January 2, 2012

Kings of the short form, knaves in Tests

The year gone by will always be remembered in India for the World Cup win, but that euphoria only briefly covers up the side's problems

In the space of two months, Indian cricket's year became a metaphorical exercise involving the contents of more than a single glass. Normally it would lead to a conclusion of: somewhere between empty and full. But India's contradictory performances over 2011 demand that the exercise be abandoned. There is, firstly, not just one glass under discussion here, and the others are housed in a completely different cabinet.

The World Cup victory brought with it the burst of a long-awaited Indian spring, with exhilaration and exhalation. Nearly three decades of yearning were wiped out with a single six by MS Dhoni. Like Kapil Dev's catch off Viv Richards in the 1983 final, that will be Dhoni's signature forever, the trophy his lasting legacy. A rousing, lusty soundtrack of public will drowned out the ticking heartbeat of India's measured progress to the title, accompanied by what coach Gary Kirsten called a "sense of destiny".

Heading into the tournament, India had warmed up nicely: they had won three of their last five series, including two at home, and the Asia Cup. When opening night arrived in Dhaka, India had a record of 19 wins and 13 losses in 32 matches over the last 13 months (8-1 at home)

The jigsaw of the World Cup was being pieced together. Resources were smartly and sparingly used. A cast of bowlers, high on skill and awareness in home conditions, was being picked from among the contenders who would eventually work around Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh. Tryouts in the previous three home series saw Ashish Nehra return to the top of the queue and R Ashwin make his debut. Munaf Patel, by then over 50 ODIs old, may have been a second-choice support bowler to Zaheer but ended up a a first-rate replacement for the injured Praveen Kumar.

India's World Cup victory was the culmination of a collective striving: be it from the unheralded effort of men like Munaf or the born-again Yuvraj Singh. And from everyone left with unfinished business from the Wanderers in 2003, or even Port-of-Spain 2007.

Unlike Australia in 1987, Pakistan in 1992, or even Sri Lanka in 1996, India were not World Cup winners of youthful surprise or skin-of-their-teeth survival. Their title came from a rich core of experience, part-sweet, part-sour. With a battling league phase endured, India's A game fell into place in the knockout. As if it was, as Kirsten said, written.

The 2011 World Cup is now the new touchstone, bringing closure to the weight of 1983 and converting it into sepia legend. By 2015, the country's first full T20 generation will be knocking on the doors of ODI cricket. On paper, these will be more attacking batsmen, smarter bowlers and sharper fielders. In practice, the team will dominate at home and compete overseas.

In England this summer, if the Test team was well-beaten after the second Test, the ODI team always found a way to get back on its feet. Despite failing to win a single game, it was the only time India looked ready for a contest in England.

After that, they snapped back to their old habits, and have won nine of their last ten ODIs. Their bench strength could make up an entire new IPL franchise (the BCCI Ballyhoo?), senior players are seamlessly replaced and Rohit Sharma is back. After the World Cup victory, Dhoni said he liked the "variety" contained in ODIs, which brought, "a glimpse of not actually Test cricket" but a compressed version of its demands - with a definite result. If international cricket was only played in 50- and 20-over versions, India could grab the world No. 1 ranking in the near future and cling onto it.


Despite all trepidation (or hope), Test cricket is not dying. At its close, 2011 has raised an imperious forefinger to India and pointed at the icy statistic of five straight overseas Test defeats. Of India's 12 Tests in 2011, they won only three. All against West Indies, who, in a case of masterful planning, have played India in two three-Test series over six months. Of the four draws in the year, there were chances to win two, in St Lucia and Mumbai, but let those be. After five straight away defeats, draws now look like victories.

At the start of 2011 it had all looked so different: India had battled their way to a 1-1 draw in South Africa. More than any other result in their tenure as world Test No. 1, the result gave India's ranking some serious validation. (Until then they had played Bangladesh and Sri Lanka away and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand at home.) India had squared a series in South Africa for the first time in five series and 18 years.

The new year was to be the ideal launching platform for a year in which India could defend their ranking. There were tours of the West Indies, England and Australia lined up in ideal sequence. The team had plenty going for it: its best-ever opening pair was entrenched, its middle order deliciously seasoned, and the bowling attack reasonable, with options on the side.

By the end of 2011, everything had turned to custard. The No. 1 Test ranking had been handed over to England, and more grievously, the reputation as hardy travellers now seems a mere illusion. The final week of the year brought with it a sucker punch in Melbourne, against a supposedly shaky Australia. Once again, India opened a series with a Test defeat, a habit that should have stopped being a cute quirk about five years ago.

Between the beginning and end of 2011, India put on display their soft middle in England. It was the first time England had even won a series against India since 1996. The 4-0 defeat may have been a prime example of a worst-case scenario - general World Cup and IPL fatigue, not enough warm-up games, injuries on tour, poor planning, bad luck - gone loco. And Rahul Dravid made tough runs. No need to stop the press.

Melbourne was supposed to have ironed out all the bad karma from England. Zaheer had turned up leaner and meaner. The second and third seamers were men of more than modest medium pace, and an eager rookie offspinner was champing at the bit. The batting was in the order it was meant to be in, and three Tests against West Indies had given everyone a good stretch.

India may still pick themselves up against Australia, but the bigger picture from the summer of 4-0 is still relevant. Against quality opposition in alien conditions, India's oldest hands are their most capable, but the company around them is thin. On rigorous tours, there still are three very vulnerable spots in the batting line-up. India's tried and tested "merry-go-round" approach to handling their fast bowling stocks, particularly injury management, needs rethinking and retooling.

Apart from than that single exchange-it-for-nothing, grin-generating trophy, in the last 12 months Indian cricket has also produced the possibility that our game could morph into two detached entities. Changes in personnel are inevitable, it is changes in performance that bring with them heavier impact.

The polite query thrown up by 2011 is whether being alert and responsive to Test results, particularly overseas, is a mission that actually matters to Indian cricket - to the players, to the selectors who scout them, to the administrators for whom success in any form is the only sign needed to show that all is swell on their watch. Indian cricket has internalised ODI cricket and will be formidable over the next decade. The short and shorter games are more lucrative than they have ever been. As a career option, it is a no-brainer compared to the prospect of an innings built on grafting for two sessions or bowling 20 overs over six hours. Two thousand and eleven gave India a World Cup of pure joy, but also established that the silent re-mapping of Indian cricket's DNA is now underway.

High point
In any other year the fastest 200 in ODI cricket would have been a contender, but for India, 2011 will always stand for the World Cup. Yes, there were the advantages of playing all but one match at home, in front of supportive, devoted fans, and in a format far removed from the breathless shootout of 2007. Yet, over the six weeks of the World Cup, what was handled along with the cricket was the weight of public breath down their necks. That was heavier than can be imagined.

Low point
Four-zero. What else? The English summer may have been played under mostly clear, sunny skies, but to the Indians it was biting, chilly and soaked in the grey gloom of Bronte novels. Lateral movement, juicy wickets, and an unrelenting bowling attack of bite and discipline demanded quality batsmanship, or at the least, some evidence of dogged resistance. England's finest batting line-up in decades demanded that the slightest chance be grabbed. India said no can do. Yes, injuries and misfortune made eventual defeat hard to avoid. Yet collective resolve with the bat or snatches of over-achievement with the ball and India wouldn't have drawn a complete blank.

New kid on the block
Umesh Yadav, welcome. Sturdy, energetic and "quick-quick" (cricket pidgin to bypass the euphemism "fast-medium"), Yadav was India's most important find. Over the course of his first three Tests in varying conditions he has indicated that he could become the centrepiece of India's pace attack in the post-Zaheer era. He can generate pace and swing, hurry batsmen or cramp them, and has the lung power of a long-distance runner. Provided he is kept sharp and fit and handled like a long-term resource rather than short-term cure.

What 2012 holds
The rest of the tour of Australia - three Tests and the CB Series, which includes Sri Lanka - could bring either alarms or promising signs. Once that is done, for starters, the comforts of home beckon. After a 14-month cycle of touring South Africa, England, West Indies and Australia, there will be no more away Tests outside the subcontinent until November 2013. England arrive for four Tests in November 2012 and Australia in February 2013. The Asia Cup will give the world champions a chance to show off more muscle around the hood. Simmering underneath all of this will be the slow, lingering departures of India's greatest-ever middle order, one at a time. When the next round of tough touring begins, the aftershocks lie in wait.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo