If setbacks are also an opportunity, then the World Test Championship final loss is the moment to reboot Indian cricket and move on. It’s not that we haven’t lost before but the anger and anguish after The Oval collapse is quite unprecedented.
Interestingly the chorus of criticism is led not by random cricket writers, who are dismissed with contempt by Indian players as ‘outside noise’. Social media is flooded with shrill voices from fans, but what stands out is friendly fire from past greats, legends of the game. Suddenly, they have come out blazing, swinging hard in all directions.
This is a first because plain truths about Indian cricket are always known but not so widely articulated. Things simmering under the surface but conveniently ignored in what cricketers would describe as a strategic ‘well left’. But such is the collective outrage over the 209-run loss to Australia that ex players in the media have decided to this time play off the front foot and, to use a cricket phrase, put bat aggressively to ball.c
Fittingly, it was celebrated opener Sunny Gavaskar who launched the first attack by questioning the application and shot selection of Virat Kohli in the final. The Master, known for his pure technique/limitless patience/ fierce concentration, was appalled King Kohli reached for a ball that was a mile away. Gavaskar's was not an angry rant or an emotional response of disappointment - the louder message was about accountability.
While Gavaskar focussed majorly on the technical aspect to express his angst, Harbhajan and Gambhir raised more disturbing fundamental issues. Bhajji decried the tendency of playing on sub standard wickets at home where Australia struggles to last two sessions of play. Such victories are ‘fake’ he said- they give a false sense of wellness, are bad for batsmen as they lose confidence and worse for fast bowlers because they hardly get to bowl.
If this was serious indictment, tougher words followed from Gambhir. He slammed our cricket culture where players are bigger than the game and the team is secondary to individuals.
This superstar culture, the bhakti movement of top stars, is a sad reality of Indian cricket but it’s the first time that Gambhir, an insider, is calling it in clear terms. Our devotion of players is flawed - we put them in a position beyond their ability and then unfairly expect them to produce superhuman feats .
Ex India coach Ravi Shastri too joined the debate, pointing out that India needs to strike a balance between IPL's T20 cricket and 5 day red ball games. He also made a sharper point that India has to look ahead, search for younger players and rebuild the Test team.
That some seniors are nearing the end of their journey is obvious. Half the side is past 30, some with dodgy fitness and not fit for purpose in a 5 day contest. That said, finding the right players and giving them time and experience is a slow, hard process.
Time to Give Chance to Next-Gen in Whites
Ranji Trophy, and domestic cricket, has thrown up talent that is ready for the next level and merits an opportunity in the middle. Ruturaj Gaikwad has done enough at the top for Maharashtra and has the technical tools and mental strength to survive Test cricket’s severe examination. Bengal’s Abhimanyu Easwaran is another who is on the wait list - he was around the India squad even for the previous WTC cycle when India lost to New Zealand.
Sarafaraz Khan is a strong option in the middle order considering his extraordinary run in first class cricket. Rajat Patidar is an exciting all format player, though not in the news because he missed the IPL. Shreyas Iyer, recovering from injury, has had a tremendous international start, though he has technical challenges against the short ball in overseas conditions. Bowling will be strengthened once Bumrah regains fitness and Prasidh Krishna is back. Bengal quick Mukesh Kumar is another talented youngster.
Next up India plays two Tests against a weak West Indies, but South Africa in the winter will be a tougher test. By that time more names could emerge because we would have gone through a new season of the Ranji and Duleep trophy .
IPL Helpful for Shorter Formats
Rebooting the white ball team is far easier because the IPL unearthed real gems who are ready to step up. Among batsmen, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Jitesh Sharma, Tilak Verma, Sai Sudarshan are good to go, and there is Sanju Samson to fall back on. Young quicks Yash Dayal, Tushar Deshpande, Mohsin Khan too made an impression.
Despite all this, the question remains whether Indian cricket is ready to reboot, change track and prepare for tomorrow. Ravi Shastri was pragmatic when he said IPL’s importance, and it’s shadow over Indian cricket, won’t diminish. Yet, India must not take its eyes off Test cricket.
Post Oval, Indian cricket has had a reality check with past greats holding up a mirror and showing some ugly truths . India has celebrity cricketers who are national icons and commercial champions. What we need is a team of players that will win an ICC trophy - an achievement that has eluded our grasp for more than a decade.