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Raise your sights, India

2 January 2008.

The world’s most fanatical cricket nation must get serious about long-term success in the game and doing whatever that takes.

India faces a stark challenge in the years that lie ahead. Not once in 60 years of independence has this cricketing powerhouse attained top ranking in its chosen game. Certainly, it has happy memories of successful days in the sun. Winning the World Cup in 1983 was a fine achievement by a hardened group of seasoned campaigners. Taking the spoils at the first official world Twenty20 tournament was another inspired effort by a bunch of likely lads. Under various captains the current team has secured memorable victories against strong sides at home and overseas. But it is not enough.

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. India must expect more of itself or else it cannot rise. Success ought not to be regarded as a welcome guest who raises spirits for a few nights before bestowing his favours elsewhere. It cannot be accidental. Rather, it must be the result of sustained effort from every part of the cricket community. And that can only come with proper structures and constructive attitudes.

Indian cricket team

Photo credit: vijay chennupati (Flickr: Indian team) via Wikimedia Commons

After the Ashes series in 2005, England celebrated long and hard. Meanwhile, Australia worked out what had gone wrong, concluded that preparation had been poor and that a bowling coach was needed and promptly pinched the best man from under England’s negligent nose. The lesson was clear. In the long run it was not the result that mattered but the response.

Both countries were in unfamiliar terrain. England omitted to build on its victory and fell back. Australia acted quickly to put its house in order. India cannot any longer be satisfied with occasional trophies and famous sons. A newly formed nation relishes every achievement because they instil confidence and create identity. A mature country is not so easily pleased. Certainly, it does not live in the past.

In any case, a cricket World Cup does not attempt to identify the best side on the planet. Instead, it brings together the senior cricketing countries and obliges them to play an abbreviated version of the game. To lift the trophy at the end of months of intense competition is no mean feat but it is not to be mistaken for domination. Clearly the same applies to 20-over tournaments, a form of the game best suited to players of roughly that age. It is an enterprise that demands skill, power, nerve and strategy, but it has limitations. India was right to rejoice in victory. And when India rejoices, it does so deliriously. But it needed to get back to work straight afterwards. Instead, hungry Australians arrived and put the hosts in their place.

From a small nation periodic triumphs might be acceptable. Some countries lack the resources required to sustain a challenge. New Zealand has a tiny population and unreliable weather, and therefore must live on its wits. No one expects Wigan to dominate the Premier League. But India has vast wealth, a population devoted to the game, an accommodating climate, a fund of knowledge, a proud tradition, great heroes, and an immense opportunity. Yet India has not yet imposed itself and the reason is simple. It has not driven itself towards excellence with the required single-mindedness. Far from passing on their wisdom, some older bears have put their own paws in the pot. Administrators have served their local community and not the wider interests of the game. Young players have been feted and fattened. Defeats have led not to rational introspection but to loud protest.

In the last few seasons India has had at its disposal as impressive a bunch of senior players as the game has known. Most of them are coming towards the end. They may have a few more glorious days left in them but the finishing line is in sight. As a group they have been intelligent, committed and unspoilt. But did they rise though a system that tested them every step of the way? Or was India lucky to find a group of well educated and devoted cricketers able to define their times? India has reason to fear their departures. Plainly, the time has come for officials to confront the underachievement.

Securing top position in the Test rankings within five years must become a stated ambition pursued with vigour by the entire community. Goals help to define actions. It’s hard to know what path to take unless the end of the journey is known. If it is not achieved, the entire management team ought to be held responsible. Accountability is crucial in these matters.

Nor ought anyone to pat themselves on the back about victories in minor tournaments whose main task is to raise revenue and attract crowds. Caesar was not rewarded for overpowering some hapless tribe. India must recognise the primacy of Test cricket, not least as a way of planning properly. Fewer mistakes will be made once Test domination has been identified as the most important target. It is inconceivable that a nation that takes Test cricket seriously could give a team a few days to prepare for a series in Australia. On this evidence the administrators concerned are either foolish, greedy or arrogant. They assisted the Australians and undermined their own players. The blow to morale must have been devastating.

It is not easy to develop a cricket community as efficient as the one prevailing in Australia, but the benefits are obvious. A team that lost four mighty cricketers at the end of the previous season still managed to win its next three Test matches in a landslide. Not long ago an attack comprising Brett Lee, once an erratic speedster, and three relative newcomers would not have caused sleepless nights. By no means did these players have better records or more ability than opponents. To the contrary, Brad Hogg and Stuart Clark spent large parts of their careers plying their trade in domestic cricket. Meanwhile Mitchell Johnson was driving a plumber’s van.

However, Ricky Ponting and his coaches extract every last drop of ability from their players. Throughout their careers, players keep working, keep improving. It is expected. Andrew Symonds, Hogg, Michael Hussey and Phil Jaques count among those who had to wait a long time and score a lot of runs before the call came. They did not give up or count their pennies or become lazy or complain.

India is better placed than anyone else to challenge the Australians. Some progress has been made. Players are emerging from rural areas as transport and communications improve. Mahendra Dhoni, Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma and others were not born with the proverbial silver spoon. Clearly it is becoming easier to tap into the pool of talent across the country. Also, the various Twenty20 tournaments attract bold youth and raise fielding standards and running between the wickets. But it will come to naught unless India as a cricketing nation decides to devote its energies and resources to reaching the top of the Test rankings. The BCCI must outline its position. Staging the next World Cup will be a challenge but ought not to distract attention from the true purpose. India must not settle for second place on the podium. The time has come for an ancient civilisation and an emerging nation to go for gold.

This article was written for ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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