Indian Cricket at the Crossroads
At tea time in the Oval Test yesterday, K.L. Rahul and Rishabh Pant raised vision of victory; one looked rock solid in defence and the other, a buccaneer born to win. It reminded me of the Oval Test in 1979, when India was asked to score 438 runs in 500 minutes and India had to score 134 runs after tea, with nine wickets in hand.
Sunil Gavaskar was in great form, as he had told Yajurvindra Singh, his roommate, the previous night, that ‘wicket is so good that India have a chance to win’. It was a silly half volley from Ian Botham that took his wicket, when he chipped it to mid-on, for David Gower to take a catch. The cricket commentator John Woodcock wrote in the ‘Cricketer’, that it was the drinks that Gavaskar had called that allowed “England a few vital moments to gather their thoughts; it might have broken his concentrations”. India draw that match, when they should have won it. In retrospect, possibly the one day spirit has engulfed the Indians now was not there then. Richie Benaud considers Gavaskar’s 221 as the best he had seen in Oval.
K.L. Rahul almost played a Sunil Gavaskar at Oval; a magical innings combining attack with defence; except when he received ‘the ball of the series’ from Adil Rashid to take off his bails! It was an incredible googly to Rahul; much the way Mike Gatting was undone by the ‘ball of the century’ by Shane Warne at Old Trafford on 4th June 1993.
There was no way India could have won the match, with Anderson bowling with his heart out to break Glenn McGrath’s record of 563 wickets and Rashid befuddling the very best with his guiles. It was indeed a fitting finale for James Anderson, as he took the last wicket to beat Glenn’s record; though he could not take Virat’s wicket in this series. Virat was his bunny in 2014; but in this series he seems to have come to terms with the corridor of uncertainty outside his off stump! His battle with Anderson has remained inconclusive; just the way it was of Gavaskar against Imran Khan. Even the great Viv Richards could never dominate Dennis Lillee. For me McGrath would remain the best swing bowler of all times; the way he could torment both Sachin and Lara at their best!
Indians have a wonderful record of chasing a score beyond 400. In 1976, Clive Lloyd set a target of 403 runs after tea on the 4th day, with Andy Roberts and Michel Holding firing on all cylinders. By close of the 4th day, Gavaskar had scored an uncharacteristic belligerent 86. He completed his century the next morning. Gundappa Viswanath scored a masterly 112. Mohinder Amarnath scored a patient 85; before Brijesh Patel came to score a real cameo of 49. Patel, a very aggressive batsman against spin and medium pace, was very vulnerable to against short pitched fast bowling. But on that day, he warmed the cockles of every Indian heart, by hooking both Holding and Roberts to all parts; the way Rishabh Pant did by lofting Rashid over his head in the Oval Test (2018). The only jarring note of the 1976 victory was a excitable Jasdev Singh commentating that “It was victory for Mrs. Gandhi and her emergency”. Sycophancy and autocracy could be cozy bedmates!
It was an exciting series between India and England. But as Ajinkya Rahane aptly summed up; England bowled far better and it was indeed a challenge for every batsmen. The weather and luck also played spoil sport! KL Rahul, looked so composed in the Oval wicket was because of its slow and placid nature, which was drastically different and erratic in the first three test matches. It’s easy to sermonize like a Boria Majumdar and Harsha Bhogle about quality of Indian batsmanship; but how a pitch can make a difference to the batsmen could be seen, the way both Rahul and Rishabh batting transformed in this test. The series could easily have been 3-2 in India’s favour, instead 4-1 against, as it ultimately panned out to be.
There are several lessons from this match, both in terms of leadership and team composition for the series that lie ahead against South Africa and the World Cup (2019), which is going to be played in England. The baptism by fire for several Indian batsmen would come handy in the World Cup. We must make some fundamental changes in the team composition. India needs to drop Shikhar Dhawan and bring in Rohit Sharma as a long term opening option for India. He has the technique to play quality bowling of all types. He is the Inzamam-ul-Haq of Indian team. The troika that should follow him would be Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. They are the modern day version of Rahul, Sachin and Laxman. The next batting spot should go to Hanuma Vihari, who batted really well and a useful spinner.
Rishabh Pant selects himself, as do the three seamers; Ishant, Bumrah and Shami. Ravindra Jadeja must be persisted with, instead of Ashwin. India needs a fitter spinner and better batter; an all round talent who can bring in a wisp of hope in a losing cause. Both Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav can be standbys as swing bowlers and Kuldeep Yadav as spinner. The suggested India than would read: Rohit, Rahul, Cheteshwar, Virat, Ajinkya, Vihari, Rishabh, Jadeja, Ishant, Shami and Bumrah.
There is a need to change the mindset of the captain Virat Kohli, before he becomes another Sachin without success as Captain. He can be extremely stubborn in the matter of persisting with players like Hardik Pandya and Shikhar Dhawan. Most importantly, India must rope in a batting coach like Rahul Dravid. Vihari has written, how a talk with Rahul, his coach in India-A before the test match, calmed his nerves and pepped up his spirits. India must also have a proper bowling coach; someone like Wasim Akram or Michael Holding. Virat Kohli must remember that the Indian cricket team is beyond his genius and tantrums!
Three Indian captains have made a real difference to the Indian team. Tiger Pataudi, the way he handled the spinners and earned respect of even a cantankerous cricketer like Bishan Singh Bedi; Sourav Ganguly who raised himself above regionalism and made the team members believe that they can upset the very best team like the Australians and MS Dhoni who can snatch victory out of jaws of defeat! It would indeed be an endearing thought, if MSD can be coaxed to become India’s cricketing manager for the World Cup 2019, in lieu of pot bellied Ravi Shastri who is always keen to please Kohli! Dhoni would be a becalming influence on Virat; and possibly give a tip or two to Rishabh Pant, how to play the helicopter shot to get India another World Cup in 2019!
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