Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dirty Picture: The Indian Story 2011

Best Blog Tips

(A post reproduced from almost exactly a year ago...)

India started 2011 in the most enviable position. Ranked #1 in Tests and with a legitimate chance of winning the World Cup. With tours to the West Indies, England and Australia lined up, I truly believed India had the resources and the motivation to extend their supremacy.

The year began well when Greame Smith; possibly  out of respect to Virendra Sehwag; chose not to force a series win and India gained much needed respect for drawing a Test series in South Africa with a win in the Durban Test.

Then India and Mahendra Sing Dhoni delivered one of the most memorable performances in World Cup history by lifting the World Cup under the most intense pressure any home team is likely to face, possibly in any sport. Barring a freakish loss to South Africa, India were hard to beat throughout the entire tournament. Against the lesser teams they did just enough and they beat every other past World Cup champion as the tournament progressed - a fact that made this World Cup win that much more sweet.

In April 2011, to be an Indian cricket fan meant... bragging rights and endless hope

Then we had the IPL; something like 28 minutes after Mahendra Singh Dhoni clubbed the World Cup winning 6; although the break seemed a little less than a tea break in a Test match.

Leaving the player auctions aside; the IPL generally is a good thing. For the game in India. For business. For the players; both Indian and foreign. But sometimes its benefits are overstated and the disruptions it causes in the short term are ignored, denied and wished away.

2011 was a good example of that. The negative impact of the IPL's 2011 edition to India's standing as a Test nation cannot be denied. There is no doubt in my mind that had we rested our Test team after the World Cup, made national cricket a priority, sent a full strength team to the West Indies, had adequate practice games in England, the results would have been vastly different.

But as the IPL progressed and player after player revealed injuries deep into the tournament, our fears for the worst started to emerge. Suddenly England and Australia seemed daunting tours because it was evident that even the greatest of our great cricketers had completely succumbed to and enslaved by the politicians, corporations and film makers that run the IPL.

Test Cricket was no longer the focus of India's leading cricketers and for the BCCI, maintaining India's #1 standing in the format suddenly had no business case. Whatever sound bytes that were uttered around Test cricket being the ultimate; was mere lip-service. 

From West Indies - April 2011 to Sydney - January 2012, the sum of all fears; the disruption caused by the IPL, ageing batting line up, injuries, conflicting priorities and hectic scheduling; all amounted to something far greater than the sum of the parts and Indian cricket spiralled uncontrollably, but not unexpectedly into mediocrity. 

Helping it along the way were the men who run, play, and sell Indian cricket. They insulated themselves so much from the visible problems that to them every set back was occasion for an excuse and doing nothing became the only solution. Cobbled together the actions, in-actions, decisions and in-decisions paint an extremely dirty picture.

Here is the story line as we saw and captured it in our posts...

Sachin Tendulkar decides that IPL is more important than a tour of the West Indies. Of course the Ambani's had a say in this but if Sachin cannot be backed to put country before club, why even fool ourselves into believing that between club and country, country stands any chance. Under the guise of 'I want to spend more time with my family', Sachin Tendulkar skipped the entire tour of the West Indies and while a Test was on, was seen prominently in the most repulsive set of images I have seen in 2011. Flirting with Roger Federer @ Wimbledon when he should really have been giving his all to help India win all Test matches on the West Indies tour.

2011 is the year Sachin Tendulkar became just another cricketer.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni leads India to an expected win in the first Test on the West Indies tour. Then he takes the mike in the post match press conference and delivers perhaps some of the the most arrogant and unsportsmanlike responses to questions by any Indian captain. He creates a babel of words around his love for hotel rooms and makes personalized comments against a specific umpire.

India never won another Test away from home in 7 more tries. 8 if you consider Sydney as well.

Then in the 3rd Test at Dominica Dhoni actually believed that India would lose 7 wickets chasing 90 odd in 15 overs. As the year progressed that belief turned into reality many times over as India's famed batsmen failed to routinely cross 300.

Emotionally exhausted after the world cup, physically spent after the IPL and after a tour of the West Indies which many cricketers viewed as a voluntary social service, India arrived in England foolishly believing that they can compete. 

They could not.

Just as we predicted.

Pre Series, we predicted a 0-2 loss which after Lord's was down graded to 0-4.

Why men like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virendra Sehwag, and Zaheer Khan did not do more to come better prepared left me with a sense of betrayal. What value do these seniors bring to the team if they are unwilling to influence priorities and make a stand and instead simply be content to play the 'We are victims of the system' card. 

A 0-4 performance was engineered by a total failure of the middle order and a green bowling attack. And yet no one took accountability for the disaster. India sold the humiliation as a 'one-off'. Perhaps the first instance of a whitewash which was successfully but ultimately wrongly; attributed to a perfect storm of minor events.

There is no known instance of the #1 ranked cricket team getting white washed. India became that team. The miracle wasn't the whitewash it self, rather it was the consummate ease with which the media bought the pathetic excuses; mostly conjured up from thin air and occasionally from the back sides of players and administrators.

We did not buy it. We called it a spectacular betrayal and called for the seniors (Sachin, in particular) to make way for the next generation

Rebuilding had to start post-England. Although realistically we knew India's cricket setup is not designed for such proactive measures. When Sachin played in the first Test in the home series against the West Indies, following the England tour, we said, he has played one Test too many.

India moved on. Settling yet again for celebrations of personal milestones. It was like the 90s all over again. Only this time celebrating personal milestones seemed hollow. That Dravid had a prolific year as a batsman meant nothing because India kept losing. We did not buy the world cup narrative that finally Sachin had achieved everything in his career. No. Far from it. It will always be a painful reminder that in spite of having the luxury of playing as part of the world's best team, he will retire without having won a Test series in Sri Lanka, West Indies, Australia and South Africa.

A 100 100s may have meant something more in the 90s not any more.

Greed and Insult
The BCCI like many boards, have sold far more than they think with the TV rights to corporations. That fact was exposed when England toured India for a series of 5 ODIs immediately after defeating India 0-4 in a Test series. 

The series had no context in a cricketing sense.

From a dollars perspective, it was perhaps necessitated because of an ODI series abandoned in 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks.

The sponsors packaged it as a 'Revenge Series'. It was a direct assault on the intelligence of the common fan. They responded by staying away.

Irreversible Mediocrity
After the England ODIs West Indies visited India for a full tour even at home, India embarrassed themselves by failing to chase a sub-300 score against a friendly West Indies attack. The embarrassment however was not felt, so its wrong to call it an embarrassment. So let's call it plain denial. By now India's cricket team had miraculously insulated itself from any criticism and taken an ostrich-like approach to introspection. England was sold as 'bad luck' and every defeat or non-performance was drowned as a statistic in the face of meaningless personal milestones including the nation's quest for Sachin's 100th.

There was a time when there was legitimate pride in individual achievements and milestones. Gavaskar's 10,000th run was truly historic. The joy of Gavaskar's 29th Test 100 lasted for months. It didn't matter that we lost the Test Series 0-3 to the West Indies. Kapil's quest for his 432nd was laborious but with international Test wins scarce, the pursuit of the goal seemed wholly acceptable to most except probably Javagal Srinath.

For brief periods men like Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Ajit Wadekar had the skills to create winning teams from superlative individuals but it wasn't until Saurav Ganguly that India learnt how to win consistently. While the nation still celebrated Sachin's milestones during Ganguly's era and it continued to overshadow India's achievements; against the backdrop of Sachin's achievements was India's growing supremacy in Test Cricket.

In 2011 as the wins dried up, there was nothing to hold on to other than the personal milestones of Sachin, VVS and Dravid.

When the Australian tour came, India continued to live in denial. Expecting wins when England and West Indies had shown that the core team was far too obsessed with managing their own career extensions than deliver wins or think about what's in India's long term interest.

Unwilling to trust assurances from VVS Laxman and Dravid, once again we predicted a 0-2 trashing. It confirmed to us that India's seniors are now completely out of touch with reality and had an over sized estimate of their capabilities.

Disrespect, arrogance, betrayal, greed, and insult resulted in India embracing mediocrity. Inventing excuses along the way. To us, it is evident that the rot is irreversible. We need a new team. When a number one ranked team filled with all-time greats loses 6 in a row; something drastic needs to be done.

Looking ahead
India needs to shed its obsession with Sachin Tendulkar. Without any fault of his own, he has succeeded in taking us back into the 90s where humiliating losses are swept under a carpet decorated with individual achievements.

India needs to rebuild. And if Sachin, Rahul and VVS do not agree, their agreement should be deemed unnecessary. They need to be dropped (asked to retire) not because there are better players waiting but because we need to invest in players who will give us new wins again; may be not in the next few year but shortly after that.