Summer of discontent

Retirement of Dravid and Laxman hit a struggling India while Tendulkar was in spotlight right through

Sydney is one of the finest places on earth to be for New Year celebrations. But for India, the start of the year was far from a joyous one, as they went down to Australia at the SCG. From then on, they remained pinned to the ropes for a large part of the year. They had only one Test series victory the whole year – against New Zealand, the most depleted among the regular Test playing nations.

Sachin Tendulkar reached his 100th international century and later in the year, decided to  retire from ODI cricket.Before and after that series against New Zealand -- won 2-0 by the hosts with victories in Hyderabad and Bangalore -- it was all frightening nothingness for India despite a few strands of positives like the emergence of Cheteshwar Pujara.

Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman announced their retirements from international cricket, while Sachin Tendulkar bid adieu to one-day cricket, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy – especially in Tests -- came under severe scrutiny, Zaheer Khan moved towards the final stage of his career with no serious replacement in sight, and the spin cupboard looked disturbingly barren.

Dravid’s exit followed India’s 0-4 defeat in Australia while Laxman announced his retirement in an unexpected way, on the eve of the series against New Zealand. Tendulkar and his future was a constant theme throughout the year. His 100th international century first dominated discussions, and then, his failures with the bat raised questions about his presence in the team.

Nothing was more soul-crushing than the series defeat against England. Pitch, conditions, atmosphere, everything was in favour of India in that series, yet they lost 1-2 to a team that had struggled in the sub-continent at the start of the year against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. India made a bright start to the series with a big win at Ahmedabad, but since then it all went awfully wrong for them.

Alastair Cook was more patient than Atlas, grinding down Indians with knocks of quality and quantity, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar spun such a web around the Indian batsmen that their reputation of being fine players of spin lay in tatters after the series, James Anderson exploited the age-old weakness against the moving ball as England completed a historic win on these shores after 28 years.

More than the defeat, the manner in which Indians surrendered was more embarrassing. There was no hint of fightback, no urge to stop the free fall. Indian cricket didn’t look so helpless in a decade or so as their year ended in the same way it began – with a series defeat. It showed how massive was the void created by the retirements of Dravid and Laxman, and the other seniors in the side too were disappointments.

Tendulkar never looked like scoring runs. It was a painful sight to see the maestro struggling for his timing and the fifty he scored at Kolkata only helped to magnify his difficulties. The England series was a continuation of modest outings Tendulkar has been going through from the tour of England in mid-2011, and it eventually led to him calling it a day in the 50-over format. But he did complete his 100th international century against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, a tournament where the world champions did not even reach the final.

The patchiness of Tendulkar was magnified also because Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag and Mahendra Singh Dhoni came a cropper with the bat. In fact, Sehwag began the England series with a bang, smashing his way to a hundred in the first Test at Motera. That century was his first international hundred in close to two years, and was expected to give some steam in the remainder of the series.

But it was just a reminder of what Sehwag could do at his best as he slipped into freeze mode. Gambhir’s story wasn’t any different, struggling against the late and reverse swing of Anderson, and the two fifties he managed to score helped only to buy him some more time. But no one suffered a bigger reversal of fortunes than Dhoni, who didn’t make an impact either as a captain or as a batsman, save for his 99 in the fourth Test at Nagpur.

Now, the number of Dhoni supporters is shrinking faster than the tiger population in the country. There have been calls from several quarters – from former cricketers to former selectors – to axe him from the top job, particularly in the Test format, and he will require a series victory against Pakistan in the forthcoming one-dayers to nullify the growing unrest. That India couldn't make it even to the semifinal of the World T20 in Sri Lanka dimmed the aura around him.

The Jharkhand man has not been in great form with the bat for some time, but the listlessness of his bowlers only compounded his problems. R Ashwin’s days of wine and rose seem to have come to a temporary halt as he struggled to make an impact in the Test series and the two T20s against England, subsequently getting dropped for the opening T20 against Pakistan at Bangalore, for the first time in his career. Ashwin decided to experiment too much instead of focusing more on the traditional strengths of an off-spinner, leaving him in a spot while fellow off-spinner Harbhajan Singh too faded away.

There was good news from the junior ranks with India, led by Unmukt Chand, emerging champions in the under-19 World Cup, beating Australia in the final while an inspirational tale was scripted by Yuvraj Singh, who fought off a rare germ cell cancer to return to the Indian team.

As the season came to a close, the need to keep the faith with youth became more apparent. Pujara took some confident strides while batting at No 3, a position owned by one of the best batsmen in history, stacking up three hundreds, against New Zealand and England. Virat Kohli started the year with a century against Australia in Adelaide, and after an initial struggle against England, showed he had the ability with another century in the final Test in Nagpur.

 In pace bowling, the scenario looked grim with Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron struggling with injuries. Ishant Sharma is still to don the lead role while Parvinder Awana and Bhuvneshwar Kumar have some way to go.  As such, India have very little positives to carry to the New Year, with a hard road beckoning them. If they need some extra doses of inspiration in that journey, they can look back to a tough and disappointing year, because failures often have the capacity to inspire turnarounds.

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