S. Ram Mahesh

CRICKET / They must be consulted for the way forward

Colombo: Ricky Ponting, after a draining, compelling, and often tempestuous Test series, was asked at the Adelaide Oval early this year if the gap between India and Australia had narrowed. His reply, accompanied by the tiniest of smirks, was that it would probably broaden again.

Australia, Ponting said, was in the midst of transition: the side was learning to cope without Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, and Justin Langer; it would also have to deal with Adam Gilchrist’s absence. India, the Australian captain conceded, was a formidable opponent, but would soon have to front up to not having its big names around — perhaps even as soon as October when Australia comes visiting.

Pale shadows

Anil Kumble, who had followed Ponting, said in his calm, measured tones that no one was going anywhere anytime soon. As reassuring as it sounded back then, here in Sri Lanka, India did have to front up to not having its big names around. Sure, they landed here, and made it comfortably past immigration and customs; thereafter, it appears they were substituted with pale pastiches, inferior imitations even.

Kumble couldn’t have been more candid when he said the middle-order’s failure to click collectively cost India the series. He also accepted responsibility for his performance with the ball.

The leg-spinner was decidedly under-par: he had his moments in all three Tests, but hadn’t the luck that transforms a fine spell into a defining one.

Despite the dropped chances and the questionable referrals, Kumble will be the first to admit that his bowling lacked the relentless control, the unrestrained vehemence of his glory days (which aren’t vague days in the past, but whenever he has bowled his best, inclusive of recent instances).

Kumble’s under-performance was overshadowed, however, by the middle-order’s bankruptcy.

Three half-centuries in 24 innings from four men with more than 35,000 Test runs provokes the obvious question: what next? This is a question that has been asked a few times in the last four years — and has been answered almost always (not necessarily immediately) with transcendental performances.

Getting no younger

But now it requires answering in two parts.

India has stated its ambition of becoming the best Test side by April 2009. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid will be 36, Sourav Ganguly will be approaching his 37th birthday, and Laxman will have started his 35th year.

India plays Australia and England at home before taking on Pakistan and New Zealand away in this period.

The new selection committee that will meet to pick the squad for Australia’s tour in October-November will have to weigh short-term goals against long-term targets.

For that they must ask themselves if each of the four is likely to succeed consistently in this period — if the tour of Sri Lanka was an aberration, not a portent — and how best to renew the middle-order, so the eventual transition is, as far as possible, painless.

First, the tour of Sri Lanka. Was the batting failure entirely a function of the particular — the combination of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis — or was it a sign of decline of physical and mental skill with age and wear? This is a difficult question to answer, so we’ll let Kumar Sangakkara, who is versed in such matters, analyse it.

One chance

“In my view, the Indian batting line-up is probably the strongest batting line-up in the world,” said Sangakkara.

“But it doesn’t really matter how many runs you have scored, how good you are. If you get that one good ball, or a fielder takes a brilliant half-chance, you are out. That is unfortunately the lot of the batsman. You get only one mistake. Maybe that’s the reason, I really don’t know why.”

Sri Lanka also bowled differently to India’s stars. Knowing full well the Indian desire to score boundaries, Muralitharan and Mendis kept it tight (the former was given more creative control however) and unorthodox, testing the batsmen’s skill and patience from both ends.

The cloistral, close fields, led superbly by Prasanna Jayawardene, a classically pure gloveman, added to the pressure. This meant that the batsmen, besides having to start under duress, never felt ‘set’.

Not until Dravid and Laxman staged their masterclass in the second innings of the third Test did any member of the ‘Fab Four’ look at ease for a length of time.

“Sometimes you grow up playing spinners a certain way and it cannot be changed,” said Kumble of his batsmen’s struggles.

“The batsmen got out to soft dismissals through the series and that did not help. When the confidence is low it is difficult to go out and try to implement changes.”

Crucial times

These are crucial times, requiring of foresight, intelligence, and common sense — virtues not always apparent in Indian cricket.

There is little point in apportioning blame; these four — two greats, a maker of great innings, and a very good batsman — must be consulted, their ideas for the way forward sought. They deserve respect, not mawkishness or hysteria.

If India is to achieve its aim by April 2009, they will have to contribute — in deed and development.

More In: SPORT | Today's Paper