Long post alert!
That is what I have been saying for the last few weeks repeatedly: Hit me, I deserve it… H-MIDI.
Team India went to face England in a hugely important Test series. To me, this was an important series not because the #1 Test Rank was at stake. Like trousers, shoes and underwear, rankings come and go. Rankings are not a reflection of the state of health of a nations’ cricket. To me, the ICC rankings are as important to the game of cricket as the ICC itself is. In other words, the rankings are irrelevant to me. It didn’t matter to me when India was #8 in the table. (Was it ever #8 in the rankings? Do I care?) It mattered even less to me when India was #1 in the rankings. And that India was! I know that. As far as I am concerned, when the ICC starts governing the game properly, perhaps I might start to care about the rankings it puts out.
It does irritate me, however, when Michael Vaughan and Johnathan Agnew and the rest of their tribe preen about the England team. Their preening is irrelevant. The manner of their preening grates. Subsequent to his unfortunate “Vaseline” comment, instead of retracting it, Vaughan asked me to develop a sense of humor. Sure, I can develop a sense of humor or even buy one in the local market. That would be way too simple! There are a few larger issues at play here in my view.
Do not get me wrong! The English have won the bragging rights. Of that I have no doubt and I will not deny England her brag-rights. England has played outstanding cricket that has been as resolute and dogged as it has been brutal and attractive. England has bullied India in this series and I am willing to call this spade a shovel if necessary. England has been the better team in this series… by a long distance.
So the English have the right to preen and brag. But no team and no press has the right to trash talk and belittle. In the last few weeks, writers like Stephen Brenkley and Steve James have made Malcolm Conn look like Mother Theresa! The English cricket press has made me yearn for the decency and integrity of the Australian cricket press; and I thought that those were two adjectives I would never ever use to describe the Australian cricket press!
There have been many statements about India not being deserving of the top of the tree ICC ranking. In this article, the author tries to disentangle the chest-thumping hyperbole from the ground realities.
However there is a palpable, distinct and glaring disquiet about the manner in which the English press has set about their trash-talk of the Indian team and her fans. This has left me wondering whether there is an unresolved undercurrent of larger issues that roughly answers to: “This will teach you little, impish scoundrels to mess with the game that rightly belongs to us and no one else!”
My hypothesis is that one cannot go into such paroxysmal manifestations of extreme hysteria if there is no undercurrent of unresolved issues.
But did I expect anything else from the England press? After all, the sub-continent took ‘their’ game and became better at it than England has been for a long time now. My view is that England had been itching to get back at teams from the sub-continent. Particularly India. If Pakistan had taught the sub-continent flair, and if Sri Lanka had taught the sub-continent aggression, India had, after all, combined flair and aggression in a package that included cash! The power-base had irrevocably shifted. England itched at the opportunity to punch back on the field and off it.
I had hoped that England would not resort to the off-field histrionics that it has resorted to.
But I was wrong. Hit me, I deserve it (H-MIDI).
To me, this series was important, not because of the ICC rankings, but because it would probably (almost definitely) be the last time we see Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman playing together for Team India in England. These three are the Tireless Trinity, which is a subset of the Famous Five, which itself was a super-set of the Fab Four. For Dravid and Tendulkar, England has a special significance in their careers. It was here that a young Rahul Dravid made his debut for India. It was here that a curly-haired Sachin Tendulkar really hit his straps. After playing 9 Test matches for India and after showing tremendous promise, it was at Manchester, in 1990 that Tendulkar scored his debut Test century; a brilliant century in the second innings. I watched that innings and have followed his career closely ever since that day. He deserved a rousing farewell to England. He was denied that.
This series was important to these three players. I had hoped — nay, expected — that the younger India would carry these players on their shoulders; just as Virat Kohli said they wanted to, “for Sachin”, on winning the World Cup! The younger players had a responsibility to afford the “Tireless Trinity” that farewell. This tour would tell me that, in the absence of a few key players, India would still be able to be tough and uncompromising in its pursuit of excellence.
I expected the younger players to stand up and deliver. I was disappointed in the end. But was it right for me to have these expectations in the first place?
So, hit me, I deserve it (H-MIDI).
What matters most to me is how a team plays the game! The West Indies played the game incredibly well as champions. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, West Indies was the most attractive team going around. They played with an incredible flair, fun and poise. They were entertainers first and champion players next. I admired her players and knew their dates of birth by heart! I admired them more than I did, India!
Later on, the Australians started taking over. The transition was slow and painful. In the 1990s the Australian side was the one to beat. In my view, however, except under Mark Taylor, Australia played the game badly. I hated her teams because of the boorish behavior that accompanied her wins and, more importantly, her losses.
India’s reign at the top has been too short for this team to develop a championship habit and character. However, the team under Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni had tried to play well; tried to play attractive cricket; correct cricket. MS Dhoni even publicly reprimanded and rebuked his star bowler, Sreesanth, for his antics whenever he crossed the line.
India played like a champion side till Dominica happened. Since then, it has played like a tired team that did not want to be on the park!
The first signs of something amiss came at Dominica. For me, this was an eerie mile marker on an important journey. Dominica was, to me, less about the handshake. To me, it reflected the mood, the state of mind and state of readiness of players in the dressing room. It told me that the players wanted to go to the comfort of the Hotel room. It told me that the players were a fatigued lot. Dhoni had already mentioned his Hotel room in the previous Test match in his post-match interview. It seemed to me that that was his refuge; his escape from it all. The draw offer talked to a captain’s (and his team’s) intent in a fight.
To me intent is a powerful phrase. It talks to more than just aims, purpose and objectives. It talks more to the state of one’s mind at the time when one carries out an action or makes a decision. It talks to a goal that is so firmly affixed that one can only approach it with an uncompromising, unwavering and an unrelenting desire.
To me, Dominica had compromised the captain and his team.
I should have reset my expectations for Team India from the England series right then and there. I did not. I hoped that the players that had sat out the West Indies series would bring a freshness to what I saw as a mentally fatigued dressing room.
I was wrong. So, hit me, for I deserve it (H-MIDI).
Upon arrival in England, I admit to being totally alarmed when Rahul Dravid said in his first interview in England on 12 July 2011: “We will be competitive if we can keep our pacers fit.”
I was aghast when I read this. Competitive? Is that what he said? Is that what he actually meant? Competitive? As in “we will put up a good fight”?
But that is not champion speak? Surely! “It cannot be,” I said to myself.
I ignored that warning sign too. I said to myself that India will be more than competitive. India will more than just “make up the numbers and rock up on the park”. I convinced myself that Team India was going to win, regardless! After all, it always has overcome the odds in recent series! So also this time.
Did it? No. So, hit me, for I deserve it (H-MIDI).
India went into the England series with a few players resting from the extreme physical turbulence that the IPL represents. The IPL is an unforgiving tournament. It is not just about 16 games in 45 days. It is just that IPL games come at players with remarkable regularity like a steam train that just will not stop.
And to lay the blame for India’s poor showing at the doorstep of the IPL is just being too lazy!
However, I am also saying that the IPL is an unrelenting, uncompromising and brutal menace. The franchise owners are investors first and their first and foremost responsibility is to their shareholders. They must want the best that their investment can get them. To the investors and franchise-owners, return on investment cannot be unimportant! And if that means Sachin Tendulkar has to do away with an hour’s sleep (or more importantly, an hour’s worth of throw downs) in order to attend to ‘sponsor commitments’, then, that is the way it is. Sponsor commitments will win over cricketing logic!
The IPL is not about 4 overs per bowler or 20 overs on the field or a few overs of biff-bang for batsmen. It is not even about the routine of getting up each day, dusting off the ordeals of the previous days’ game, the after-party, the obligatory late-night booze-up (or other late-night non-mentionables). It is not even about the physical tiredness of finishing off a game, packing up at the ground, traveling to the hotel, washing up, attending the compulsory after-party, sleeping for a few hours, packing up, checking out, travelling to the airport, the 1-hour airport wait, the 2-hour flight, disembarking, collecting your baggage, travelling to the hotel, signing autographs, checking in, settling in, sleeping, waking up the next day, playing another game…
It is not about that at all. It is just that in those 7 weeks, a player does not have the time to focus on the basics of his game. If Irfan Pathan has a problem with the positioning of his right arm while bowling, the 7-week IPL is not one in which he will get this rectified or even looked into! The team is looking to put its players on the park; not to work on rectifying errors that may have crept into his game. The IPL just does not afford a player the opportunity to think, plan and act in a strategic manner, particularly with respect to his fundamentals.
There is no wonder, therefore, that the IPL converts minor niggles into major injuries.
But I am to blame for this too. I go to IPL games. These games represent 3 hours of “paisa vasool” (return on my investment!). The games represent leave-your-mind-at-home fun. I see the advertisements that are on TV when IPL games are on! I buy the products that are advertised during the IPL. I am responsible for providing the BCCI with the cash it earns from the IPL!
So, hit me, for I deserve it (H-MIDI).
Every team aims to be better than it was. India too. Of that, I have no doubt. There is no reason to doubt the commitment of the Team India players. They play with pride and determination. This team has been around for far too long to fall together in a heap at the first sign of trouble. But what we fans must realize is that every other team is looking to improve too. Every other team wants to close the gap on the best team.
And in this regard, I must doff my hat to the way England has played. Every aspect of their game has been exceptionally professional and clinical. Everyone has contributed to the series win. Even Graeme Swann contributed with bat and marginally, with ball. In direct contrast, nothing has gone right for the Indians. Injuries. Bad form. Spirit of Cricket. Last season’s ball. The toss. The toss decisions. Nothing. Just nothing has gone right for India. India has been out-planned and out-played in every single aspect in this series: selections, planning, tactics, batting, bowling, fielding, injury-management…
Take injury-management: England presented themselves as an excellently prepared unit. On the contrary, India presented themselves as a ragged unit that was mentally and physically under-prepared. England had a few injuries too. The replacements were not only adequate. In the case of Tim Bresnan replacing Chris Tremlett, the replacement was actually better! Not only that. The fact that Chris Tremlett was not going to be able to play was transmitted way in advance of the Test match in which Bresnan played. The under-study was ready; he was prepared.
The Indian injuries left the team bereft of options, ideas or purpose. India’s approach to injury-management was immature at best and cavalier at worst. This is a point that has been brought out sharply by other authors. I do not know if this cavalier attitude percolated through the team. And it is incorrect of me to vault into the realm of speculation. However, given the inexplicable manner of the violent capitulation, we are necessarily into the realms of speculation when all other logic fails!
India has always tended to rush its players back from an injury-inflicted lay-off straight into important games. In this series against England Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan were moved into important matches without adequate testing of match fitness. But the injury that hurt India the most was that sustained by Zaheer Khan.
Zaheer Khan is the most important bowler in the team for more than his bowling. He is the commander of the bowling attack. He plans out the bowling. He maps out strategies. He is the go-to player when things do not go right. And when he limped off with a strained hamstring on the first day of the series at Lord’s, it was as though the team had no Plan-B. The air was sucked out of the team as well as the blimp that hung over it. The team was reduced to a rudderless ship when it came to the bowling. And it looked like that malaise had affected the batting too. There were no plans. There was no team. We only saw capitulation after capitulation.
So, while it is easy to admit that England played a superior style of cricket, it is impossible to unpack the capitulation.
The way the team played from the moment it faced its first injury is best captured by this brilliant article by Sriram Dayanad who endured much of this pain first-hand.
But every time there was a setback to this team, I continued to believe. I continued to be positive. I requested and pleaded with everyone to be positive. After all, this team has risen from the dust in the past; none more gruesome than Sydney in 2008! After all this team had risen from 0-1 and 0-2 deficits to claim victory. I had to keep believing. I had to keep the faith.
Instead of admitting the inevitable after seeing the well-oiled England machinery and instead of admiring the thoroughness of England’s approach, I kept hoping for the miracle bounce-back. Did that miracle happen?
No. So hit me, I deserve it (H-MIDI).
This tour represents an important marker in Team India’s journey. MS Dhoni has been tested thoroughly. So far, in my books, he has failed the test. But my view is that he is too good a player and too good a leader to let this be anything other than a big learning experience for him. Dominica was completely in his control. I still believe he stuffed it up. Since then, everything has gone pear-shaped for him. Sometimes you just make your own luck. He chose not to. From then on, hurt and pain have been inflicted on him (and his team) by a team that was just better prepared.
His cause has not been helped by the fact that an anti-BCCI feeling has continued to torment this tour. And in the midst of an awesome revival by England at Nottingham, he was tested by the “Spirit of Cricket” and by Nasser Hussain’s Underpants! In all of this, the DRS-cloud has just not gone away. The BCCI does not deem it necessary to have a media manager to explain its position adequately. The BCCI position can be explained with remarkable aplomb! All it takes is the appointment of a suave, well-informed, articulate media manager. Just look at the VVS Laxman “Vaseline” decision and the Rahul Dravid “Shoe Lace” decisions in this series itself! One can point to the BCCI stance just on the basis of these two decisions! And if that fails, all that the media manager needs to do is brush up on the incredible amount of work that someone like Kartikeya Date has put in to accumulate a defense of BCCI’s position on DRS!
But then the BCCI does not seem to have any credible media policy that adequately manages its position on any aspect of its approach to the game and its responsibility to the game. Instead the BCCI has determined that it is sufficient if it pays two gentlemen — no doubt extremely honorable gentlemen — an awful lot of money, thereby, abrogating itself of its responsibilities at opinion management and opinion leadership!
The team was burdened with bearing the cross of the collective envy of others who saw the team as an extension of a rich and boorish Board. The team was burdened with having to explain the stance of its Board on most things to do with the game on which the Board has a legitimate view! All this when one of the honorable men honored his commitment to his employer by way of a most undesirable spat on live TV that was straight out of a B-Grade Bollywood movie!
But despite these limitations (or perceived limitations), I will continue to believe in this team.
Heck! I believe now that this team will win the 4th Test at The Oval!
And if it does not, well… Hit me, for I will deserve it (H-MIDI).
But remember, the more you hit me, the more I will believe in this team. For I always have!
— Mohan (@mohank on Twitter)