India’s dramatic slide in South Africa means that transition might have been advanced by a couple of years.
On December 30 last year, Indian cricket was sitting on top of the world, with a rainbow around the shoulders. They had won 2-1 in Australia, led 2-1 in England and had won a Test in Centurion for the first time. Sixteen days later, they had lost the Test series in South Africa, and in another eight days had been outplayed 3-0 in the ODI series.
India’s dramatic slide in South Africa, a team much lower on the scale of talent and experience, means that transition — inevitable, inexorable, inescapable — might have been advanced by a couple of years. It also means, of course, that the game in South Africa has recovered at a faster rate than expected. This is good for the game. Test cricket needs strong teams and robust competition.
What happened to India too may be a good starting point for a team which had put off making some tough decisions on the back of recent victories. The fact that they were forced to go into the final Test and the ODI with an inexperienced captain indicated the authorities were not prepared for the transition. Things can happen very quickly in sport. ‘Be prepared’ is a fine motto both for the Scout Movement and for sports officials.
The onus of rebuilding the team now falls on Rahul Dravid, and that is not such a bad thing. Virat Kohli might have overstayed his welcome as captain. Indian cricket needs a period of necessary churning. Dravid is tough without being boorish, and in his playing days was aggressive without being crude.
Under Kohli many believed that since India were often boorish and winning, the two were related. After all, there was the example of Australia, ‘ugly’ and victorious, which was taken to mean that the latter was a consequence of the former. It was the old confusion between causation and correlation.
The time had come for India to shake off its ugly image — which was being enhanced in every series — and delink bad behaviour from success. Whether the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India was conscious of this or indeed if the selectors were is difficult to tell. Dravid, an intelligent man who looks beyond the boundary, could not have been unaware of this, though.
A cricket captain is a powerful figure. Kohli worked well with Ravi Shastri because the latter knew when to give in if his captain disagreed with him. Now we might see the beginnings of another relationship, one in which the coach is the most powerful man in the team.
Not since Bishan Bedi in the 1990s has an Indian team where the coach calls the shots by right. Dravid is as diplomatic as Bedi was the reverse, and that means we are at the head of an interesting phase in Indian cricket. It also means that the next captain will have to handle the balancing act between the BCCI and the coach with the same acumen with which the coach will between the BCCI and the captain.
India looked a jaded team in South Africa and once Kohli quit his job at the top, something went out of the team. Along with the bellicose behaviour, out went the necessary aggression too. The trick is to jettison the one while retaining the other.
It is too early to judge K.L. Rahul as captain, but the team did look flat under him, and seemed to be out of ideas. Perhaps the reasons are all connected — the many days of cricket, the weeks and months spent in the security bubble, injuries to key players including captain-designate Rohit Sharma, and the selection ambiguities.
The pandemic demands that all judgements be made with kindness, and with proper understanding of the context. The team deserves sympathy, not censure. Once the downward spiral began, it was difficult to arrest it; this happens often.
India’s next three series in the different formats are all at home. Their next away game is in England in July for the fifth Test of the previous series that was postponed owing to Covid issues. Then there is the World T20 in Australia.
Should India use the home series to give the tried and tested another chance or blood youngsters to prepare them for more difficult battles ahead? It is a difficult choice, but the call is for blooding youngsters in preparation for future battles. This column has always maintained that seniors must be given a chance to fail while juniors must be given a chance to succeed. That is usually a good rule to follow. Often, however, choices are made on sentimental grounds.
Defeat is not the end of the world, although victory might have taken India to a new world. One remarkably much like the old one. A shake-up was necessary.