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How the Mighty Have Fallen

28 July 2010.

Australia and India face similar problems, with ageing stalwarts and unproven youngsters. The upcoming series between the two doesn’t seem as good a prospect as those in recent times.

By no means can the Indians or Australians be confident about their Test prospects over the next few months. In that period Australia will attempt to wrestle the Ashes back from rivals who arrive armed with a settled team and a spring in their step, whilst Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side will undertake a tour of South Africa calculated to examine their resolve and skill. Victory will confirm that these teams deserve a prominent place in the rankings. Defeat will force them to confront its causes.

All things considered, it’s just as well that these high-flying outfits presently meet in a short series lasting a fortnight and taking place in Bangalore and Mohali (a venue that continues to find favour even as the stands remain empty). Plain as day, both sides have plenty of problems, not least ageing batting orders, injured speedsters and declining fortunes. In some respects sporting teams resemble second-hand cars. When things start to go wrong it’s usually a mistake to patch them up. Better to seek a new model.

Nothing lasts forever. In recent times, clashes between these sides have taken on epic proportions. India, specially, has come a long way from the early tours, when the team was led by an erstwhile aristocrat and sustained by a handful of players, amongst whom Vinoo Mankad stood tallest. India has come a long way from the era when their batsmen were weak against pace. It was never a question of courage; rather it was a matter of exposure. Those generations of Indian batsmen were not used to pace and bounce. Nowadays their successors are regarded as among the best and bravest players of fast bowling in the game.

Far from fearing the Australians, the new generation of Indians measured themselves against them. It was a sound strategy, telling of ambition and confidence. Australia have been the yardstick since at least 1995, and in most eyes retain that position, recent results notwithstanding. Sourav Ganguly and his mostly merry men had to slay the dragon to claim the field.

Of course the Australians did not intend to go down quietly. Breakfast in bed is the only thing they take lying down. Accordingly a rage began as the established champion tried to subdue the gifted ingénue. No one present will forget those fierce exchanges, the best and the worst, the cynical and the inspired, the respectful and the hysterical. If the 2005 Ashes were the most thrilling seen in recent times then the confrontations between Australia and India have been the most sustained. Has there been a dud match, let alone a disappointing campaign? For 10 years at least, supporters of both sides and the game at large seemed to live in a time warp. India against Australia was constantly compelling. Happily, too, the teams met often. It’s not so long ago that the Australians were resentful visitors and reluctant hosts.

All good things come to an end. It’s hard to muster as much enthusiasm for the forthcoming matches. Neither side is rising and precious few players are at their peaks. Moreover, two-match series have little to commend them, especially those thrown together in the makeshift manner that still permeates the cricketing programme. Still, it’s preferable to the alternative: seven ODIs played before baying crowds but otherwise without any obvious significance.

That both sides have headaches is clear. Although not identical, their problems are similar and contemporary. Every age has its hazards. The modern period is marked by the desire of older players to let their careers run their full course, and by the enormous change in the experiences of the next generation, not least the false summits to be found along the route to the top.

An essentially conservative cricketing community with an enduring affection for the champions who have uplifted the nation – intelligent observers still think that KKR and Ganguly are the same thing – India is struggling with change. Over the last 15 years or so, they have been fortunate to have at their disposal as fine a set of batsmen as any country has ever produced. Moreover they have also possessed an outstanding group of senior players. Together these gentlemen proved that India, and not just Indians, could not merely reach the top but stay there. They were intelligent, committed and superb.

But the old guard has aged and nothing has been put in its place. The middle order has attained the ripe old ages of 37, 37 and 35. All of them are excellent batsmen but the clock is ticking. Now comes the critical question. When come such others? By now India ought to have found gifted young batsmen able to observe the giants, going on tours, batting at 5 or 6, learning about the game and the life. Maybe greatness cannot reproduce itself but it can teach and inspire. After all it did so in the West Indies in the 1970s, and more recently in Australia. How else to explain, say, the rise of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden? Greatness has a cutting edge, an ability to recognise itself, or at any rate, tell friend from fraud.

Yet India has not unearthed a middle-order batsman of substance under 30 years of age. Perhaps they have not tried hard enough, perhaps they have kept faith too long with players able to shine in the shadows. But the day of reckoning is not far off.

Not that the batting is the weakness. India’s bowling has become lacklustre. Ishant Sharma has fallen back, but at least he is fit. Neither spinner took a wicket in Murali’s farewell Test in Galle. Hardly the stuff of champions. Even so, the selectors keep choosing four bowlers. Unable to find a genuine allrounder – Irfan Pathan was the obvious candidate – they keep bolstering the batting. Presumably they are relying on scoreboard pressure to bring 20 wickets. Winning the toss would also help.

Ishant Sharma

Ishant Sharma of Indian Cricket Team at a bowling practice session of 3rd ODI match against Australia at Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium, Delhi on October 30, 2009.

Photo ©: Public.Resource.Org / /

India’s problem is clear. The system is discovering a lot of talented boys. The IPL has helped to liberate the villages. But discovery is only part of the challenge. Development is just as important. And that is not yet working satisfactorily.

Indian cricket, and the youngsters themselves, are dealing with issues inconceivable a few summers ago. Riches and all the attendant temptations are thrown at them before they have started shaving regularly. It’s not their fault. It’s no one’s fault. That is the marketplace. Inevitably, though, it can distract attention from the long struggle towards mastery. Cricket does not give itself away; it expects players to apply themselves, to think and study and seek. It plays tricks, too, pretends that sixes and slower balls and the other shortcuts matter. Cricket sets traps, flatters players and calls them kings when they are barely princes.

Of course, the old guard knows all this and goes quietly about its business. After all, it rose in a time of need and came late to the land of plenty. Youth, though, knows only the poverty and the parties; there is nothing between. Accordingly it has a slender grasp of the intricacies of the game, and so, little ability to extricate itself from its difficulties.

In short, India’s main problem is that the production line has changed rapidly and beyond recognition. Provincial players remain in a predicament born of lack or representation – it’s high time the senior Indian cricketers formed an effective association – whilst IPL players exist in a sport of never never land. Nothing prepared India for these changed circumstances or this imbalance. All the more reason to focus on player education as well as development, and to ask men of the calibre of Anil Kumble – and Bhupinder Singh, for that matter – to help guide the youth. Mentoring has a vital part to play in helping promising youngsters become productive men.

Australia’s position is even more precarious. Ricky Ponting is the only proven great cricketer in the team, and he has a lot on his plate and has been around for ages. Before long, the Australians will depend on capable, as opposed to devastating, cricketers. Meanwhile the selectors are trying to find the balance between choosing the strongest side and introducing youth with all its optimism. It’s not easy. Competence has always been undervalued, as promise has been overestimated. Talent is more exciting than the tried and trusted.

At present the Australians remain competitive. Headingley was a shock partly because it brought to an end a run of nine Tests without defeat. Yet the feeling grows that the team is living on borrowed time. Great batsmen last longer than good ones, since they have more leeway.

Australia have found gifted batsmen worthy of inclusion. The structures remain in place. Players rise through youth teams and prove themselves in Shield cricket. Twenty20 and the IPL have not yet distorted the picture. The primacy of the baggy green cap is intact. Mostly the IPL has attracted the attention of past players and older fast bowlers eager for a pay day before their bodies throw in the towel.

Usman Khawaja leads the pack of youngsters and he is not alone. Steve Smith and Tim Paine played in Leeds. None has been pulled away by Twenty20. Timing, not talent, is the problem. Australia yearns to beat India, and to recapture the Ashes. Is it the right moment to change tack? Traditionally Australia has backed youth. Not that it had much choice. Until the advent of professionalism, players withdrew earlier. Now they can make a good living in Shield cricket and overseas and can hope, too, that their abilities are belatedly recognised.

Australia’s other headache lies with their bowling. Indians and West Indians, especially, will be familiar with the difficulty of finding penetrating tweakers and reliable fast bowlers. The spate of injuries requires a review of preparation and treatment. Theories abound and range from light modern boots to soft living to stress on actions caused by numerous different deliveries.

Australia have unearthed some promising pacemen in youth- and club cricket. Trent Copeland was merely the most recent discovery. Development is the issue. Fitness is the challenge. Bodies are under stress and so is the system.

Perhaps India and Australia will produce another epic. More likely it is too much to ask. Both cricketing communities have enjoyed remarkable times. Supporters have been well blessed. Now comes the challenge of finding a way to prosper without greatness and yet to encourage its emergence. Meanwhile England and South African circle, sniffing blood.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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