India may be in semis but cracks are showing

Despite a win against Bangladesh, the effect of Dhoni’s inexplicable defiance might be hard to shake off. (AFP Photo)

“Serene progress” is not a phrase that comes readily to mind when describing the Indian cricket team’s World Cup campaigns. Even on the two occasions, India did go on to lift the trophy, the path to the sunlit uplands was never free of hazards for its followers weak of heart. 

The ability to turn their fans into nervous wrecks for a month was perhaps written into the players’ contracts. The current team led by Virat Kohli had put India fans in fairly unknown territory. The semi-final spot, never in any serious doubt, was sewn up with a win against Bangladesh on July 2, with a game to spare. There was quiet confidence about the team that usually accompanies the German team in tournament football. Even during recent World Cups when Team India’s prospects weren’t as bright, the hyperbolic, patriotic rum-punch-soaked marketing around the team sank it faster. A bit like the England football team. This year, that irrational frenzy too seems happily lacking.

Everything is oojah-cum-spiff then, right?

That sinking feeling

Sunday’s high-profile clash against England, while not material to qualification for semi-final seems to have crashed the party. The boos that reverberated around Edgbaston as the game degenerated into a farce in the final overs may well have been the sound of the wheels beginning to loosen. Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kedar Jadhav playing the perfect front foot defence and ducking bouncers with technique that would meet the purist’s approval, when the asking rate was 13 runs an over, was one of the most bizarre sights in recent memory.

It rekindled memories of the bleak 1990s when in a 1994 match against the West Indies, Nayan Mongia and Manoj Prabhakar downed tools with 60-odd runs needed in the last nine overs. The players were banned for the remaining matches of the tournament. What was Dhoni, one of India’s most loved cricketers ever, and an elder statesman in the current team, thinking? A charitable explanation is that it was just a pragmatic acceptance of the game definitively slipping out of hand. To this writer, however, such an act at the game’s marquee event and in a game that could have been sold-out at least ten times over, felt like a one-finger salute to the fans from Dhoni.

Despite a win against Bangladesh, the effect of Dhoni’s inexplicable defiance might be hard to shake off. India have successfully managed to paper over its somewhat dysfunctional middle order thanks to the preternatural consistency of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, and a remarkably potent bowling attack. 

The game against England showed that India’s top order and bowlers simply cannot afford to play even an inch below their best to pay for the passengers in the middle order. The Indian batting simply folds up at the loss of the fifth wicket. While playing five specialist bowlers does give the Indian attack the bite it has lacked in the past, it brings with it the risk of having four Number Elevens in the team. For all the talk of a modern approach, the resources at hand makes this team a bit of a throwback to the style of cricket prevalent in the 1980s. 

Among the four teams that are on top of the table currently, India’s batting lineup would be the most brittle. With the first knock-out game only a few days away, India is still searching for its best XI. Vijay Shankar, preferred over the proven Ambati Rayudu in the squad, is now cast aside ostensibly due to an injury; there is a call-up for opener Mayank Agarwal. All this surely doesn’t help team morale. At world cups, as in any team sport, it’s rare for a bunch of brilliant individual players to drag a team with such glaring deficiencies across the finishing line.  

The losing battle against time

This mini-crisis is a reflection of India’s inability to replace Yuvraj Singh and put in place a plan for Dhoni’s succession. The peerless power hitting of Yuvraj and Dhoni’s four-in-one act as a reliable wicketkeeper, unruffled leader, performer of impossible rescue acts and explosive finishing played a big role in India’s prolonged patch of success in ODI cricket some years ago. Dhoni’s longevity may have become India’s biggest handicap. It’s a bit like watching Sachin Tendulkar’s career wind down. For all the advances Indian cricket has made, the ability to tap waning icons on the shoulder and to make them give way to youngsters remains elusive. To see a leaden-footed Dhoni struggling to put bat on ball in the final overs is as agonising as watching my boyhood cricket God, Tendulkar, struggle against some pretty mediocre bowling in the final few years of his career.

Dhoni and Tendulkar’s travails remind me of some passages from the Mausala Parva, the 16th chapter of the great Indian epic, Mahabharata. After the male members of Krishna’s Vrishni clan killed each other in a drunken brawl in Dwaraka, and Krishna himself had retired to the forest, it was left to the mighty Arjuna to escort the women, children and the elderly of the kingdom to the relative safety of Hastinapura. 

The caravan was waylaid by robbers and petty thieves.Then Arjuna, the peerless warrior without whom no Pandava victory was imaginable, tried to string his large, indestructible, celestial bow, the Gandiva, with great difficulty. He then began to think of his celestial weapons but they would not come to his mind. Arjuna was ashamed that his arms had lost power, and the great celestial weapons were no longer at his beck and call. The women of Dwaraka were dragged away by the robbers and the material wealth of the survivors plundered. 

One of the epic’s early English translators, Kisari Mohan Ganguli writes, “In former days his shafts had been inexhaustible. Now, however, they proved otherwise. Finding his shafts exhausted, he became deeply afflicted with grief. The son of Indra then began to strike the robbers with the horns of his bow. Dhananjaya regarded it all as the work of destiny and was extremely cheerless…”

Dhoni too, who once had the swagger to win a World Cup final with a six, now plays purely from memory as his weapons—the eyes, the power in the forearms to biff that ball, and the fearless attacking instincts—slowly slip away. And with it perhaps India’s chances in 2019.

I desperately hope I’m wrong.

(TR Vivek is a Bengaluru-based journalist)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH. 

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