ordinary bowler! If I were a good bowler and my captain asks me to bowl a negative line, I would either tell my captain to find another bowler to do that or tell my captain that I am good enough to bowl to take wickets! I can’t remember who it was who said it, but it was said that “Paul Harris could not turn a door handle if he had to.” But having watched him bowl in this series, I am convinced that unless South Africa find a real spinner who can turn the ball and bowl attacking lines, the team is going to continue to choke when it matters most. And after the tremendous display of Alviro Petersen at the top, either Duminy or Ashwell Prince will, I believe, have to make way. I do believe Ashwell Prince will make way in what will be a strong team that will emerge from this series. I like South Africa’s team balance with Duminy as a good off-spin bowler and Kallis as a terrific, though under-rated, all-rounder. I will not be surprised if South Africa claim the #1 Rank from India in the near future.

Yes, India did emerge out of the South Africa series as #1 but I believe the home team has more questions and fewer immediate answers.

— Mohan

13 responses to “Questions remain as India retain #1

  1. This Kolkata test was fabulous and it was nail biting finish. Great test match. They earned their right to be # 1. Let us see what happens @ SA in winter.

    I have a very basic question. Why is BCCI not scheduling test matches at the big venues – Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore. They hold they tests @ odd, small venues – like Nagpur, not sure what value they add; definitely not the crowd. These guys prepare flat bed wickets, with no bounce nor spin and the matches are usually boring draw. One-days and T20 are not the same.

    Venues like Kolkata, Chennai have good Cricket rasikas like Music Academy or NJ 🙂

    @ Australia, there are test matches @ Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide; BCCI should have test matches @ Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, …..

  2. Before the series could begin i expected the matches to be a tight contest between these 2 top ranked teams… Contrary to what i thought… we had 2 matches, in the first one we were crushed very badly that i felt the #1 team cannot be like this… whatever we call it Indian come back… Indian Hard Strike… The second match SA was crushed… Innings defeat… again something which i didn’t expect from a team which is ranked #2… I felt there is so much of inconsistency in both these teams… and all the bench strength seems to be there just in paper… It was very clear from the first test that we depend a lot on players like Dravid and Laxman… and we do not have proper replacements for them… Coming to the bowling… I want to see more bowlers like Irfan Pathan used to be sometime back… When he used to come and bowl everytime and esp with the new ball he would strike and the strike will be real hard… what happened to that guy?? Yes All rounder is the solution… but no one looks like they can cement their place in the team… i wish there d be a tree that grows cricketers ;)…

  3. and i do agree with gnbmdr… i don’t remember the last international match played in chennai… but i ve seen nagpur hosting matches in 2 series in a row… why not chennai?

  4. Whatever happened to Irfan Pathan? The guy was not just a “balancer” all-rounder, he was our strike bowler and good enough to bat above some of the recognized batsmen, depending on the situation.

  5. India’s batting order is the best now – probably the best ever it had. Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Sachin, VVS. The way Sehwag is able to dominate the attack and Gambhir’s consistency. Dravid, Sachin and VVS middle order is the best. Dhoni’s batting is a huge plus.

    There is going to be a big drop when these guys retire. I hope Sehwag could come down the order – No. 4 or No. 5 ; be like an Allan Border) for the younger generation of players.

    Bowling – I am hopeful of this Aushik Srinivas – left arm spinner will be one of future test stars.

  6. Lets rewind to India’s last tours of Australia and South Africa.

    Firstly, Australia. I still firmly believe that the Sydney Test match was India’s for the taking, till the umpires robbed it away. True, we did not survive the end. But neither did SA over here at Eden Gardens. In fact, no team has managed to survive these close battles with as much consistency as England. The striking bit about this India’s tour of Australia was that after the MCG drubbing was the fact that in the rest of the tour, India was the more dominant force.

    Now, India’s last tour to South Africa. No one gave the team a chance and what happens! India go 1-0 up in the series. The entire series was decided on the last scheduled day of the series. True, India did not win it. But it was a strong show from a team that had never before won a single Test on that soil.

    I know people will still argue that no matter what happenned, I am just looking for excuses. But then, South Africa did not win this series despite having a better chance than in Kanpur a few years back. So statistically, they have not won eithe of their last 2 series in India. Australia looked un-Australian in their last tour here. Agreed, both teams have won in India – but those wins happenned more than half a decade ago.

    We are talking about the CURRENT Test Rankings. And talking of the present, India certainly deserve to be #1.

  7. Mohan:

    Agree with most of what you say – a good analysis of where India is at. But I don’t agree with your comments on Vijay and Badrinath. Vijay has played 5 and Badri 2 tests so far and haven’t done that badly to warrant being written off so early. They both have impressive first class career so far and that’s all we have to judge their suitability. For the alternatives proposed – Pujara, Manish Pandet et al – their names come up because they have done well in first class matches – same yardstick has to be applied to Badri and Vijay. And I’m sure when we lose Sachin/Dravid/Laxman three of these four will be there to replace. Can’t see Suresh Raina, Yuvraj and Rohit (in my opinion he hasn’t doen well even in the ODIs or T2os and don’t know why his name comes up all the time – he hasn’t done much to demonstrate his suitability to play for India in Tests or ODIs yet) representing the country in test matches. If at all, only Yuvi might make it.

  8. Here is another supporting view on test venues.

    That is like the Boxing Day and New Year’s Tests in Australia and South Africa, annual events that people plan for from months ahead. The last time Chennai saw a Pongal Test, though, was in 1988, and there have been only 10 Tests there since.

    it is impossible to develop such Test culture – yet take out three venues and Test cricket can become an annual event in the venues where it is cherished: Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai,

  9. @Shridhar Jaju

    I do agree that India played exceedingly well at Sydney and ought to have won that Test. However, despite the numerous mistakes Bucknor made, India did lose in Sydney. Neither the Test nor the result were “fixed”. India came close to *drawing” the match, not winning the Sydney Test.

    So I do not buy that argument.

    And let’s not forget, India has, like South Africa and Australia, lost personnel too — Kumble and Ganguly. Yes. Australia has lost more personnel than India, since their last victory in India. But a good team has depth as well as a strategic rebuild-regenerate policy that is constant. So I do not count these arguments either.

    Mind you. I am not saying that India is a bad team. It is a terrific team. No doubt. It fought hard in Australia and in South Africa. But I would like to see India win a series in Australia or South Africa before I can genuinely claim that I am a fan of the #1 team.

    The current #1 status is, in my view, an artefact of the assistance that India has received from England (beating Australia and South Africa) and South Africa (beating Australia).

    — Mohan

  10. @outsider

    I agree with you that Vijay and Badrinath ought to be given more chances. I am all for that. But as I said, while Vijay gives the confidence that he “belongs”, I am not convinced about Badrinath. What I saw in his innings at Kolkata was him saying that Yuvraj is perhaps a better player than him — and that is no good sign, for we know how good Yuvraj is against anyone that bowls well in a Test match! Badrinath, I feel, blew a good chance. I would be prepared to give Vijay more rope — much more rope.

  11. It was interesting to see Laxman’s interview a few days back, where he mentions that domestic cricket standards are way below International standards and how difficult it is to adapt to international cricket after playing domestic cricket for a long time. though that is no excuse to the non performers.

  12. Karthik Iyer, It is very simple Sharad Pawar is from Nagpur.

  13. @palambrugge
    Pawar is from Baramati not Nagpur

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