With the recent one day series victory in Sri Lanka, MS Dhoni advances yet another step on the path of cricketing greatness. While no doubt not as attention-grabbing as the ODI series win against Australia in Australia or financially as rewarding as the T20 World Cup victory in South Africa, this unprecedented series win is no less significant, coming off as it does in Sri Lanka and against the wiles of a mystery man, who has dominated India unlike any other bowler in recent times. Add to it Dhoni’s ungainly but thoroughly effective handling of Mendis and his stepping up to the plate as the team’s main batsman in the potentially debilitating absence of Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh’s continued state of cricketing discombobulation, and one may begin to understand the significance of Dhoni’s personal contribution to the victory.
However the risk is that in the midst of the modest euphoria, one will perhaps forget the disastrous Test series that preceded it. Had it not for a heroic performance from Sehwag, it would have definitely been a 3–0 pasting—no doubt about it.
There was nothing sadder for an Indian cricket fan than to see four of the games giants struggling, match after match, to handle one bowler.
In their prime, each would have handled Mendis in their own way–Sourav would have seized the initiative with his footwork, Sachin would have two aggressive shots for every variation, Laxman would have been able to play everything perfectly off the pitch and Dravid would have just downed the shutters and frustrated Mendis into submission.
However, with their abilities waning and the hand-eye coordination nowhere near as it used to be, the Fab four now rely primarily on their memory and technique to score runs. As a result, against conventional bowlers, they are typically able to produce workmanlike though mostly unspectacular performances. There is, from time to time, the odd flash of inspiration, like the kind Ganguly displayed against South Africa in the third Test, that still keeps us hoping against hope that our favorite cricketers still have years left in them.
This time however faced with a challenge unlike anything they have handled in their entire cricket career, the Big Four just had no answer. Simply put, the bizarre nature of Mendis made the “playing from memory” technique useless. New tactics, like the ones Sachin had adopted many years ago against a blonde Aussie spinning great with a fondness for threesomes, diuretics and flippers, needed to be thought out and implemented.
But that was evidently a bridge too far for the four of them. Seemingly content on just keeping Mendis out, it became only a matter of time when the carrom ball would rip across the edge or the googly spin in, without a riposte from the Fab Four.
Sad to see the Gandhivs falling from the hands of the four Arjuns, for the first time all together. But not worrying.
What was however alarming was the sight of Dinesh Kartik, a year or so ago considered to be good enough to play as a Test batsman and rated equal to Dhoni as a keeper-batsman, playing like my aunt at the family picnic, swinging his bat like a broom. Parthiv Patel, who has supposedly reinvented his batting, looked no better. And I am not even getting to their primary duties—keeping. Compared to their unintentional comic routines and gracelessness behind the stumps , the willow-flailing was positively artistic.
While it is naive to expect, four batsmen of the abilities of Sachin, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly to be “replaced” and that too overnight, the crisis is that there does not seem anyone except Sehwag among the current crop who has displayed a stomach for the longer version of the game.
Yuvraj Singh came spectacularly unstuck in Australia. Dhoni has yet to establish himself as a Test batsman of any kind of pedigree. And while it would be harsh to pick on Gautam Gambhir who was India’s second best batsman, it no doubt is true that despite being in the form of his life (and possibly the height of his powers) he was unable to make a single century in the series, let alone a big score. Considering that a Test batsman and that too an opener is never remembered for the 60s and 70s but the 150s and the 200s, there is no escaping the fact that not a single representative of the so-called Youngistan has,to date, demonstrated sustained ability at the Test level.
In the last Test, Kartik and Gambhir kept getting up too early while fielding close-in, letting runs through continuously. Pragyan Ojha was listless in the field and the normally-brilliant Rohit Sharma missed a simple run-out apart from committing a few egregious errors. The root cause for all these mis-fields was probably the same, the symptom of a larger malaise—namely the inability of the new generation players, used to the faster pace and shorter concentration times needed for the shorter games, to continuously focus on each and every delivery of the 540 that are bowled in a day.
So are Dhoni’s men, talented as they no doubt are in the shorter versions of the game, ready to take over the reins from the older generation and become, at the very least, Test batsmen of international standards?
We may soon find that out. And the answer we find—we perhaps may not like.