Barring the World Cup sojourns, seldom has there been so much introspection into an Indian team and it's performances than on the just-concluded tour of Australia. From Jayawant Lele to the Kookaburra balls, all matters came under the scrutiny of a microscope and at the end of the day, the universal opinion amongst all concerned with the game: the tour was a disaster.
The series in Australia has thrown up the usual questions as they always have after any overseas tour, but this time national pride seems to be genuinely hurt or so it seems. Critics have called for an overhaul, past and present cricketers have filed their post-mortem reports, groundsmen have started to relay pitches and suggestions for change are bountiful. But then isn't this the story every time an Indian team returns home after a sound thrashing?
A certain John Buchanan sits on a laptop working on not only the strengths and weaknesses of opposing teams but also those of individual cricketers. He is a storehouse of information and pretty much indispensable to the Aussie team. In sharp contrast, the Indian coach says there is only so much that he can tell the team, that they are professional cricketers and should know what they are doing.
Well there maybe an element of truth to it, but then if that is the case, we need not have a coach at all. The problems that plague Indian cricket are so diverse that the mere appraisal of a tour may not yield all the answers.
Let's look into one of the contentious issues. Amongst the various reasons strung out for India's disastrous showing, the Indian batting line-up must take much of the blame. Our batsmen were said to be incapable of adjusting to the extra bounce that the Australian pitches had to offer. Now, adjusting to the extra bounce is one thing and coping with it another. Adjusting to the bounce is something that is time related and performing on them requires a combination of talent, temperament and technique.
Few will disagree with the fact that the present Indian team has very talented bats. Temperament and technique, however, are in question. As far as technique is concerned, on placid Indian pitches, one can still get away with minor flaws in technique.
Indian batsmen do not have as much a problem playing swing as they have playing seam bowling and that too on bouncy wickets. Our decent performances with the bat in England where the ball swings a fair deal are testimony to the fact.
Playing swing bowling is more of a mind game, knowing the prowess of a bowler to bowl either inswing or outswing or both, following the ball from the time it leaves the hand, reading a bowler's action whether side-on or chest-on and knowing where your off-stump is to be able to judge when to leave the ball alone are all prerequisites.
In contrast, with seam bowling, the ball tends to bounce more when it lands on the seam. Added to this, the ball has the potential to deviate off the seam. This, coupled with a bouncy pitch, calls for more technical efficiency on the part of a batsman.
Playing fast bowling is an art and the use of a straight bat cannot be overemphasized. Take, for example, the backlift. Ideally, the bat when raised must point towards third slip whereas most Indian batsmen have their bats facing gully which causes the bat to come down with an exaggerated arc. As a result, the ball tends to fly off the edge. On slow-paced Indian pitches the ball doesn't carry a long way and so a potential edge on a bouncy track will meander into a defenseless shot played to gully or point. Also, when a drive is played on the up, if the ball doesn't come onto the meat of the bat, a cover drive could end up piercing gully and point for a boundary whereas on the Australian pitches the ball could well end up in the slip cordon.
Footwork too has been the bane of most Indian batsmen. Most of our batsmen have an exaggerated shuffle towards the offstump that helps them to neutralize any swing on pitches in the subcontinent, but makes them ideal candidates for lbw decisions.
On bouncy pitches, footwork has to be decisive, whether in terms of a shuffle or whether it is playing on the backfoot or frontfoot. Good backfoot players have always thrived in Australian conditions, which emphasizes the fact that the best policy is to be either full forward or full back. With the low bounce on Indian pitches, playing half cock allows the batsmen to negate going onto the backfoot unless the ball is woefully short of length. This also results in most batsmen from the subcontinent being frontfoot players.
So how does a batsman then perform well on fast and slow pitches alike? It calls for understanding of the fundamentals of batting, developing a flawless technique and thereafter making minor adjustments to suit the conditions.
How does one explain the performance in the one-day version of the game where technical capabilities of batsmen are only relatively important? That's where a very important angle to the game of cricket comes into focus, one of temperament.
Every team in the world is identified by their well-established virtues, whether it is the Paki aggression, the Aussie dogged determination or the South African professionalism. Our Indian team will stand amongst the top runners in any format of the game for fairplay. On can never see Pakistan accomplishing that.
Virtues like aggression, a never-say-die spirit and mental toughness haven't been the forte of Indian cricketers. Blood doesn't have to be spilled on the field, nor does it call for abusive language, mere body language is enough.
When Srinath gets clobbered, he merely puts his hands on his hips and looks on as the ball races to the boundary. When a fast bowler torments an Indian batsman, he looks the other way. One can say that it has a lot to do with the Indian psyche, a chalta hai(it's ok) attitude.
We seem to play the game with little pride. All this talk about improving facilities and working on the infrastructure is pointless if a sense of national pride is missing. There again, it is something that must come from within, very little of it can be taught at a cricketing school.
A defeat should always act as a much-needed shot of adrenaline, but for our cricketers, it seems to bring them closer to the brink of resignation.
But all is not lost, times have changed and the new breed of young cricketers have shown a definitive change in attitude. One hopes that the victory at the recent under-19 World Cup is not eyewash but an indication of things to come.
With the upcoming home series against the South Africans, there lurks a danger. If one has to go by the trend laid down in the past, under-prepared tacks will be dished out for the South Africans and a certain Anil Kumble will again rule the roost and our batsmen will plunder runs. Public memory is short and soon the Australian tour will be part of history, just one of those things until another away series comes up.
The media will applaud and shower the team with accolades and India will reinstate the forgotten faith that we have the best batting line-up in the world.
It's a wake-up call and the BCCI, more than anyone else, needs to take stock of things. And unless they do so, we will only be known as the unbeatable team at home.