For a journalist who had mostly covered one disappointing overseas campaign after another – none more so than the 4-0 rout in England three years earlier – it was a surreal feeling, one you sensed was too good to last. From there, I went to Southampton, which was hosting the third Test.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the best commentators and experts possess foresight, seeing patterns in the tea leaves that are beyond you and me. On the eve of the Test, Joe Dawes, the Queenslander who was India’s bowling coach, asked Michael Holding to have a look at his wards.
Holding wasn’t impressed by what he saw. Before the game began, on the drive to the ground, he said bluntly: “They don’t have the legs. Not going to last five Tests.” For a long time, Holding has been a critic of what he sees as vanity gym work, with appearance taking precedence over genuine fitness. In his eyes, there simply was no substitute for getting miles in the legs. And in his view, India’s bowlers didn’t have enough.
The individual he paid special attention to was Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had earned rave reviews after taking 11 for 185 in the first two Tests. With Ishant Sharma, Lord’s match-winner limping off with an ankle injury from final practice before the game, the onus was very much on Bhuvneshwar to keep the pressure on England.
We know how that script played out. Ravindra Jadeja shelled a slip catch off the luckless Pankaj Singh when Cook had made just 15, and England went on to win with a measure of comfort. Bhuvneshwar took eight wickets at 40 in those last three Tests. Where the ball had zipped off the pitch at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, it often floated through harmlessly in the next three games.
In the context of that and other Indian cricket debacles, the controversial yo-yo tests are especially important. Let’s make one thing clear. All these India probables are professional athletes. They knew beforehand that there was a standard to be met. If they were apprehensive that they may not meet them, each of them is rich enough to have been able to afford a personal trainer to get them through the test.
If sympathy is in short supply, that’s because it should be. Other countries like West Indies and Pakistan set higher yo-yo test benchmarks for their players. That even the 16.1 score wasn’t met by the likes of Mohammed Shami, Sanju Samson and Ambati Rayudu says far more about those individuals than it does about the team management.
This ruthlessness is especially necessary in limited-overs cricket. During the World Twenty20 in India in 2016, the semifinal at the Wankhede Stadium was like watching a grainy black-and-white movie on one side and HD-quality streaming on the other. India, with the notable exception of the brilliant and thoroughly modern Virat Kohli, tried to ‘build’ an innings, a notion that has been made utterly passé by the West Indies’ phalanx of heavy hitters.
Lendl Simmons, Johnson Charles and Andre Russell didn’t take too many singles or twos. They didn’t need to, not even at least one ball an over was being muscled to the rope or over it. Where India tried to pace themselves, West Indies just nailed the pedal to the floor.
The difference was as stark on the field. Russell and friends are superb athletes, and even the big men like Carlos Brathwaite prowled the outfield like jaguars. India dropped catches, bowled no-balls, missed with throws, and generally undid all the sterling work Kohli had done with the bat.
Along with the high-profile Test series in England and Australia, India also have two global tournaments coming up in the next two years – the World Cup in England (2019) and the World Twenty20 in Australia (2020). Despite their remarkable consistency in ICC tournaments this decade, they haven’t won anything since the Champions Trophy in 2013. With Kohli now in his prime, the two upcoming tournaments offer a great chance to remedy that.
For that to happen, everyone needs to sing from the same sheet as the skipper, whose commitment to fitness and excellence is nothing short of extraordinary. Yes, cricket, especially the five-day game, is a test of skill. But the limited-overs forms, for all the recent dominance of spin bowling, have become primarily about power and athleticism, two areas where India have usually lagged behind.
The Samson and Rayudu stories were heartwarming ones during the IPL season. But once that was over and they got their India call-ups, they knew what needed to be done before boarding the flight to England. Good selection isn’t just about picking the most skilled players or those in form. It’s also about choosing those that want it the most. The test results have a way of telling you that.
ambati rayudubccifitnessFrom the press boxiplmohammed shamiMS DhoniRavi ShastriSanju Samsonvirat kohliWorld T20Yo-Yo Test
First Published: June 18, 2018, 11:38 AM IST