As optimistic as a few people may be, like I was before the start of the Melbourne test, there is a vast majority of people (most of them Indians) who are very confident about the fact that India will always lose the first test of any series and probably the series itself, away from home. Even more appalling is the fact that a large number of these soothsayers are not even regular cricket followers but the assurance with which they predict this loss, is very commendable to say the least. And then there are people like me, who believe they are pundits of cricket and this ignorant mass does not understand the nuances of the game, and have a quiet laugh about it. Then it comes down to the action on the field and as we wait with bated breath, lo and behold, the soothsayers are right again. It beats me every time when I try to figure it out; so many people defy logic, predict that such a talented team is going to lose, still get away with it and in the process make me look like an adolescent trying to read a novel even before learning the alphabets. It has happened too many times for my liking and let us admit it, no one likes being made to look foolish time and again.
|Rahul Dravid clean bowled: Thrice in Australia so far|
Almost all the top teams in world cricket can boast of being very formidable at home. The environment they have grown up in, the crowd to back them and the know-how of the local conditions put any home team in strong stead ahead of a test series and rightly so. But it certainly does not guarantee a win. It just makes you feel mentally good about going into the game. For the away team also, it is a question of self-belief and getting the basics right. All the top teams in the world are decently matched, a few stronger than the others, but amongst the top 6 teams currently, no team is glaringly ahead of the others in the pack. So for any away team, it comes down to adapting to the conditions and preparing well. Preparation is the key to success in any domain. Much like any exam, the better prepared you are, more confident you will be. If you are prepared to tackle anything that comes your way, more often than not you will do well. Even the converse is true. However talented you may be, lack of preparation certainly dents your confidence and then it becomes difficult to find answers even to the relatively easy questions. That is the difference between achieving the desired result, and failing to achieve it: Preparation. This is one area where Team India has lacked desperately.
|England under Flower and Strauss: Lessons to be learnt|
A very relative case in point is England. After being humiliated 5-0 in Australia in 2007, they wanted to make sure they not only beat Australia at home, as they did in 2005 and 2009, but also beat them in their own backyard. They realized and correctly so, that although they had the necessary firepower to do so, preparation was going to be the key. With that in mind they landed in Australia almost a month before the Ashes to get themselves acclimatized. To top it up, they had even practiced for hours on end against the Australian bowlers even before landing in Australia. If you are wondering how that is possible, the answer is The ProBatter. It is an innovative bowling machine which simulates the entire run up, delivery stride and the actual release of the ball being bowled by any bowler on a screen and then the ball is delivered exactly from the same point from where the bowler would have actually released it. It uses hawk eye to get the trajectory of the ball right and stores data about all kinds of balls bowled by all the bowlers around the world (For a detailed video on how ProBatter works, click here). So even before the warm up games had begun, the English batsmen were very well equipped and fully prepared to tackle all the Australian bowlers. The impact: An astounding 3-1 series win to retain the Ashes urn. Of course it was their consistency, hard work and determination that paid off, but the fact that they were so well prepared for the task, surely helped them achieve what they had not achieved in a very long time. When the Indian board has practically all the money that runs world cricket, investing on such ground-breaking technologies is not a big deal, but the point is does it care enough to do it?
|A dejected Sehwag walks back to the pavilion|
The pitches and conditions back home in India also play a part. The flat tracks which assist spinners in India are great for India to dominate any team in the world. Of course we need to retain the home advantage and continue to play international matches at these venues. But these pitches are also the cause of failure when we travel to foreign shores. A solution to this problem is that at a few cricketing centers in the country for first class cricket, we need some pitches that encourage fast bowlers to run in and bowl fast, move the ball and test the batsmen. The fast bowlers and spinners need to learn how to bowl on seam friendly tracks away from home so that they do not get carried away when they actually see one. As far as the batsmen are concerned, if they are never tested at the domestic level on a regular basis, they are bound to struggle at the international level and that is what is happening. Players like Raina, Yuvraj, Kohli and Ashwin who have been exceptional at home have struggled to adapt in challenging conditions abroad (Ashwin, agonizingly, is the second highest run scorer for India in Australia so far, but he has surely struggled and has not had any impact with the ball). Another factor that also plays a crucial role is scheduling. England kept themselves free for almost two months before the victorious Ashes campaign last year. Before whitewashing India earlier this year (in what was supposed to be a marquee series but turned out to be a damp squib) they had a test series at home against Sri Lanka to get into the groove. Similarly, Australia had a test series at home against their Trans-Tasman rivals New Zealand to prepare for the India series. Although they suffered a defeat in one of the two tests, it still got the ball rolling and the consequences of that we have already seen in Melbourne and Sydney.
By stark contrast, India after their victorious world cup campaign, even before the feeling of being world champions had actually settled in, went into the IPL. Extensive traveling across the country, so many matches cramped in such a little time and all of it for a “domestic” T20 competition; hardly the kind of scheduling you would expect just before a very important test series in completely alien conditions. To be perfectly honest, it was not at all surprising that the players broke down in England. The physical and mental fatigue had to catch up with them at some stage, and it did. Similarly, before leaving for Australia, most of the squad played a one-day series against one of the weaker attacks in the world on some of the most batting-friendly pitches in the world. These are just a few instances but rest assured, there have been plenty of these in recent times. The BCCI and the men at the helm need some serious scheduling tips. The players, their workloads and their injuries need to be managed very systematically. Only then it is possible to forge a healthy environment and a winning culture in the camp. At any given point of time, you need a pool of about 25 players who are ready to step up to the challenge and play at the highest level.
Yes, we are faced with a monster that raises its ugly head every time we go abroad. We have lost our Numero Uno status in test cricket. We have not slipped; we have been toppled over and come stumbling down. We do not play an away test series for nearly two years (Yes. We don’t go abroad for almost two years; an ingenious piece of scheduling yet again). During these two years it is more than likely that we will continue to bully the teams that come to India and climb upwards in the rankings again. So we have time to address all these issues, but in the current scheme of things they are unlikely to be addressed any time soon. Two years from now, when Team India will again embark on a voyage to foreign shores, hopefully these issues will be resolved. If that is indeed the case, we will be in good stead and I am less likely to make a fool out of myself again. If it is not, the monster will raise its ugly head again. Only this time (with probably either one, two or all three of Sachin, Dravid and Laxman gone) it will be far more deadly, dangerous and destructive. I sincerely hope that this monster never sees the light of the day again, but I had also hoped that India would win its first ever test series Australia this time around. Well, you can either blame Fate or Team India or BCCI or for that matter even me. I made my choice. You make yours!
My next feature: A look back at Melbourne and Sydney and a look ahead at Perth and Adelaide.