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The transition from romance to pragmatism is complete

At the MCG, Cheteshwar Pujara scored his second century of the series

At the MCG, Cheteshwar Pujara scored his second century of the series   | Photo Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images


In a cultural revolution of sorts, India is prepared to win looking “ugly”, by grinding it out

The change has been gathering pace, and now it is clear: India are prepared to win looking “ugly”, by grinding it out.

It is the triumph of pragmatism over romance, placing winning above the dictates of looking pretty. Attractive, wristy (often risky) batsmanship and flighted, tantalising spin - the clichés about Indian cricket - have made way for practical run-making and sustained fast bowling. It is a cultural revolution, no less.

It was an attitude anathema to Indians through generations of “going down fighting attractively”, of showing flair and flash that contributed little to the result. But the oohs and aahs as a batsman played a beautiful cover drive usually spared him the condemnations when he threw it away in his 20s or 30s.

Those were the days when a fighting draw was all that mattered. The Indian team transited from perennial Test match losers to one capable of drawing matches to one expected to win as the No. 1 side in the world. But through it all, one theme dominated: it was important to look good. Flair and flash, flamboyance, even a bit of ostentation was rewarded with greater public acclaim.

Class and charm mattered

Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid might have been the bedrock of the batting in their respective eras, but even these masters of defensive batsmanship were stylish, they had what the public called “class”.

Class was important. So was charm. A batsman like Dilip Vengsarkar, No. 1 player in the world, gutsy, hard-hitting and with a wonderful record against the great Windies fast bowlers, was never taken to heart by the Indians. He seemed too focused on his job, too intent on the essential task of scoring runs.

Years ago, I wrote that if Vengsarkar had been born in England and David Gower in India, they might have been properly recognised for their batsmanship. Vengsarkar was a “professional”, a besetting sin in Indian eyes, while Gower’s class and vulnerability made him unbearably charming. An Indian example was the great Gundappa Viswanath - poetry came with intimations of death.

It was the same with bowling. The visual attraction and legends built around the great spinners - Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and S. Venkatraghavan - were millstones around the necks of generations that followed.

Every succeeding left arm spinner was compared to Bedi and lost out in the comparison. For years Indians never forgave Anil Kumble for lacking the poetic vulnerability of Chandrasekhar, for not being an extravagant turner of the ball. World class did not automatically mean India class!

The Melbourne Test - the wonder is not how India won in Adelaide and Melbourne but how they lost in Perth - seems to have completed the transition. A generation more intent on the “what” and less focused on the “how” describes both the players and the majority of their audience back home.

Reflection of society

Cricket and society reflect each other. Flamboyance as a by-product is acceptable, but as the main event will not be forgiven easily if it doesn’t lead to victory. K.L. Rahul’s struggle is both technical and historical. Here’s an attractive batsman who is out of step with team philosophy.

Whether Cheteswara Pujara is a product of the new culture or the one who is driving it, he is certainly its finest exemplar. He made centuries in both the Tests India won, supremely unconcerned about such mundane matters as strike rates and putting bowlers in their place with dismissive, even arrogant batsmanship.

His role is clear - that it has taken Indian cricket so long to realise is probably due to the inevitable confusion that transition gives rise to. The matter was not psychologically settled till Pujara emerged as the hero of both the connoisseur as well as the one-dimensional fan who abhors complexity.

Pujara has been the unexpected star of the new India - but unexpected only in the eyes of those who haven’t been following the trend away from romanticism.

When Virat Kohli first led in Australia four years ago, romance was still king. He led with flair, making two centuries in a Test and throwing everything into a chase that nearly won India the match. “So near and yet so far” - the staple of headlines on the sports pages not so long ago. Kohli became a hero to the generation espousing romance, but a villain to the pragmatists.

The captain had learnt his lesson. In Ravi Shastri he has a manager whose cricket is at the other end of the scale from romantic. India should have won more than one Test in South Africa and England. They lacked the clarity of mind they have displayed in Australia.

There must have been moments during the washed out pre-lunch session on the final day when all the arguments for not enforcing the follow on might have mocked Kohli. But in the end, it needed only two wickets, and India could not be denied.

India need only a draw in Sydney now. Kohli has said he will go for a win. But the shutters will come down quickly this time. It is the new culture.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 9:06:45 AM |

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