The scene was from SSC, Colombo this past summer. India were gearing up for the second Test after thumping Sri Lanka in the first Test at Galle. ‘New’ coach Ravi Shastri walked in to talk to the media.
“This team is capable of doing things no other Indian team has done before,” he said, referring to the upcoming 12-Test overseas cycle in South Africa, England and Australia.
As if to prove that point, his wards went on to win 3-0, a feat not accomplished by any visiting Indian team in Sri Lanka. Five months later, as the summer scenery has changed from glorious Pallekele to despondent Centurion, they stand on the brink of another ‘never before’. Yes, no Indian team has lost 3-0 in South Africa, yet.
On the morning of day five in Centurion, the Indian team was still in a jovial mood. Shastri walked around with Bharat Arun, keeping an eye on the warm-up drills, and greeting/mixing with commentators doing pre-match shows on the ground. At some distance, Virat Kohli practiced serving with a tennis racquet.
Later, with five minutes to go before ball one, Cheteshwar Pujara walked down from the dressing room and sat down in the Indian dug-out, staring in the distance, looking a picture of concentration. He had a job to do.
Nineteen balls later, Pujara became the first Indian batsman to be run-out twice in one Test. The TV camera cut to the dressing room; Shastri sat alongside Sanjay Bangar. The latter bore a shrug, and the former, well his lips were pursed, almost as if he was speechless. The rest of the batting line-up surrendered with only a fighting whimper from Rohit Sharma and Mohammed Shami later on.
The mind went back to what Shastri had said in the Indian team’s arrival press conference. “Tell me one team in world cricket that has travelled well over the last two years? We have that opportunity and we sense it. For us, every game is a home game. You see the pitch and you adapt, no excuses, no complaints,” the coach had said.
Yes, India haven’t complained about pitches at all. They had no reason to, in Centurion. But even in Cape Town, where the first Test technically ended in three days, no one said anything against nature of the wicket. Why? Wasn’t there too much lateral movement on day four when a juiced-up Newlands pitch tilted the balance in favour of pacers?
“In this series there have been times when it has looked tough, but there have been guys scoring runs and guys taking wickets, so there is always that battle between bat and ball. If you have that, for me it is a good wicket,” said Faf du Plessis, after taking a 2-0 lead in the series.
His words don’t have merit. If the 2015 series in India on raging turners had only one batsman scoring hundreds (Ajinkya Rahane with twins in Delhi), this series too so far has seen only one batsman cross the three-figure mark – Virat Kohli.
Seventeen wickets fell on day four in Cape Town. How is that different from 22 wickets falling on the first two days in the first Test at Mohali three years ago? Just because the ball spun from the go and there wasn’t any seam movement?
The Playing XI problem
When Kohli says that they ‘aren’t complaining about pitches’, it is true because his pacers have brought India within sight of victory twice in two weeks. It is the batsmen who have disappointed. And therein lies the conundrum. Shastri had talked about adaptation on pitches here, but India haven’t picked the right personnel to do the job.
The Indian skipper is keen to point out that India have won 20 (not 21) Tests under his watch, wherein he has changed the playing XI 34 times in 34 matches. Sure, but it also must be pointed out that the formula he hit upon whilst playing on sub-continental pitches worked because those tracks masked deficiencies in this often chopping and changing process.
It didn’t matter if the openers failed, for Pujara wouldn’t get run out twice in two innings. Kohli himself saved the day on umpteen occasions – remember Antigua, Visakhapatnam, Mumbai?
It didn’t matter if the top-order failed completely, or that the entire batting line-up was shuffled around to fit in Rohit, for the likes of Rahane, Wriddhiman Saha and R Ashwin put their hands up. Remember P Sara Oval, Colombo (2015) or St. Lucia (2016)?
Most of all, it didn’t matter because Kohli had the luxury of his spin twins – Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – rolling the opposition over as if they were having breakfast at a beach resort on Sunday morning.
Here, in South Africa, it matters if your openers have poor shot selection. It matters if your number three batsman decides to commit suicide in both innings. It matters if your best Test batsman is twiddling thumbs sitting on the bench, while you play a limited-overs specialist. It matters if your all-rounder is lackadaisical in his approach.
Team India’s disdain towards the media
“What’s the best XI? If we had won, would this be the best XI? You tell me the best eleven and we will play it,” Kohli had countered this writer.
That’s the underlying point. You did not win. Not for two Tests running, despite competitive, chase-able targets. Hubris, or indeed aggressive posturing in press conferences, cannot mask these deficiencies in the playing XI.
The Indian team’s demeanour towards media personnel on this South African tour has been a departure from set protocol. And it began even before they left home shores.
Through the Sri Lankan series, Kohli was conspicuous by his absence in pre and post match conferences. As per usual routine, the captain addresses both yet he was missing half the time. The Test team was selected five weeks prior to departure and there was a gag order issued and players were barred from speaking to the press.
On arrival in South Africa, the local media were not allowed to film their practice routines and could not access the field while the Indian team was on-ground, another departure from practice here. Even ahead of the first Test, Kohli didn’t turn up for the pre-series media conference, an established decorum for visiting captains worldwide. Two local TV crews had walked off in a huff that day even as assistant coach Bangar sat down for the media session.
“The current mood in the dressing room is that the media wants to see this Indian team failing overseas. Maybe it will help their stories,” said a team source, before this Test series had begun.
Does that classify under fear of failure, or of headlines? It is hard to imagine this furtive stand has changed after the captain brazenly questioned South Africa’s (winning) record in India in response to his own team’s overseas failings.
Indeed, it is no secret that relations between the Indian team and the Indian media have been in a downward spiral for some time now. There is a thirst for TRPs and a lack of trust – both sides are to be blamed. Yet, when the skipper (or any other member) cannot be asked tough questions after a 2-0 spanking, the lack of mutual respect comes out as staggering.
The mind wanders again, only this time to the Oval back in 2014 when India had lost 3-1 to England. Then skipper MS Dhoni came for the post-series press conference.
“After losing 8-0 in 2011-12, and now in this (2013-14) overseas cycle, losing 1-0 in South Africa, 1-0 in New Zealand and now 3-1 here, do you think you have done enough as Indian Test skipper? Have you taken this Test team as far as you could?” I had asked.
“Maybe, yes,” was Dhoni’s short, yet graceful reply. Then, he moved on to the next question. For all his limitations as Test captain, that man knew what battles to pick. Perhaps then, Kohli – and this Indian team – is picking the wrong fight?