India’s dramatic decline in South Africa means the transition may have progressed by a few years.
On December 30 last year, Indian cricket sat on top of the world, with a rainbow around its 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 a further eight days they were 3-0 away in the ODI series.
India’s dramatic decline in South Africa, a team much lower in talent and experience, means the transition – inevitable, inexorable, inescapable – has moved forward by a few years. It also means, of course, that the game in South Africa has recovered faster than expected. This is good for the game. Test cricket needs strong teams and stiff competition.
Whatever happened to India could be a good starting point for a team that had put off some tough decisions after recent wins. The fact that they were forced to go into the final test and the ODI with an inexperienced captain indicated that the authorities were not prepared for the transition. Things can go very quickly in sports. ‘Be prepared’ is a nice motto, both for the Scouting movement and for sports officials.
Responsibility for rebuilding the team now rests with Rahul Dravid, and that’s not so bad. Virat Kohli would have extended his welcome as captain. Indian cricket needs a period of necessary churning. Dravid is tough without being rude, and in his playing days he was aggressive without being rude.
Under Kohli, many believed the two were related, as India was often clumsy and winning. After all, there was the example of Australia, “ugly” and victorious, meaning the latter was a result of the former. It was the old confusion between causation and correlation.
The time had come for India to shed its ugly image – which was reinforced in each series – and to disconnect bad behavior from success. Whether the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India was aware of this or whether the voters were is hard to say. However, Dravid, an intelligent man who looks across the border, could not have been unaware of this.
A cricket captain is a powerful figure. Kohli worked well with Ravi Shastri because he knew when to give in when his captain disagreed. Now we may see the beginning of a new relationship, one in which the coach is the most powerful man on the team.
Not since Bishan Bedi has an Indian team in the 1990s where the coach is in charge. Dravid is just as diplomatic as Bedi was the reverse, meaning we are at the dawn of an interesting phase in Indian cricket. It also means that the next captain must treat the balancing act between the BCCI and the coach with the same understanding as the coach between the BCCI and the captain.
India looked like a jaded team in South Africa and when Kohli quit his job at the top something went off the team. In addition to the bellicose behavior, the necessary aggression also came out. The trick is to throw one overboard and hold the other.
It’s too early to judge KL Rahul as captain, but the team looked right below him and seemed to have run out of ideas. Perhaps the reasons are all linked: the many days of cricket, the weeks and months spent in the security bubble, injuries to key players, including captain Rohit Sharma, and the uncertainty about the roster.
The pandemic requires all assessments to be made with kindness and with an understanding of context. The team deserves sympathy, not disapproval. Once the downward spiral started, it was hard to stop; this is common.
India’s next three series in the various formats are all home. Their next away game is in England in July for the fifth Test of the previous series which was postponed due to Covid problems. Then there’s the World T20 in Australia.
Should India use the home series to give the tried-and-tested people another chance or blood boys to prepare them for tougher battles to come? It’s a tough choice, but the call is to bleed youngsters in preparation for future fights. This column has always maintained that seniors should be given a chance to fail, while juniors should be given a chance to succeed. That’s 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 that is remarkably similar to the old one. A revamp was needed.