The famed Indian batting has been a big letdown

There was a time when India travelled as well as sodden tomatoes. But not since the Dark Age between 1959 and 1968, when 17 consecutive away Test matches were surrendered, has India sunk as low as it has now: six successive losses abroad, of which three have been overwhelming innings defeats.

Not even in the 1990s, when the pain of defeat was magnified by a bigger broadcast presence, did India suffer as much intense torment, numerically and emotively. What has added to this anguish is that the core group, the critical mass, that drove the dazzling turnaround in the noughties has been a part of this too.

What's worse, there are no easy answers. At least there were external reasons for the 4-0 walloping in England, reasons that offered hope, however slight, of a better future: the preparation was inadequate; the injuries cost India a full-strength side. But there are no crumbs for comfort now.

Three men of considerable cricket intelligence — Duncan Fletcher, Rahul Dravid, and M.S. Dhoni — said on three succeeding days that they couldn't fully explain the failure. Fletcher was asked what had changed since Gary Kirsten's departure, and he said, “I don't think much has changed. I had long chats with Gary. I am very friendly with him. The approach, how you deal with an Indian side, we haven't changed that much.”

How dispiriting must it be for them to continue putting in the work they know has brought success in the past but refuses to do so now?

How much longer can they retain their faith in their abilities and convince their minds that a breakthrough is imminent?

Cruelly, ironically, this was India's greatest strength in its rise to and time at No.1: the ability in a period of bleakness to overcome all, to spark victory from nothing.

Worst battered

But during the six defeats it's this ability that has been worst battered. There were moments in the second Test in Nottingham and the first Test in Melbourne when India had the whip hand. But once these positions of superiority were snatched, it crumbled. Broken mentally, India melted in the next Tests, in Birmingham and here in Sydney.

The batting has been the biggest letdown — the 400 India raised in the second innings was the first time in these six Tests that the team has made more than 300. But it hasn't been as simple as ageing batsmen not being good enough anymore.

These things are tough to assess at the best of times — the extent of decay is often too minute to calibrate, for batting is reactive and every ball bowled is different.

Rahul Dravid moreover had an exceptional series in England, scoring three centuries. Sachin Tendulkar hasn't made a century, but he has looked very, very good when he has batted on instinct in Australia.

Out of touch

V.V.S. Laxman played himself out of touch in England, the pull stroke costing him his wicket when magic balls weren't. He was manacled by Australia's bowlers in the three decisive innings in Australia thus far. The three — and the openers, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir — haven't fired together for the length of time they did when India was changing perceptions of its touring capabilities. The fast, moving, bouncing ball has constantly threatened their survival; they haven't found a way collectively to extend the opposition bowlers into their fourth and fifth spells when the bodies are tired and the ball does less.

The fortune batsmen need in such situations — Michael Clarke had plenty during the start of his triple-century — hasn't always gone India's way either. But as Dravid admitted, while the bowling has been of a high quality, in both England and Australia, the batsmen can't always use it as an explanation. They simply have to find a way — which will be even more difficult now that the dream of a series win in Australia has been dashed.

India's bowlers have led comebacks overseas. That, however, has been in conjunction with the batsmen doing just enough. Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, and R. Ashwin looked a penetrative bowling unit in Melbourne. But they couldn't sustain the consistency needed when a game is being chased. Once the ball lost its hardness and the pitch, its helpfulness, they looked resigned to their fate.

M.S. Dhoni's captaincy has detracted from, not added to, the bowlers. He sets fields for bad bowling, retreats too soon and not in degrees, and his balance between saving runs and taking wickets tilts to the former. His conservatism doesn't matter as much in limited-overs cricket. But after the break “for recreation”, he and India have to change, without losing their essence, in Test cricket — or change will be thrust on them.

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