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.