The spring of 2019 brought with itself a myriad of vagaries of a changing India. The doldrums over the ensuing elections, the never-ending experiments eying the World Cup and a nation shaken to its core by the ugly clutches of terrorism topped the table of such omens insinuating a capricious year ahead. Amidst such uncertainties, there came the feeble Aussies ostensibly to give India a bludgeoning lead in their preparations for the World Cup. India started off well to propel themselves to a hefty podium after crushing the Kangaroos in the first two of the five-match series which looked to be a mere formality of taking India to the Numero-Uno position in the world of cricket. But the Almighty of the gentleman’s game had something else in mind. The Australian side considered by many as the weakest one to travel India in two decades, more so by the absence of Steven Smith and David Warner, their prolific scoring duo, suddenly found game-changers in the otherwise average Khwaja, Turner or Hnadscomb or Cummins. The Mad Max storm in the just concluded T20 series had already been overlooked as cricketing aberrations or simply fluke. India had already closed its door of accepting that defeat in a sporting manner and learning from the mistakes committed during the series. But the blows in ODIs got heavier with every passing match. Finally, India lost three consecutive matches to hand over the trophy to the Aussies who by then were beaming with new found confidence just at the right time. It was a tale of the Phoenix, rising from the ashes. We, on the other hand, again failed to listen to the omens and became busy in celebrating the modern day circus of Cricket- the IPL and its fake glory and colors. None had even a day’s time to ponder over that series defeat and find out any panacea to cure the inherent disease in the team.
It was strange to see India’s concern over only the No 4 position as if everything else was just perfect. Eventually, the sellers of cricket in India willfully made it a national debate. Who will bat at No 4? The juicy debate rocked the drawing rooms, tea stalls, cafes, and whatnot as if it was just the last piece to stitch to make a fairy tale. Captain Kohli had already touted Rayudu as the first choice man for the role and by then India had already invested heavily in him, overlooking any other options from a pool of a plethora of talented individuals like Shreyash Iyer, Ajinkya Rahane, Manish Pandey, Sanju Samson. None of them was given chances in consecutive matches in any series since Champions Trophy 2017. A hugely talented youngster like Samson was not even handed over his ODI debut despite continuously performing at the domestic level. So our Man Friday Rayudu was the guy slated to bat for India at the most crucial batting position in cricket. And we must say he was not a bad investment. He had already proved his mettle despite having age on the wrong side. Then came the infamous Yo-Yo test in England which debarred his entry in the ODI squad to play in the summer of 2018 in the soil of the World Cup 2019 hosts. However better sense soon prevailed and he was hurriedly brought back in the squad against the Aussies in the home series, just to be thrown out ingloriously soon.
While nations like England, Australia or New Zealand were busy in ODI matches in the last quarter leading to the World Cup, our guys were happily playing IPL matches, as if the performances therein would make the task of the selectors easy for finalizing the squad for the World Cup. And the squad was announced amidst much fanfare. The bunch of jokers had left out Rayudu, Pant, Pandey or Iyer. The last three scored heavily in the IPL, while a year had already been wasted in investing in the first. And who were to replace them? Vijay Shankar and Kedar Jadav, who to go by the words of the selectors provided 3D options for the team. Vijay Shankar apart from a cameo in New Zealand did not have any performance to boast of. Kedar was equally a pathetic choice with not a single brilliant overseas performance in his kitty. Their performances in the IPL were reflections of their average merit. Then exactly what yardsticks were considered for the selection of the team ready to fly to England with an eye at the Holy Grail of the world cricket? This is bound to happen when you have someone like MSK Prasad at the helm of the affairs of selection, whose press conferences as the Chief Selector outnumber his international runs. Period.
Seeing India investing so much in the wrist spinners (Don’t call them leg spinners. Shhh. Out team management may not like you, even though the great Shane Warne never called himself a wrist spinner. He was happy to be a leg spinner. Pun intended.) in the last couple of years raised eyebrows of many pundits including Sourav Ganguly. The Kul-Cha duo was being hailed as something India has not experienced ever while an actual three dimensional player with praiseworthy spinning variations like Ravinder Jadeja was sideline for matches after matches. Just because he was a finger spinner and an outspoken guy? And what happened in the World Cup matches? Chahal was continued to be favoured even after giving away record-breaking 88 runs in 10 overs against England. Kuldeep lost the tag of the blue-eyed boy of the think tank and was found to warm the benches for eternity. Jadeja had to be called in the midway and the rest is history. So the disease of investing in something and not keeping the faith till the end is not new for this team management. And the result was obvious. Utter confusion, sheer disappointment, and a World Cup lost.
IPL was cleverly used by some of the maestros shining in the ongoing edition of the World Cup. David Warner, Steven Smith, Johny Bairstow are the glaring examples. On the other hand, guys like Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Glenn Maxwell or Joe Root did not even enroll themselves at the auction just to prepare for the World Cup. We, on the other hand, were a benevolent and benign host. We allowed them to know us, our weaknesses, and our fragilities while we buried our face in the sand as if none was looking at us or what was going on in our minds. Our complacency, ignorance, and arrogance paid a dear price in the end. Basking in the fake and meaningless glory of IPL matches proved to be disastrous.
Let’s call a spade a spade. You cannot win present day ODI matches if you waste deliveries in the middle overs just like the way water is wasted in the roadside taps of this water-starved nation. India won the 2011 World Cup because there was a Yuvraj Singh in the middle overs who used to always keep the scoreboard ticking with continuously pushing the ball here and there. But if you are there in the middle fidgeting with the ball and planning to win it in the last over of every match, you are living in a fool’s paradise. And more so if you are past your prime, your heydays. This is the curious case of Mahendra Singh Dhoni who refused to believe that he is no longer a match winner and with such lackadaisical attitude, utterly unsuitable in the present day cricket, you can win a match or two against minnows like West Indies or Afghanistan but not against a side as strong as the Kiwis. The top order did their job consistently in the group matches. At least for one match, MSD had to be his former self. He had to do what Yuvraj did when he himself was the captain. And as expected, the old and the tired horse waited for an end that never came. And he became a prisoner of the castle he once built himself. Sad but true.
Are there no rays of hope? Of course, there are many. Rohit Sharma, Jaspreet Bumrah, Shami, Jadeja are the silver linings in the dark clouds hovering around Indian cricket. Indian bowling has never looked so ominous. Our fielding has seen a sea-change in the last couple of years. But there is a Herculean task ahead, too. Sourav Ganguly rightly said that experiments can be done in a match or two but not for a period over a couple of years. We need to have a long term plan and have to be flexible enough to accommodate whatever comes on the way. Arrogance cannot produce long term benefits. And captain Kohli must understand the value of his wickets in crucial matches and attach a price tag on his wicket. And a few people must understand the writings on the wall. The head coach and a few seniors are the ones. Till then keep the Holy Grail for the more deserving ones.