Is it the 'losers overseas' syndrome again?

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Monday, March 27, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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One does not know what to make of the miserable batting of the Indian team in the first three of the four matches of the Coca Cola Cup at Sharjah. Whether it is just an aberration of sorts, or the return of the familiar abject overseas syndrome, which has haunted Indian cricket for some years now. After a sudden, swift and pleasant change for the better in the one-dayers at home against the formidable South African team, one had thought that the wheel of fortune for India had turned full circle after being in the doldrums Down Under. So scintillating were the performances of the Indian team in the one-dayers that even the drubbing in the two Tests earlier were forgotten.

All this was attributed as much to the change in the leadership of the team, as to the fact that everyone concerned opted for some sort of harmony of thought in leaving out small and big controversies behind and seeing that the Indian team got the best of everything.

The ghost of the Indian team being less than even half its potential abroad does, not however, appear to have been fully buried. The same old syndrome of being lions at home and mere mice abroad appears to have afflicted the Saurav Ganguly-led Indian team in Sharjah as well.

A side that had only a few days ago scored over 300 runs at home on two occasions, a feat so rare for any team in the world, and had beaten the South Africans squarely 3-2, in a series that could well have been 4-1, has had to struggle, match after match, to score even half the number of those runs in each of the three matches that it has played so far, is a cause indeed of great concern.

The utter desperation of the old in the side's batting was seen in the way we were bundled out for just 162 in the opening match against South Africa. Had it not been for a 64-run record last wicket partnership, the team would have had the ignominy of not reaching even three figures. That, in the end, we were thrashed all round by the Proteas was only to be expected. That is because the South Africans, mauled in India earlier, were going to strike back as hard as they could and they did, by achieving the target without losing any wicket.

If the much-vaunted and highly-successful-at-home batting failed miserably once again, the Indian bowlers almost worked a miracle in the next match against arch-rivals Pakistan by dismissing them for a meager 146. In fact, what the Indian team did in the field was something that had not been seen for a long time. Even without Javagal Srinath, the Indian attack proved more than a handful to the Pakistanis. And what raised the bowling performance to great heights was some absolutely brilliant work in the field.

Nothing emphasised the commitment and sharp keenness in the field better then the way the run-out of Yosuf Yohanna was achieved. Technically speaking, one of the batsmen (Inzamam being the other) was definitely out at the bowler's end, and yet Sachin Tendulkar pounced on the ball to make a second attempt at a run out at the striker's end.

If there was some delay in the third umpire arriving at a decision, it was not on account of any doubt over the dismissal, but it was on which of the two batsmen was to be declared out. However, the Indians, with that brilliant work in the field, were not taking any chances.

One might, perhaps, be tempted to say that the Pakistanis batted poorly. But then it is a truism in limited-overs cricket that a team's batting is only as good or as bad as it is allowed to be by the side in the field.

Having achieved what must rank as a near impossibility of restricting a strong Pakistani batting side to under 150, hardly any Indian supporter might have visualised any trouble for the Indian team to wrap up the match.

Not even the thought of what had happened at the very same venue, a decade and a half ago, when India, dismissed for mere 125, had struck back to bundle out the Pakistanis for a beggarly 86, would have dampened the Indian hopes. More so, because the Indian batting had come so wholesomely good in the just-concluded home one-day series against South Africa.

But confidence gave way to near panic, as the world's best opening pair in this form of cricket, Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly, was devoured even as the great stroke-players were batting fluently.

It spoke volumes for the tremendous fighting spirit of the Pakistan team that they made life so difficult for the rest of the Indian batsmen through some of the finest fast bowling seen for years at Sharjah, or for that matter anywhere in one-day cricket.

The entire one-day setting looked so unfamiliar, as maiden after maiden overs were bowled by the Pakistani fast bowlers, perhaps even more than what the Indian bowlers had done towards the end of the Pakistani innings.

The only difference between the bowling attack of the two sides was that Ganguly had been able to deploy an attacking field, with at least four close-in fielders, which Min Khan could not because he was defending a very small total of 146.

The Indian batsmen nevertheless struggled all the way, but kept their hopes alive through the rather defensive, but not entirely unproductive third wicket partnership between Rah Dravid and Mohammed Azharuddin.

The only surviving member of the 1985 Indian team, which had successfully defended a small total of 125, Mohammed Azharuddin, knew what it was all about. He brought a rare restraint to bear on his strokeplay against a highly inspired pace attack, in which Shoaib Akhtar stood out with not only his awesome pace but deadly accuracy.

The menu served was far from as exciting as one-day cricket goes. What one saw for most part of the Indian innings was a Test-match-like back-to-the-wall batting by the Indians, Thank God that the target was as low as that.

The victory over Pakistan, hard earned though it was, ought to have boosted the side's confidence and a couple of days' rest might have helped temper shattered nerves.

But in Sunday's return match against Pakistan, the Indian team just could not do a thing right after Saurav Ganguly had lost the toss. The side's bowling was unrecognisable as the one, which had restricted Pakistan to 146.

For India, the match started with this big let down and then, in the face of a formidable target of 272, there was the all-too-familiar batting debacle, the stars and the non-stars falling like nine pins, and the innings terminated at a beggarly 174 for 9, the margin of defeat being almost a hundred runs.

The question to once again ask, and with some considerable consternation, is: Why should the strong Indian batting side totter once the kingpins, Tendulkar and Ganguly are out quickly. The other batsmen too have their status, their individuality, their talent, their technique and, above all, their responsibility.

It is highly incomprehensible that the early dismissal of Tendulkar and Ganguly, or even one of them, should be considered a near disaster, if not the very doom of the innings. Of course, the fact remains that, if the two get off to their usual great start, no target is too big to achieve.

But that even as small a victory target as that of 147 should suddenly appear so tough, not to mention an enormous one of 273, on account of the dismissal of the top-class opening pair, is something to ponder over. It once again makes a mockery of what the whole team stands for, the unity of achievement in any situation.

Even if India win Monday's match, the last one of the series, there is no guarantee that we will qualify for the final, as a lot will depend on how Pakistan perform in their last match against South Africa on Tuesday.

Should Pakistan lose to South Africa and India win their match, only then can we hope to make the final. If we lose to South Africa and so do Pakistan, then the latter will make it to the final on a much higher net run-rate. So, as a first task, it is so highly imperative for India to win against South Africa, the second time around.

The decisive factor, therefore, will be how well the Indian team bat.

Their hopes will rely as much on their return to the kind of batting performance that they had displayed recently at home, even as they hope to stick to the new-found perseverance of their bowling attack. Every member of the team will have to think, or rather mentally attune himself to the belief that he is as good abroad as he has always been playing at home.

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