Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Indian cricket was never perfect, or even close. But during the halcyon years under Kirsten and Dhoni, the team did a lot of things right. Now, instead of looking for scapegoats and blaming the IPL, the Sandman or anyone else, it needs to look back at those days and figure out what has been lost, misplaced or forgotten.
The irony of it would make any Indian cricket fan smile. Where Did It All Go Wrong, which could be used as the soundtrack for India's cricket in the past 18 months, was part of an Oasis album titled Standing on the Shoulder of Giants. For close to a decade, the national side was carried on those broad shoulders, taking the No. 1 ranking in Test cricket and then winning the 50-over World Cup for the first time in a generation. Now, with the titans' slow but inexorable decline, those that see the glory days receding in the rear-view mirror are left scratching their heads for answers.
There is certainly no simple one. The Indian Premier League has been a favourite target in recent days. Gary Kirsten, then coach, lashed out at its impact on the national side after a disastrous World Twenty20 campaign in 2009, and there's little doubt that playing a full season of IPL on the back of the World Cup win in 2011 impacted on preparations for the England tour.
But the IPL was also around in 2009 and 2010 when India enjoyed their best period in the Test arena. And there was a lengthy break after IPL 2012. Whatever India's problems, IPL fatigue can't be cited as a cause for the dismal defeats in Mumbai and Kolkata.
Has it had a negative impact on young players' techniques? Perhaps. But again, there's no conclusive case to be made. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have both been part of the IPL. No one that watched Pujara bat in Ahmedabad and Mumbai will say that he doesn't have the temperament or the tools to succeed in the longest form. And despite a string of poor strokes in this series, Kohli showed enough in Perth and Adelaide to suggest that he too can crack the Test-match code.
The real issues are in the mind, and have everything to do with the What-Now syndrome. The cornerstones of India's Test successes between 2008 and 2011 are all on the wrong side of 30. Several of them were also part of the World Cup-winning side. Having scaled the Test summit and then having won the trophy that most Indian fans craved above all else, it's not too surprising that there was a subsequent drop in intensity.
This phenomenon has affected teams with a far greater global reputation. Witness what happened to Barcelona after they won football's European Champions League in 2006, 14 years after Johan Cruyff coached the Dream Team to the title. In 2007-08, they finished 18 points behind Real Madrid. The core group hadn't changed much, but the zest had gone, leaving only a parody of greatness.
When that happens, you need inspirational leadership to lift the group. Barcelona found that in Pep Guardiola, the coach who had been part of the original dream team. In Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, Guillem Balague writes of the first conversation that Guardiola had with his new wards. "The team has been through a time when not everybody was as professional as they should have been," he told them. "It is time for everybody to run and to give their all.
"I've been part of this club for many years and I am aware of the mistakes that have been made in the past. I will defend you to the death but I can also say that I will be very demanding of you all: just like I will be with myself.
"I only ask this of you. I won't tell you off if you misplace a pass, or miss a header that costs us a goal, as long as I know you are giving 100 per cent. I could forgive you any mistake, but I won't forgive you if you don't give your heart and soul to Barcelona."
You don't always need such words to inspire or energise, but the combination of coach and captain need to ensure that there's enough good cop-bad cop in their interactions with the side to keep complacency at bay.
Kirsten was loathe to criticise his players in public. In private, he came down hard when it was needed. MS Dhoni looked after what was required on the field. Kirsten's remit was to put his arm around slumping shoulders, and also to kick a few backsides when they were out of line. For three years, that worked like a charm, most notably in the Test arena, where India followed up heavy defeats (Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Centurion) with spirited ripostes.
Few have talked about the Duncan Fletcher method, but if results are a guide - and what other benchmark can we use to assess a team? - it hasn't worked anything like as well for India as it did for an English side that was in disarray when he took over as coach in 1999. Perhaps his wings were clipped by clauses in the contract, but ultimately, he's the man that signed on the dotted line. The buck stops with him and Dhoni.
Teams, even the greatest ones, lose, often badly. That sometimes happened to the mighty West Indies and Australia. What you don't want to see is listlessness, players going through the motions and shrugging their shoulders, or hiding behind statistics that have no meaning when you've been beaten out of sight repeatedly.
A few years ago, Bart Starr, who was quarterback of the Green Bay Packers franchise coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi, told ESPN about how the little-known Italian-American had approached his first team meeting in 1959. "Gentlemen, we're going to relentlessly chase perfection," he said. Lombardi was aware that perfection was unattainable, especially on a sports field where things can change in an instant. But he was certain that in the process of chasing perfection, "we will catch excellence."
Indian cricket was never perfect, or even close. But during the halcyon years under Kirsten and Dhoni, the team did a lot of things right. Now, instead of looking for scapegoats and blaming the IPL, the Sandman or anyone else, it needs to look back at those days and figure out what has been lost, misplaced or forgotten. The road ahead will be painful, but for the younger players as unheralded as Starr once was, there lies the opportunity to 'catch excellence'.