January 1, 2013

All tunnel, no light

In 2012, India sank to nadirs long unvisited, and the future doesn't look much better than bleak either

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound

Everybody look what's going down

-- "For What It's Worth", Buffalo Springfield, 1967

This is about Indian cricket in 2012, right? So who the blizzards is Buffalo? How many Tests did he play?

Between the entire band, zero. Their 45-year-old song, though, does talk about the environment around the Indian team in 2012.

The Test team's results went dramatically southwards in 2011, and defeat to England at home in 2012 was the denouement no one was waiting for. This was India's first defeat in a home series in eight years, the first time to England at home in 28.

In the shorter game, though, India at least won more than they lost. In ODIs, the record before the series against Pakistan was nine wins, six defeats in 16 matches. Fourteen T20 internationals yielded eight wins and six defeats.

In Tests, all numbers and hopes stood upended. Three wins, five losses, one draw from nine Tests. India's year began with three straight defeats in Australia, was followed many months later with a 2-0 soft-focus victory over New Zealand, and ended with a 1-2 bucket of cold water over the head against England at home.

Through half of 2011 and most of 2012, the Test team suffered a cringe-inducing year-long denial disorder. The side's virtues were rapidly depleted due to a condition that has many euphemisms - transition, generational change, consolidation. The margins of defeat served as reminders of blunter truths - innings and 68, innings and 37, 298 runs, ten wickets, seven wickets. Still, captain Dhoni believes a Test series defeat at home is "not even close" to being knocked out of the 2007 World Cup. The young players coming through into the Indian dressing room today deserve both extra attention and some sympathy.

In addition to the defeat came what can only be called the BCCI's thought-policing. During the India v England series, the TV commentators on the world feed were issued an unwritten diktat from a faceless Propaganda Committee (Prop-Comm): there is to be no talking on air about the DRS and no talking about selection. Raising the question: then why keep score? Scorecards and stats are so damned inconvenient on the screen. Get the numbers out of the way and all the questions will vanish.

Controlling the message is a hazardous business in sport, because sport at its best is an uncontrollable theory-buster. Silencing debate and refusing to answer or deal with awkward questions is not a sign of real power or authority. It ends up, like it has in this case, as growing evidence of feeble and feudal minds. A team struggling to find its feet again would at least want to be considered man enough to handle the flak. If 2011 brought the first signs of trouble, 2012 offered proof that hell has officially broken loose in MS Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher's India.

In this season of festivity, a fleeting piece of Prop-Comm-approved "good news". That India is flirting with the world No. 1 ranking in T20 cricket. Their more serious relationship is with the fact that they had better accept being a middling Test team. From December 2009 to September 2011, India loved being World No. 1 in Tests. They must now accept the ICC's current assessment that they are the No. 5 Test team in the world.

This ranking implies that India's Test cricket can safely get them past West Indies and New Zealand in Tests at home. Send them away to Sri Lanka and who knows. They haven't won a series there since 1993. There are only nine points between Nos. 5 and 6. Were the World Test championships already in place with the criteria that only the world's top four nations can contest, India as they stand today would not make the cut.

Now while none of this is a DRS-related crisis, it certainly is about the options for selection. The openers' run of partnerships this year is: 0, 18, 4, 24, 26, 14 (in Australia), 49, 5, 77 (against New Zealand at home), 134, 4, 30, 47, 86 and 1 (against England at home.) With the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman (thank you, gentlemen), India's Test middle order is now without two of the most experienced and successful players in its history. Its most prolific and most experienced run scorer, Sachin Tendulkar, is in the middle of a deep form funk. When up against batsmen of calibre, India's spin-twins, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin, who took 73 wickets in their first five Tests together, struggled even at home against England. Zaheer Khan was sent back to first-class cricket but his replacements are dogged by injuries.

Censoring a debate in public can only be brushed aside once the issues it centres on are quickly fixed in private. Three spinners and a single medium-pacer played England in Nagpur. That is no radically astonishing strategy, nor is it a sign of going forward. Short of sending up a rescue flare, 2012 did all it could to give the Indian Test team and its governors every sign that a leadership change - captain and/ or coach - was required in time for the next series, against Australia.

As an ODI team, India's mettle outside its comfort zone was tested once in 2012, when the world champions played the CB Series in Australia at the start of the year. Winners in 2008, they ended up with a 3-4 result from eight matches and missed out on the final. In the subcontinent they scored a 4-1 series win over Sri Lanka and failed in their defence of the Asia Cup, winning two of three matches in Bangladesh but not making the final. The next test of the depth and strength of the Indian ODI team will come only in the 2013 Champions Trophy, in England.

Two days before Christmas, Tendulkar announced his retirement from ODIs and gave the selectors a chance to get the team ready for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. Central to that team's chances will be the growth of Virat Kohli, whose batting produced sustained, consistent impact for India in 2012. Kohli scored 1026 runs from 17 ODIs in the year. Of these he was central to six successful run-chases in 11 matches when India batted second, hitting three of a total of five 2012 centuries when batting second, at a strike rate above 98.

Given that T20 is held responsible for much of India's other failings, India's current standing in T20 internationals can, at best, be called weak. After winning the 2007 World Twenty20, they have not qualified for the semi-finals in the next three editions. Pakistan, whose players are steadfastly held off from competing in the cash-dizzy IPL, have made all four semi-finals and two finals since 2007. Sri Lanka have fought their way into the last three semi-finals and played in two finals. Australia have given themselves a shot in three out of four semis. West Indies have reached the semi-finals in 2009 and won 2012.

Overall these are skewed T20 results for India, regardless of weather, the fates and other international conspiracies that Prop-Comm may want dished out as reasons. In 2012, India tied three two-match T20 series, in Australia, and against England and Pakistan at home.

In 2012, India became somewhat precious in their cricket. They asked for too much - perfect wickets, perfect umpiring, ideal weather, dream combinations, pliant opposition - and gave of themselves far too little. When faced with adversity, the team's approach had the strength and resolve of candyfloss. When the list of conditions needed to win a match began to exceed the Indian team's individual skills and its collective spirit, excuse replaced reason.

A review of India's 2012 in Test cricket sounds much like the 2011 version. Same old same old. Except, in the year ahead, there won't be much of the old to lean back on - either for runs or wickets and/or target practice.

High point / New kid on the block
A head-scratcher. When any team suffers an ear-splittingly loud bad time, it can result only in a desperate hunt for "positives". In this case, for India it is the return of Cheteshwar Pujara: to international cricket, the playing XI, with quality and general composure on many burning decks. Three centuries in the year, two versus England, including a 24-carat 135 in Mumbai. Swann and Panesar were handled with a clear head and swift feet, and Pujara wasn't easily sucked into a short-ball-pull-shot dismissal. Test batting No. 3, thankyaverymuch.

Low point
The 1-2 to England, and particularly the defeat in Mumbai. It was preceded by a moaning about the Ahmedabad wicket not deserving another look. A first-day jumping turner was duly produced and the toss won. But from then on, India were found flat-footed. By the England spin twins, Swann and Panesar, who picked up 17 of the 20 Indian wickets, and the deliberate tread of the England captain, Alastair Cook. Mumbai was distinctly starlit by Kevin Pietersen, who takes to the big stage like children do to Pokemon. It was the match that knocked the fight out of India. Said fight didn't turn up until one day in dreary Nagpur, but by then Elvis and his entourage had left the building.

What 2013 holds
The dream of a turnaround against Australia at home, if the selectors are able to give the team the shake-up it needs. The series could act as the mixing bowl needed before the right contenders are picked to head out to South Africa at the end of the year.

This could be a year of momentous departures too: the ultimate winding down of Tendulkar's international career; and another hinted at by MS Dhoni, who said he might quit "one format at the end of 2013" to take the team to the 2015 World Cup. Well, well, well.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo