What do a Cambridge-educated paediatrician, a geriatric liquor-store manager and a loud television anchor have in common? Well, not a lot, but in the last week they have all asked me, in one form or another: Just what is wrong with Indian cricket?
Naturally, if I knew the answer to that question, I would be a highly paid consultant to the Indian cricket team and not merely a humble cricket journalist. But some things are obvious even to those who don’t have degrees in cricket.
Firstly, the batting has failed repeatedly, with the exception of Cheteshwar Pujara – two innings of a four-Test series – and Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli (one knock apiece). Secondly, the bowlers have been unable to take 20 wickets cheaply enough, in conditions that have varied from outright helpful to perfectly docile. Thirdly, the team is far from settled, having lost cricketers of the calibre of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman not long ago. Sachin Tendulkar, in the evening of a glorious career, has struggled to get past initial jitters and make the most of his undeniable ability. All this we can readily agree on.
What’s less easy to accept, is that this – ten losses in the last 17 Test matches – may be as good as it gets for the moment. Bear with me before you take to Twitter to unleash a barrage.
England were much better than India in every facet of the game that counts, from the starts the opening batsmen provided, the impetus the middle order brought, the all-round value the wicketkeeper provided and the purchase the spinners extracted, to the reverse swing the medium-pacers exploited. To put it mildly, India were comprehensively outplayed by an England team that broke a 28-year drought in the country.
While, as the aforementioned anchor screams at us on television, “India wants answers, the nation wants to know”, it’s worth asking ourselves if we’re ready to accept the responses that may come our way. Could it just be that this team is not as good as the ones that have represented India in the recent past? Could it just be that periods of transition are by their very nature defined by defeat rather than victory, where you learn things that will one day turn the tables? Could it just be that, in a sport, the team that plays better wins?
Rather than look at it this way, the reaction is an emotional one, full of anger and righteous indignation, and this is only understandable. After all, despite what the constitution might say about hockey, cricket is India’s national game at the moment. And pundits and journalists who make a living from the great game forget easily enough that while they are paid to watch, the average fan is in an entirely different situation.
It is inevitable that a fan who shells out his hard-earned money to go to a stadium with his family, or uses up his increasingly limited spare time to watch the game on television (thereby bringing the advertising dollars into the game) feels something raw when the team slumps to defeat without apparently putting up a fight. It is only fitting that the this fan feels anguish when an Indian player drops a catch and then shares a joke with a teammate seconds later.
But, while this anger is understandable, is it at all desirable? It wasn’t that long ago that Mohammad Kaif had his house tarred by angry fans. Rahul Dravid’s car got a brick through the windshield after yet another disappointing performance. Mercifully, incidents of this kind have been on the wane, and fans have found other less hurtful ways of expressing themselves.
Twitter and Facebook are fantastic barometers of how a varied set of people feel at any given point of time, and it is with some trepidation that I have fired up either website in recent times. The rage that is obvious there, no doubt spurred by the anonymity the medium offers and the easy access to high-profile targets, has to be seen to be believed, and at times like this you understand why the Block option was built into social media.
But, while the team faces hard questions, and as someone who has been lucky enough to follow Indian cricket closely for a while I can say with certainty that the hurt fans feel pales in comparison to the despondency a cricketer goes through in a passage of failure, do we stop to ask whether our own reactions are justified?
The easiest thing to do is call for widespread culling: Tendulkar should retire, Dhoni should be stripped of the captaincy, the coach should resign … In an imaginary world, just for a moment let us pretend all this happened. Would it actually help Indian cricket? To rant in this manner is a bit like having a bad day at work and yelling at the wife when you get home. You feel like a big man for five minutes, but no problem is ever solved.
While the easiest thing to do is point the finger at the Indian team, perhaps life might be a bit easier for the legion of passionate fans if they asked themselves what they could do at a time like this. Accept the reality that things are not as good as they were, and equally that there’s no reason why all hope is lost, or rail against some people who did not hit or hurl a ball particularly well?
To bask in the euphoria of someone else’s glory, as a nation did when the World Cup was won last year, is an easy thing to do, and a dangerous one. After all, if your happiness is second-hand, then you have little control over what makes you sad as well. The hard question for cricket lovers is this: are they merely fans, or would they rather be supporters of the team?
If you count yourself a supporter, the time to show it is now, when the team is down, for otherwise there’s little difference between you and a fair-weather friend. And think about the alternative. If we keep kicking the team when it is down, when it is at its lowest ebb, we may end up killing the thing that we claim to love the most.