Monday, August 8, 2011

The Beginning Of The End For India By Kashyap Uttara

Sub Title: The Heavy Defeat at Lord’s Marks the Bitter Beginning for the Inevitable End of Test Cricket In India.

In the press conference -- prior to the commencement of the landmark test match at Lord’s -- M.S. Dhoni , the current steward of Indian cricket , expressed confidence the classic theatre of test cricket which has now run 2,000 shows since its debut opening in 1877 has enough legs in it to run for 2,000 more shows.

The show might well go on, but I’m afraid without the Indian actors on stage and the Indian audiences in the gallery.

India, still but barely, are the number one side in test cricket. Almost all batting records of prominence are held by the members in the Indian squad. In the last four years India have lost three times and won 15 test matches, and Dhoni is yet to lose a series as a captain. In the light of those, and several other facts, it sounds quite insane to predict the imminent death or at least chronic terminal sickness for test cricket in India.

But the nigh is near.

The current India squad has suffered even bigger margins of defeat in the first touring tests in South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka. They have come back to win a test in each of those series, lost 2-1 to Australia in ‘08-‘09; tied 1-1 against Sri Lanka and South Africa in ’10-‘11.

But the defeat against England at Lord’s and then at Trent Bridge are different. The termites rotting the wooden walls from within are beginning to grind their way to the surface. A large part of Indian test cricket eager to merge into the past, and there is not much promise emerging from the future

IPL Nation

Ever since the Indian Premiere League started back in 2008, the parallel success of India in test cricket has often been presented as evidence to dispel any claims of negative impact of IPL on test cricket. But we’re finally witnessing the affects of IPL on Indian test cricket.

Within two weeks after the ODI World Cup ended in April this year, almost every cricketer from the Indian test squad played in the fourth series of the IPL. The series lasted for over 70 games and nearly seven weeks. It meant most from the world cup winning squad needed rest and would fail to make the appearance in the West Indies tour that followed. Though most of us don’t like to look at it that way, WI tour is one of the most evident cases, thus far, when Indian players opted for club/corporate money over country. The two test openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir especially highlight how the muscle of IPL can strangle test cricket in India.

The formidable opening pair, suffering from injuries, could have opted to sit out the IPL season, recover and become fit and available for national duties. But they chose club over country. Sehwag is now out at least for the two tests against England, and India is already two down after the two tests. In Gambhir’s case, he was made captain for the WI test tour for all intensive purposes, but he pulled out right after his final game in the IPL. India had to send two novices to the WI to open the batting, and the partnership failed to give a start in all six innings of the test tour. And it certainly had some bearing on the measly 1-0 series winning against a mediocre opposition.

Short Cut to Success

While the WI tour didn’t line up too many first choice players from the Indian test side, it was seen as a opportunity for the younger generation to leave an imprint- but sadly not too many made an impact other than Suresh Raina and Ishant Sharma. It was the old soldiers who have served at the frontlines of Indian test cricket – Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman – who again battled more than the younger lot.

Murali Vijay and to an extent Virat Kohli offer a case study why test cricket may not be a première sport in a IPL nation. Vijay opened in all six innings and had an average of five for the series. He looked completely out of place in the longer format of the game. But he’s already a IPL star- rich and famous in the streets of Chennai. When he can make name, fame and fortune from a few cameo roles in a six-week long T20 tournament, why would he want to dig deep, put it hard hours, and become a better test player? Unless he has an innate passion for test cricket, unless he sees test cricket as a primary format of glory and reward, what would be his motivation to revive his flailing prospects in test cricket?


And this is the fundamental reason why Indian test cricket may crash, at a faster rate than most of us imagine. The newer generation of cricketers, and a generation after are more likely to want take the easy route to success, fame and fortune, rather than bury in the back alleys of Mumbai or Delhi – trying to develop superior set of skills required for test cricket.

For players IPL must be like the annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where collateral infidelities against the sanctity of test cricket and country are not just pardoned, but rewarded. For IPL fans, it’s like walking into a detergent aisle in the supermarket, looking at the display of 12 different brands of detergents and feeling like India has arrived into the post-modern. But all corporate detergents are expensive and offer less inside than what they promise on the box outside.

Lack of Commitment to Test Cricket

It is hard to question the loyalties of cricket players with a small career shelf life, making the most of their days in the sun. So the choices of Gambhir, Sehwag and the rest are not a matter of judgment, but a matter of fact. As long as there are corporate clubs willing to pay thousands of dollars to play IPL, players will continue to risk or even avoid having careers in test cricket.
It boils down to the Board of Cricket Control in India [BCCI] lacking utter commitment for test cricket. The BCCI don’t need players to join arms in enthusiasm to prefer corporate gold mine of IPL over an old and unglamorous labor of test cricket. One has to only look at the test tour scheduling to have a measure of the BCCI’s lack of commitment to test cricket. India played no practice games during the test series in the WI, one before the first test at Lord’s and will play no practice matches before the test series against Australia.
When your attack hinges on a bowler in his mid-thirties and you have a middle-order, not thousands but just hundreds of days away for the 40-year old mark and a newer generation not having to even play for the country to make a prosperous career in cricket, it is beginning of the end of test cricket. Once India slide down the test rankings, once the great names dissolve into archives of history we will see dramatic decline in both the viewership for test cricket in India, and BCCI ‘s commitment to scheduling too many unprofitable test matches. How many Indians want to see India lose again and again in cricket?

India has had a honeymoon in test cricket the last few years, but as the old sun merges in the west, there is no new sun summoned to emerge from the east. We are in the final act and once this show ends we may never again see India reenacting a central role in the theatre of test cricket for a very long time.

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