The American mathematician Sam Saunders has a lovely analogy about how certain truths creep up on us. A frog placed in hot water will struggle to escape, he points out, but the same frog placed in cold water that is slowly warmed up will sit peacefully until it is cooked. Indian cricket is in hot water, but it has become hot so slowly that no one has noticed. But after six away defeats in a row, it is time to shed sentiment and wield the axe.
Some veterans will have to be politely asked to hand in their resignations, others will have to be told to perform or perish and youngsters will have to be given the confidence to fill in the rather large shoes. Easier said than done, of course. But changes are best made when the team is en route to the bottom, not after they get there.
Of 27 Tests abroad since Boxing day 2007, the start of their last tour of Australia, India have won only four outside the subcontinent while losing 12 overall. More to the point, despite the reputation as the finest batting side in the world during that period, they have managed to play 100 overs in an innings just nine times in 53 outings. In the same period, they lost only two of 22 home matches (both to South Africa).
Perhaps we were spoilt by the proximity to the natural born strikers of the cricket ball. The Tendulkars, Dravids, Laxmans, Gangulys and Sehwags made everything look so easy and performed with such authority for so long that we turned a blind eye to their diminishing powers. The selectors got caught up in the hype too, and seemed to have no plan for the transition with the result that like a frog jumping out of hot water, an entire middle order will abruptly retire, leaving a gaping hole.
The failure to slot in someone like Rohit Sharma means that he will probably play the Perth Test without any experience, any match practice or any confidence. If he succeeds, it would have been a trial by fire and his future is assured. But in Indian cricket, success alone is not enough; you have to succeed in a particular way.
You have to succeed while batting seemingly with talent to spare, pulling off incredible shots and scoring boundaries at a fair clip.
This is what television wants. In recent years, India have looked down upon the craftsman, the one who builds an innings, who shows patience and above all the one who stays.
On a previous tour of Australia while the middle order scored individual centuries and double centuries, the one who set it up (and with specific instructions to see the new ball through), Aakash Chopra, was dropped for slow scoring. All he had been doing was following orders, and the results were apparent. This strategy has been understood only two tours later when the lack of a good start exposed the middle order.
And it isn’t just Chopra. Unglamorous but effective players like M Vijay, Wasim Jaffer and others have paid the price for the obsession with flamboyance. The over-reliance on eye, flash and colour has pushed the old-fashioned innings-builder out of the system. The great West Indies teams of the 1980s had an array of stroke players too, but there was Alvin Kallicharan or Larry Gomes for balance in the middle order.
Some of India’s problems are technical, many of them thanks to T20 cricket where flash rules, and an accidental six is valued above a thoughtful forward defence. The technique of pulling the front foot away from the line of the ball to whack it for a DLF or whatever over mid wicket will not work in Test cricket where you have to move into line.
Watching Clarke and Ponting run threes with ease and the entire team chase down everything on the field, the essential difference between the teams was clear. Indian sportsmen are not athletes. Whether it is a cultural or a temperamental issue, the fact remains that Indians lack the confidence that comes from physical fitness. Boundaries are compensation for the reluctance to run. Physical fitness can make the ordinary player look outstanding but lack of it makes the outstanding player look ordinary.
It is never easy to tell a long-serving employee that his time is up. But it is a job that has to be done, and done with as much dignity as possible. V V S Laxman certainly looks out of it - making big hundreds needs fitness and he doesn’t look the part at the moment. Dravid is not the same player who stood alone on the burning deck in England. He has been bowled six times in eight recent matches, which is not as scary a statistic as the commentators will have us believe (Viv Richards had a high percentage of bowled dismissals in his career), but it is the mistake he has been repeating against the full length ball coming in to him that is worrying.
To understand what is happening and yet be unable to do anything about it because the feet just don’t move suddenly draws attention to your age. Despite being the oldest player in the world, Dravid is probably the fittest in the Indian team, which is both a tribute to his application and a commentary on the lack of it among the rest.
The hoo-ha over Tendulkar’s 100th century is taking the focus away from the real issue - the batsman’s inability to convert good starts into match-saving, if not match-winning efforts. He continues to look the best batsman in the side 22 years after his debut, and had he completed a century in Sydney, the country would have forgiven India’s first innings batting which cost them the match. Michael Clarke showed India how team victory is more important than individual statistical achievement, but India’s obsession with the individual has always been compensation for collective failure.
Some serious axe-swinging is called for. The only thing worse than a struggling Australia coming at you is a successful Australia coming at you. The swagger is back, so are the attempts at ‘mental disintegration’ so horribly demonstrated by Pattinson appealing repeatedly to, or rather, at, the umpire. It is in the same class as Virat Kohli’s finger-waving. Such acts have no place on a cricket field. Players ought not to buy into the hype that television creates with its talk of wars and battles on the cricket field.
Before the start of the slide in England, India had won more matches abroad than they had lost in the new century. But the dream is over. It is time for change.