Monday, 1 August 2011

Champions no more

Over the last ten days or so, the chinks in India's armoury have been brutally exposed. The lack of firepower and the slowness of the aging feet in the outfield have left the world's No.1 side struggling against a much younger and fitter England side which has fielded a vastly superior attack. It does not matter from here on what the outcome of the series will be. The truth is that England have proved themselves a vastly superior side and a side that deserves to be No.1. It is merely a question of how soon the fact becomes official.

The manner in which things have turned out is hardly surprising for any discerning fan. The extent of India's dependence on Zaheer Khan was evident. Given the fact that Zaheer is now in his mid 30s, he was going to be one injury away from the end of his international career. We also knew that at some point in time in the not so distant future Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman- all in their late 30s now- were going to retire, leaving behind gaping holes in the middle order.

Truth be told, it was an extraordinary effort by India to not only get on top but also remain there for nearly two years. An aging middle order in its last legs and an attack that holds no horrors for any opposition is hardly the stuff of champions. There never really was any doubt that Dhoni's India was not even comparable to Lloyd's West Indies or Waugh's Australia. It was no more than a very competitive side that consistently punched above its weight. The fact that most of India's wins abroad in recent years were 1-0 wins just goes to show that the Indians were consistently keeping opposition sides at bay while doing just enough to win one game a series. The 1-1 draws against Sri Lanka and South Africa last season just showed how vulnerable the table toppers really were.

Those vulnerabilites have been mercilessly exposed by a side that not only had the attack, but also the belief and the sheer bloody mindedness to pull all punches. In the face of England's onslaught, the Indians have been left totally defenceless. Missing the spearhead and the regular openers would be a huge setback to any side. The fact that their best spinner has been a shadow of the champion bowler he once was, has only made things worse. What should be most worrying though, is the manner in which the batting has imploded. Far too many wickets have fallen to bad shots, the captain himself most culpable in this regard. It is most probably due to the relentless pressure that England have exerted on the Indian batsmen. 

England have been the very anti-thesis. Everytime they have been confronted by adversity, they have managed to find someone to hit back emphatically. In the first test, it was Pietersen in the first innings and Prior in the second, who took the game away from the Indians. With the ball, it was Broad in the first and Anderson in the second innings who sent the Indians scattering. Broad returned to torment the Indians, single-handedly blowing out the lower half of the batting to contain the deficit to a most manageable 67. Ten behind with two wickets down, it was Ian Bell who pulled the carpet off from under the feet of the Indians. In many ways, the manner in which England have played has been reminiscent of Australia in the late 90s. This is a side that can genuinely contend for the top slot.

The Indians on the other hand have looked the pale shadow of a top drawer side. The bowling has been good without being extraordinary. The fact that their bowlers have not had anything vaguely resembling the support their opposite numbers have enjoyed on the field has meant that they have not been able to exert the kind of pressure England have consistently managed. Exposed to the new ball everytime, the middle order has struggled to stand up to English pacemen. The tail has just fallen apart time and again, in contrast to England's tail, which has stood up to be counted everytime.

The defending champions have looked defenceless. Thanks to the ridiculous scheduling, which has left their bowlers are playing their fifth test in six weeks, there have been far too many tired bodies ont he field. Perhaps that, more than anything else, has resulted in a team that no longer has the stomach for a scrap- the one quality that has brought them so far. Watching this series, its hard not to remember that famous battle between Mohammed Ali and Larry Holmes, when a once great athlete was bludgeoned into submission by a much younger, fitter and fresher opponent.

Nevertheless, its not all doom and gloom. With a host of young batsmen like Raina, Kohli, Mukund, (Rohit) Sharma and Pujara, India can look forward to fielding a pretty decent line upin the future. In (Ishant) Sharma, Patel, Kumar, Mithun and Sreesanth, India have some pretty decent pace bowlers. Ojha, Chawla and Ashwin are pretty promising young spinners. With such talented youngsters to call upon, India can remain a pretty competitive side in the future.

Right now however, its time to bid goodbye to the golden era of Indian cricket. Never before had India reached the top of the pile in test cricket. Never before had they consistently won home and away. Only once before had they won a World Cup. This was the generation which was the first Indian side to win a series in Pakistan, which won a test series in the West Indies after 35 years, a series in New Zealand after 41 years, a series in England after 21 years and was the first ever Indian side to come back from a tour of South Africa without losing.

Long after the legends are gone, with the benefit of hindsight, we will truly appreciate the extraordinary work they did in transforming a directionless and underperforming side once rated at No.7 on the ICC rankings to a top ranking one without a strong attack. Its an achievement that is unlikely to be ever matched by any side. India owes an ode to the men who made it possible.

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