INDIA at WC: Aura Dissolved; Blame Not Absolved

For a second year running, the Indian team has had a dishonourable exit from the ICC World Twenty20. If anything, it appeared as if no lessons were learnt in the nine months that separated the second edition in England from the third edition in the Caribbean.

It has led to a brouhaha; some of which is being blamed on the media for propaganda;some more is being pinned on fanatic fans who simply expect too much of their team. So, is all the fret and fury unjustified? The jury is still out on the extent of justifiable outrage but there is a degree of actual cricket logic behind why the storm is being raised in the first place.

Domestic frenzy over national disaster

The blame games can be soap opera-like and they can be tiresome.But none can deny that the bottom line is that this is perhaps the most comprehensive comprehensive, conspicuous, collective failure by the team, management and administration, perhaps even of the fans for not being more aware of the team’s baggage. What could have ended with a “we were simply not good enough” has been forced into a post mortem, a pertinent one nevertheless.

This has to be the most audacious outing yet. It is not about the performance; it is about the attitude that percolates from the top of cricket administration down onto the field. It has, perhaps for the first time, blatantly revealed the arrogance and gall of the cricketers who wear the national cap, and yet have the insolence to come back with excuses conjured at leisure, and not entirely explanatory, which are then conveniently dismissed by the blinded-by-money board. Was the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 supposed to be an all expenses paid ego trip?

Tact pays, Dhoni simply forgot

Blame it on a weary mind. Even as the words left Dhoni’s lips, the general surmise perhaps was – forget the sex dossier. This should be far more compelling. After all, how often has Mahendra Singh Dhoni seemed to rant at the post match presentation what he should have been telling his boys back in the dressing room? The Indian captain was at it again in the final press conference after India were beaten by Sri Lanka in their final Super Eights match and the free-for-all turned back on him.

No doubt, Dhoni was perhaps responding when queried about the impact of the IPL, but there was no denying that the IPL and its after effects, especially the IPL parties, had become a handy excuse that Dhoni appeared only too happy to forward with an uncharacteristic and unbecoming broad grin plastered across his face, “I’ve had no setbacks because of the IPL but at the same time players need to be smart because IPL is not only about cricket. You have to respect your body and if you don’t do that then IPL is draining. If you play late games and go to the parties and travel the next day it takes a toll. But if you take care of yourself 45 days of cricket shouldn’t affect you because we play 200 or more in a year.”

Over simplified and unconvincing,Dhoni sounded un-Dhoni-like because Dhoni, by his own admission, did not attend a single party and his criticism was clearly restricted to a few players and also, perhaps coaxed into making those statements even as the board battles Lalit Modi on the various IPL sore points, parties being one of them. What was appalling was that Dhoni was perhaps unaware that his previous brush with the post match presentation - when he stated after the loss to the West Indies that the match against Sri Lanka would only be a consolation and India would be taking the flight home – shocked many because it showed that perhaps India thought little of themselves and did not even bother to calculate the odds of having an outside chance of making it.

The real reasons for India’s exit

For those who admonish the criticism of the Indian team as a witch hunt, here are some cricket reasons why the Indian team find themselves cornered.

1. No practice

This is perhaps where it all began. The Indian captain cited an hour and half journey from the airport in St. Lucia to their hotel as the reason why the Indians were not going in for a practice session.Thereafter skipping training sessions became the norm with the Indians,unmindful of the change of venues,instead chose the sands, sun, and beaches instead of net practices. It is any wonder then they were outplayed on the one surface that mattered most – the cricket pitch?

That the board did not even think it fundamentally wrong that the team was not going to get any time to acclimatize - India were the only team to skip the warm up matches - is a red flag right there.

After all playing in the West Indies is not like playing in India and thinking that the IPL was practice enough or that the board did not feel compelled to shorten or reschedule the IPL so that the players could have a break, recuperate and actually get together for a conditioning camp and warm up sessions points rather obviously to greed or their ignorance that the players, especially those in the sub continent, would find it a lot harder on the pitches in the West Indies. Was that an oversight? And how? Equally baffling was Dhoni’s remark that one practice session would not have made a difference to the outcome of the match!

2. Tactical blunders

At least a half a dozen strategical bloopers,assuming there was a strategy in place in the first place, can be pointed out. At times, it appeared that the fielders were left to their own device; there was no real plan to the batting order; and the bowling decisions were downright confounding.There certainly was none of the planning and thinking that went into plotting the rise of the Chennai Super Kings. And Dhoni’s words once again stand out after the IPL 3 final when he stated explicitly that he had plotted the downfall of Kieron Pollard in the final through the innovative field setting devised and practiced in collusion with Mathew Hayden. Perhaps then that the only reason the Indian captain cannot back up his defense of his team’s performance is because no concrete planning went into it.

But perhaps the most glaring decision that will stand out against Dhoni and those that have aided the decision making will be his decision to field first after winning the toss twice in succession at the Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, Barbados.While Dhoni talked the talk about wanting to exploit the juice in the pitch that would afford pace and bounce, he went out and threw Harbhajan Singh, the off spinner, the ball! What is even more disappointing is the predictability factor. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain,stated in his column before the same Super Eights match that he felt fairly confident India would bring spin on first up.

It was particularly unforgivable given that Gary Kirsten has played in the West Indies, Eric Simons has been the coach of South Africa before taking up the role of India’s bowling coach/consultant, and both men would have known the effect of utilizing fast bowlers. What it alludes to is that either Dhoni was playing the match without the benefit of the advice in the dressing room or it reflects a point that came to the mind first upon seeing Harbhajan bowl the first delivery - that the decision to bowl first was defensive if only to deny the opposition with a better fast bowling attack first use of the pitch.In turn, it betrays a lack of confidence in the batsmen as well. And that theory seemed to hold ground when India once again repeated the appalling decision against the West Indies. How does a team that takes a defensive approach like that expect to win? That is not the mindset of a champion.

Even worse after electing to bowl first,the second unmistakable blooper was when Dhoni decided to go ahead with Ravindra Jadeja instead of inserting another fast medium bowler. Even when Jadeja went for six successive sixes over two overs in the match against Australia,Dhoni did not see reason to trade him for someone like Vinay Kumar who should have been the natural choice once Praveen Kumar was injured for Barbados.If Vinay was considered a novice to be played, why was he even picked?

3. Selection ponderings

Here is where the situation becomes onerous on the selectors as well. After all being a selector is no longer a honourary position. The Indian selectors are now paid members of the BCCI which means their accountability also affects their wages, although it is not incremental by way of bonus yet.

It was a little surprising when Dhoni inadvertently played for the selectors when he said at the press conference, “At the end of the day we are on the losing side, nothing much can be done about it because this is the best 15 (players) you can get in India when it comes to T20. At the end of the day if you are outplayed, there is nothing much you can do about it.”

If indeed this is the best eleven that India had to offer and that they cannot even string together a good second playing eleven suggests that the IPL is a waste of time. It is easy for the selectors to hide behind the curtains, claiming that the players who came good in the IPL were not picked because of the ICC’s mandatory team line up announcement much earlier than the commencement of the tournament. But are not the selectors paid to keep their eyes open right through the cricket season?

Glaring omissions such as Robin Uthappa or Pragyan Ojha to name just two have not be lost upon the average Indian fan and these omissions were mentioned as much even when the team was first announced. That they would come to haunt India with what-if-only questions that are too late to ask seemed ominous.

4. Sloppy fielding – perennial problem

If there is one area that the Indians seem to perennially lack, it is in the fielding department. What was more appalling was that the Twenty20 team was expected to comprise younger, fitter, more agile members and yet it seemed to make little difference to the runs saved when India were fielding.

Twenty20 may be all about the big hitting but when India look back on this tournament, they will release the benefit that some of the other teams enjoyed simply by strangling the runs, even the ones and twos, forcing teams into errors they would not have made otherwise and risks they would not have contemplated. It is an area no doubt that the Indian coach, Gary Kirsten, would look carefully at given that he comes from a nation that
prides itself on its fielding, if nothing else.

5. Domestic standard, international competition

If one needed to know how big a bridge there is cross between playing like a team that has been stuck in the domestic circuit too long and an international team, one had only to look at the running between the wickets. Where other teams were pushing to convert ones into twos, and the Indian fielders were not really threatening, the Indian batsmen were so sluggish that even when the possibility of two runs presented itself, they were either far too lethargic or wary of the opposition that they did not think it worth their salt.

For anyone who thinks the IPL is doing more than allow the Indian cricketers an insight into the ethics of some of the foreigners, this should be the reality check. Playing forty-five days, day in and day out has lulled the Indian cricket team into thinking that all they had to do was get together and the pieces were simply fall into place. That is not how it works on the international stage and this was merely a reminder that playing for one’s country means lifting one’s game by a couple of notches at the very least.

6. Short pitched nightmare returns

The champions of 2007 were reduced to novices with the bat once the opposition knew the Indians were shying away from the rising ball (the decisions with the toss were pretty easy to decipher). Dhoni’s defense of the batsmen holds little water, “Most of us have the problem of playing short-pitched balls. So it is not just the youngsters who had problems. We can’t neglect it any more. But we don’t have bowlers who consistently at 145-50 kph and most of wickets in India don’t have that kind of bounce. But we should also remember we are good players of spin. So we shouldn’t be ashamed that we can’t play short-pitched bowling. We have to play even against short balls but we can’t be ducking and leaving all the time in Twenty20.”

Read that line again - “we should not be ashamed…” There is a danger when the captain is preaching what he cannot teach. What contest did the Indians think they were entering into? And to forward the excuse about countering the short pitched bowling would have perhaps been palatable of minnows, not of a team and certainly not from the captain of a team that is touching the pinnacle of the sport in the other formats and already achieved success in the Twenty20 version. It is particularly disappointing that the star batsman in someone like Gautam Gambhir was exposed, that the opening position was an unresolved issue with Murali Vijay finding his feet in the absence of Virender Sehwag, and the Indians were often found wanting right through the batting order, no exceptions.

And if it is such an obvious problem as Dhoni states – and it is not only obvious but also, prevalent widely amongst the Indian batsmen in the line up – the question goes begging – why was it not addressed before the tournament? Why no warm up matches and why the lack of practice sessions?

7. Numbers game

Backing eight batsmen, as Dhoni says is India’s strength, is ironical because of the obvious batting weaknesses and when the team has not been able to put up or chase targets through the strength of their batting.But with only three bowlers and one genuine fast bowler at best, how did they think they were going to win? Where three fast bowlers were mandatory, India gambled with two and with Ashish Nehra coming back from injury and Zaheer Khan feeling the effects of another, India had the option to use the in-form Vinay Kumar more. Yet, they choose to persist with Ravindra Jadeja.

The opposition had incisive pace bowling to decimate India and India had no response. The batting order seem tawdry at best. Dhoni batting lower the order did not make sense, and even though Suresh Raina scored a century against South Africa, like the other Indian batsmen, he was found leaden footed at the crease against the short ball. Yuvraj Singh was playing second fiddle, when he should have been the front man. That he was recovering from injury only means perhaps he was not the best man for the job for this edition. On what basis someone like Piyush Chawla was picked continues to remain something of a mystery. Equally mysterious is why Vinay was not let loose on pitches he would have enjoyed. Perhaps a practice session would have told if Vinay was a gamble worth the risk. There is no mention of Yusuf Pathan because there is nothing worth mentioning, which is something the team should seriously rethink in terms of positioning and timing.

8. Captain redundant

Dhoni also stated at the press conference,“As captain you are always under pressure.I think it’s the responsibility of the captain to explain why the team didn’t do well because he’s the face of the team. He gets the credit when he goes well and he also gets the criticism. It shouldn’t reach into your private life but we are leading a country where cricket is a big sport and each time we go out, we are expected to win.”

Words that allude to the pressure but there seems to be no taking responsibility for the failure. As far as explanations are concerned, the fans are not really looking for excuses. They would have satiated themselves with a good fight, even it did not convert into victory. Dhoni has been a captain on the lines of being a self-made man and even enjoyed the Midas touch,but this has to be a low. And it is important he face and own up to the reality – perhaps he was doing that in part by mentioning the IPL - rather than brush it off because this simply was not –just another tournament. And another –not just another tournament – is only round the corner in the form of the 2011 ICC World Cup and that too at home.

9. Giving in too easily

This is perhaps what has hurt most for those who watched the shambles that was the Indian performance in the Caribbean. Only days ago, ahead of the IPL semi final, Dhoni, as the Chennai Super Kings,quipped that the team owed the franchisees a semi final spot for their investment.Exponentially how many more times then does the Indian team owe its place of pride to the people of the nation and to those that have reposed such an enormous privilege and honour on them? If everything is being monetarily equated it is not like the cricketers in India earn peanuts through the retainer and the match fees. Somewhere the accountability did not sound loud enough and that is what has incensed the millions of followers back home. It is not a good sign when even former Indian cricketers, including those that have played alongside not so long ago, now state that perhaps the members of the Indian team felt less pressure,cocky of their position, and therefore, less forthcoming to stretch themselves in their national duties as opposed to the intensity and pressure that compelled them through the matches in the IPL.

The will to fight is not only a visible quality but often compensates for teams lacking in other areas. But the Indian team did not even appear to want to fight to stay alive and looked rather smug, resigning to their fate even before the final bugle was sounded. Potbellied but no stomach for the fight meant that the Indian cricketers were merely paid tourists, not ambassadors for whom the nation raised a toast to not three years ago. If they expected the nation to lift them to cloud nine when they touched the stars, they must also be wary of the adulation, especially when they fail to pull up their socks.

 


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