India return from South Africa with a mixed bag. The mini-series had its moments but it was clear which the better Test team was and as always, it was the team that bowled better. South Africa will rejoice in the win, in the fitting send-off to one of the greatest cricketers of our times, Jacques Kallis, in the development of Faf du Plessis and the affirmation that Dale Steyn is the finest bowler in the world. Hopefully for them it will cause them to look at themselves with greater confidence and the belief that it should have been 2-0; that a phenomenal rearguard batting action was watered down by lack of self-belief at the end.
So what does it mean for India? We learnt a bit about the batting; that there is grit to go with the talent, that at least three young batsmen in Pujara, Kohli and Rahane are ready to play overseas, that patience is not a forgotten virtue. Yes, we learnt a bit but I would have loved another Test to see if they could show resilience as the tide turned against them. It was folly to keep it to two Tests, it was a mistake to let cricket suffer for a contest of another kind. Indian cricket would have benefited from another game.
But it showed up India’s bowling weaknesses all over again. This is a nightmare that plays out in front of our eyes and we ignore it like we do the dream from last night. You could be forgiving and say that it was two bad innings versus one that was good and numerically, but also trivially, you wouldn’t be wrong. But the slide thereafter should be unnerving, even accounting for the inexperience of two out of the four bowlers.
I must admit I was very excited by the return of Zaheer Khan. And he showed why he can raise the bar for Indian bowling in the first innings at Johannesburg. But thereafter, India failed to convert a margin of 458 into victory and, had it not been for South African reluctance, should actually have conceded defeat. By Durban, just the second Test, the sting in the seam attack was already gone. And Zaheer was no longer running in hard, in the field he was trotting after the ball. Maybe we need to space him out, maybe back-to-back Tests are now beyond him, maybe he had to bowl too many overs in Johannesburg but it didn’t look good at all in Durban.
And Ishant Sharma continues to do the bowling equivalent of a half-century every four innings to stay in the side. A career haul of under three wickets per Test at an average that a batsman should contemplate, cannot be sufficient to virtually guarantee a place. Playing for Delhi might have been the route to New Zealand, if at all, for when you bring a player back too quickly, you actually do him harm; you tell him that playing for your country is easy, you don’t allow him to seek higher goals. After more than fifty Test matches, Ishant Sharma must realise that what he is now doing will never make him a top bowler and he must take a call on whether he is willing to do what it takes. India needs a match-winner while Mohd Shami develops and Ishant Sharma should have been that person but sadly isn’t deeper malaise.
But there is a deeper issue that was highlighted by some of the pitches that were prepared for the last round of the Ranji Trophy. Poor tracks to win games is a short-term, damaging decision. It means you are telling bowlers that pitches will take wickets for you and so we will produce limited bowlers who, when pitch plays accomplice, look fine but are a bit marooned when, in a manner of speaking, subsidies are taken away.
There is also the issue of fast bowlers which, like many political issues, stares at us and which we happily ignore. The two game changing bowlers in world cricket in 2013 were Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn. They don’t come every day but they won’t come if you don’t create the environment for them either.
Sanjay Manjrekar has a theory that seems more acceptable with every passing day; that India does not understand fast bowling and so cannot provide the right assistance to young kids who want to charge in. And so we produce line and length bowlers of amiable pace. For two years Wasim Akram kept saying that Mohd Shami should be picked. He has an interesting insight, as you might think he would! Wasim says pace cannot be taught, swing and seam can. So the search criterion has to be pace but we are a nation comfortable with medium-pace bowlers!
It doesn’t mean though that pace cannot be found. It is just a question of trying hard enough to find bowlers and then, creating the atmosphere for them to flourish in. And that is not just pitches, but coaches, physios and selectors who understand speed. And I am not sure the BCCI is doing enough here. If they are, it is invisible at the moment. Unless we are obsessed with producing match-winning bowlers, we won’t produce them.
But far too much time in the BCCI is spent in courts and fighting administrative fires. A corporation has to define its purpose and then be guided by it. It cannot have its energies spent, its resources wasted, in litigation, in flexing muscles, in courts.
This is a moment in history where Indian cricket has so much going for it, and the Las Vegas web design BCCI can take some credit for it, but far too many opportunities are wasted in chasing other priorities. Producing a team that can win away is a major priority. India have lost 9 out of the last 10 Tests (I will insist it should have been 10 out 10!) in three different countries. That is a greater worry than a diminishing bottom line in a balance sheet. Umesh Yadav not playing, Munaf Patel disintegrating, Irfan Pathan vanishing, Sreesanth lost. These should be greater concerns than fighting for state associations to be put in their place or ensuring there are enough proxy votes.
Our choices determine our outcomes and if India’s batting flourishes overseas, it might cover up cracks but till India makes it a priority to produce bowlers who can win matches, India will never be a major strength overseas.