India might have won the one-day series, but the West Indies gained more from it, not the least because they changed a potential 5-0 licking into an almost respectable 2-3 scoreline. The French tennis star Rene Lacoste had laid down the first commandment of competitive sport decades ago: When your opponent is down, don’t let him get up; sit on his head. It was probably more elegant in French, but the concept cannot be faulted.
India messed up a golden chance to take revenge for all the 5-0 hammerings they have received at the hands of the West Indies over the years. Was it complacency? Lack of drive? Poor leadership? Tiredness? Absence of incentive? Any one of these (or a combination) is poor reason for the world champions to give up so easily after leading 3-0. Champion sides do not allow the opposition to get back.
Or were there — in the final game at Sabina Park at least — cricketing reasons that the early matches somehow covered up? This was the quickest of the wickets, and even a trundler like Lendl Simmons was able to get the ball to jump. With a couple of honourable exceptions, the Indian batsmen were caught on the backfoot, literally as well as metaphorically. Skipper Suresh Raina, who had a miserable series, threw his wicket away once again.
When India were winning, Raina pleaded with the media to stop saying that his team had beaten a second-rate West Indies side. Focus instead on the youngsters, he had said. Which works when you are winning, but when you lose, you don’t want any such focus. Interestingly, the first Test begins at the same venue on Monday, and the West Indies, who were expected to lose every match, have been given hope. It was a similar situation against Pakistan in the previous series. The West Indies, 0-3 down made it 2-3 in the one-day series, and carried their new found spirit into the opening Test. And won it.
Only in recent years have India shaken off the habit of losing the first Test in an away series. True, the team will be strengthened when Mahendra Singh Dhoni, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid return to their posts, but they will find it that bit more difficult against a team that has been injected with a crucial dose of self-belief by India’s approach. And going by the manner in which the medium pacers have performed, the man who will be missed the most is Zaheer Khan.
Coach Duncan Fletcher has his work cut out. “I have a great deal of confidence in India’s young players,” he said only the other day, but if he feels a trifle frustrated today, that is understandable. “This tour will be a good indication of what India’s talent depth is like,” he had said, and frankly, that was the unspoken thought in the minds of most cricket lovers in the country.
Those who were expected to do well but didn’t grab the opportunity in the shorter series can take succour from Fletcher’s 30-match rule. Five matches are not enough, the coach has said, adding, “I have always used a figure of 30 games, especially for batters. You’ve got to look at 30 games to learn to understand one-day cricket.”
So Badrinath (seven matches), Parthiv Patel (23), Shikhar Dhawan (five), Manoj Tiwary (three), Vinay Kumar (three), R Ashwin (11) have much to look forward to if the coach has his way. Ishant Sharma has played 47 matches, but did not trouble the batsmen too much, and Yusuf Pathan, after five matches had only 42 runs to show in the series. But consistency cannot be his strength for the way he bats; and bowlers around the world are not going to be too keen on feeding him his favourite hoick. He has two brilliant centuries in the format, but the surprise element in his batting is gone. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma apart, no one really looked the part for India, and so it might be back to the drawing board for the selectors.
A whole generation is on the verge of bidding goodbye. Has the tour so far provided pointers to those who will replace the Tendulkars and Dravids and Laxmans and Zaheers? Kohli has done enough to be asked to make his Test debut, and has three matches to establish himself in the middle- order. He cannot afford to be too self-conscious about being the substitute for Tendulkar. But he is captaincy material, and seems to have overcome the problems with fame that claimed many youngsters in the past. The opportunity to book his berth has come at a time when he is in form, and that is a blessing for any young player.
India go into the Test series with a new opening pair, a debutant in the middle-order, and perhaps two spinners and two medium pacers. The lack of a batsman, who can bowl, preferably medium pace, will be felt. But leg-spinner Amit Mishra has troubled the West Indies batsmen, and it will be interesting to see how Munaf Patel bowls when he comes in as the main fast bowler. Andy Roberts might have called him a spinner. Either he is the old-fashioned player, who doesn’t read newspaper reports during a series and therefore, will be unaffected by that or he can use that insult to inspire him. But the question remains: does India have the bowling to claim 20 wickets in a match?
The first Test of a short series (three matches) is crucial. In the past, India have lost because they have played for a draw and then found it difficult to change plans during the game.
With only two batsmen in the top-six certainties, the remaining four will be under pressure to get a head start over their rivals for a berth in the full Indian eleven. The blue-coloured bench may not have shown great strength (although India did win the one-day series), and now it will be up to the all-white bench to provide some answers.