What you saw on 11 June against Australia, or over the past five days, was just symptomatic of what was wrong with India’s Test cricket over the past five years. It was building towards this.
There is a bigger truth that needs to be delivered: It is going to get worse in Test matches.
The Multifarious Problems in the Indian Test Team
The problem in India’s Test cricket performances is systemic and needs a deeper clean-up than what will happen over the next few months.
The biggest issue is the way the Test squads get structured. India is a unique Test set-up where we have two different squads for the longest format both at home and away.
At home the likes of Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj will probably be loitering around the boundary after the first couple of overs. Away from home the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin will be carrying drinks for the players on the field.
This has been the case for the past five years.
Then there are other issues with the batting line-up as well. In the past five years, the opening combinations have undergone a sea change. The likes of Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari and Lokesh Rahul have donned the opener’s role in this time frame.
The middle-order also has not had a young challenger emerge to take the slots from Virat Kohli or Cheteshwar Pujara or even Ajinkya Rahane.
The irony is that when Kohli, Pujara and Rahane were young tyros they were ready to take the places of the stalwarts of the previous generation in the Test XI. In the current scenario, there is absolutely no one who can come in for sure in place of the likes of Kohli, Pujara and Rahane.
Scarcity of Supply Lines Is Pronounced
There has been a systematic purge of the system over the past three years in the garb of the pandemic engulfing the world. We have had no Ranji Trophy in the 2020-21 season, a truncated season in 2021-22 and finally the full tournament returned in 2022-23. This has simply wiped away players who were performing in the longest format at the domestic level till 2019-20. So basically, a generation is slowly going to be written off.
On top of that the much-vaunted India A tour programmes halted during the pandemic. In the past three years, India A has had three series which is a far cry from the regular engagements they had before the pandemic. The pandemic became a convenient excuse for not planning, which is anyways not the forte of the BCCI.
The rot set in about five years ago, slowly but surely, but no one was noticing. In all the hype and bluster surrounding the Ravi Shastri-Kohli regime everyone forgot that they needed to win matches as well apart from looking cute ‘while playing to win’.
The squad that reached the 2021 WTC final was the same as the one which caved in meekly in the 2023 finale as well. So, nothing really changed for the Indian Test set-up.
Instead, what has happened is that teams like India have regressed over the past few years because of the way the WTC cycle is structured. Fewer games are being played and there are longer gaps between Tests. What that does is that with fewer first-class games, and little or no A team cricket, India’s Test options are being squeezed out.
BCCI’s Ready Reckoner of Messing up Functioning Programmes
We have seen that the current management came into power back in late 2021 and had the right intentions of looking ahead. But options have been so limited that they have been forced to look back rather than ahead.
Wriddhiman Saha and Ishant Sharma were eased out of the Test set-up. The plan was to utilise the long gaps between Tests in 2022 to find options for the squad. But then again there was none.
The likes of Pujara and Rahane were the biggest names to suffer because of the pandemic. With no first-class games at home, the veterans were forced to find form in Test matches apart from a few hits in the nets. The result was they were dropped with ‘sources’ letting us know that the door is shut for them for good. But very soon with no back-up available the first went back to Pujara and then to Rahane before this WTC final.
If at all you want to know how to mess up a perfectly good set-up, the Indian board can provide a ready reckoner.
So, Who Is Our Captain, Again?
Then there was confusion about the captains, also forced by injuries to key personnel.
Kohli started off the 2021-23 cycle as Test captain. We all saw his aggression in the way he tamed the English in their den back in 2021. But then a series of self-goals ensured that Kohli stepped down as Test captain. Sharma was named captain and even led at home against Sri Lanka. But then Sharma was forced to miss the next three Tests in England and Bangladesh.
In fact, the WTC final was the first Test away from Asia for Sharma since the 2021 England tour.
Jasprit Bumrah took over as captain for the fifth and final Test in England but then missed the other games because of an injury. Rahul led India in Bangladesh but at home was dropped after the first two games against Australia in March.
Rahane led at the start of Dravid’s tenure as head coach, but very soon found himself out of power, and then, out of contention.
So, this mess has been building for a while.
But for all this while, the team’s performances will show that in the 2021-23 Test cycle out of six series, India lost just one! This loss came in South Africa in 2021-22 after having taken a 1-0 lead in the three-match series under the Dravid regime.
They got the better of England in 2021 and were leading 2-1, when the fear of COVID-19 forced an early end to the tour. They struggled to beat New Zealand at home. Sri Lanka was easy pickings at home, but the fifth and final Test in England ended in a dud. Against Bangladesh, India struggled and that should have set the alarm bells ringing.
Even against Australia, the Indians messed up a 2-0 lead, but ended up winning 2-1. The team think-tank will have plenty of series wins to show over the past two years, but were they the best build-up? No, never.
The Old Ghost Called ‘Selection Debacle'
What has also not helped is the fact that the selection panels have been lackadaisical as well in these past few years. For almost the whole of 2022, India had just four selectors and not a single question was raised about the missing fifth selector. The present Board mandarins fought tooth and nail in the honourable Supreme Court to revert to the five-man selection panel from the suggested three-man panel.
Finally, earlier this year in 2023, we got a new panel with the earlier member being junked. The only person retained was the chairman of selectors, Chetan Sharma. But soon after that Sharma was at the centre of a sting operation. He allegedly resigned from his position and we are back to four selectors. These four selectors are new names, different from the ones who did duty for the past couple of years!
But the interesting bit is that Sharma’s resignation is yet to be announced officially, though he has moved on to greener pastures if you follow his Instagram account.
Just who is the chairman of selectors now? We do not know. What is the procedure to get in the fifth selector who was crucial to rolling back the Lodha reforms in the BCCI? We will not know.
The squads have been selected since February with allegedly four selectors and no chairman. We must assume this because the Board provides little or no information. The communication of the Board off the field just sums up the mess they have created on the field through a series of missteps.
What is the plan going forward? We will again never know because there will be little or no review. You can solve a puzzle if you admit that you have a problem. If you admit there is a problem then the systemic issues will need to be addressed. If you do that the whole existence of an amateur honorary set-up of officials in a largely professional cricketing administrative world will come into question.
Who needs so many troubles when all these issues can be brushed aside with one mickey mouse white-ball bilateral series?
We have an ageing Test squad which is much like the one in 2011-12 that kept losing in England and Australia. Then the changes happened by default, and now as well, it will happen by default. There was no admission of failure by the board then and nothing will happen this time.
Sharma is 36 and will hardly be around for the full 2023-25 WTC cycle. Who is the next in line to take over from him? So serious is the issue that the sources of the Board failed to name a vice-captain for the WTC final.
The only Test transition that happened seamlessly was when Mahendra Singh Dhoni demitted office and a younger Kohli took over. Now all the seniors and claimants for the captaincy role are of the same age. Just who is going to take the baton forward? We will never know.
The other big issue is that none of the main characters have much at stake in Indian cricket going forward.
The coaching staff’s contract runs till the end of the ODI World Cup in November 2023. The selectors do not know how long they will be in the role. The Board mandarins know they can be in power without accountability till the next AGM and the one after that. The former players will not say much except offer oblique references to certain superstars.
Too Late To Blame the IPL
Do not blame the IPL as the reason for yet another debacle in an ICC title game. The IPL has been in existence since 2008. You should probably have created an iron-clad contract then at the start with the franchises, informing them that the centrally contracted players are first BCCI property and can be pulled out at any time.
Now some 15 years down the line, there is no point blaming IPL or its franchises for the ills of the national squads (across formats). It is too late to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. Find a way to make things happen without the horse in the stable.
Till then all the fans can do is just one thing and that is pray for a better result in the next ICC tournament.
For, what do we have except hope?