The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Favourites kept on, others denied

By the time you get to read this, India may well have begun doing what they should have done earlier in the year, beating the West Indies. They missed out on a golden opportunity then, since the Windies were at a very vulnerable state, having been beaten soundly by Sri Lanka and then Pakistan and with their star batsman Brian Lara not fully recovered from his injury. Their confidence was low, the public mood was not encouraging and there were questions asked about Hooper’s ability to lead. It was a scenario that the Australians would have exploited to the hilt.

When India won the second Test of the series, we all thought that yes, this is it. The team is going to win away from the sub-continent after a long, long time. But what happened was exactly the opposite.

India batted pathetically in the next Test in both innings to allow the West Indies to level the series and then played thoughtless cricket in the last Test to lose that game and, with it, the series.

So, leave alone winning the series, India did not even draw it and but for the fact that modern-day cricket schedule means matches follow matches, the one-day series that followed made Indian supporters forget the Test result and the hash India’s batsmen had made.

More than anything else, it was India’s batting that cost them the series and that too, against the West Indies attack which was, with due respect, not frightening at all. The pitches too were devoid of bounce. So, even with the weather, being like in India, there was really nothing foreign about the conditions at all, with, of course, the exception being the crowds. Yet, India lost the series.

In all my years of watching Indian cricket, the defeat at Jamaica remains the lowest point for it was a match that should have been saved. Within minutes of the last wicket falling, the skies opened up and it did not stop raining for the next five days. This meant that the two one-day matches to follow were also abandoned without a ball being bowled. It was hard to understand why no serious attempt was made by the last three wickets to try and stay at the wicket, though, one shouldn’t expect the tail to do what the top order couldn’t.

Yet, it was disappointing to see them throwing their wickets away, when a bit of resistance would have helped them to get a draw once the skies opened up. The weather was dodgy on the last morning and everyone knew it was going to rain. That’s why it was disappointing to see the manner in which the wickets and with it, the match and the series were thrown away.

India then went to England. However, the famed batting let itself down again in the first Test of the series and India lost out on the opportunity to win there too, so much so that when they returned with a draw, it was looked upon as an achievement. Once again, the one-day series that followed — the ICC Champions Trophy — took away attention from the fact that one more series abroad had been played without India winning it.

India should beat the West Indies at home and that would once again make people forget the overseas record of a team that has some of the finest players in the world, who perform superbly individually but are somehow unable to combine together to cobble up a win outside the sub-continent. The West Indies team has a strong batting line-up even in the absence of Brian Lara and it is the bowling that will find it tough.

Even as I write this, India have finished the first day of the first Test with only two wickets down with a double century opening partnership and Sehwag scoring a strokeful hundred. It was the opening batting that let the team down in the West Indies and the stubbornness with which the team management stuck to Shiv Sundar Das in spite of the glaring technical flaw in his batting was unfathomable.

The team management does have its favourites who get opportunity after opportunity even when there are keen, eager, ‘hungry to play for India’ players waiting in the wings and when the “persisted with” player does well, the management tries to justify the persistence forgetting that maybe someone else may have been successful too if given the chance.

Take for example, the reluctance to look at left-arm spinners. If Rahul Sanghvi, Murali Kartik were given the same opportunities as Nehra, even they would have been able to perform but that is not happening. This makes one feel that only the favourites are getting the chances while other equally deserving players are being denied. The one thing that should be guarded against is the feeling that the Indian team is an exclusive club where only a few can get entry.

Sure, the India cap should not be distributed to all and sundry but to keep giving some players all the chances does give the impression that it is an exclusive club. Tinu Yohannan is another who would feel that whatever he does, he will not get to play in the eleven.

However, as he is in the squad, he may not feel that bad because he is at least picking up the perks that go with being in the party. The danger with all this is the feeling of complacency that creeps in as players realise that they can perform at less that 100 per cent and yet be able to keep their place in the squad.

The World Cup is not too far away and the West Indies tour of India and then India’s tour of New Zealand provide a terrific opportunity to try and fill up the holes in the Indian squad and that at the same time, keep even the established ones on their toes so that they do not take their places for granted. That is the only way you will see cent percent effort all the time and not only when there is a danger of losing one’s place in the side. That is also the only way will consistency in performance be maintained and India win regularly than sporadically as it does now.

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