One of the unforgettable incidents of my childhood was listening to the cricket commentary on radio when India were dismissed for a paltry total of 42 in the second innings of the Test match at Lord’s on June 24, 1974. The shock, embarrassment bordering on humiliation and the utter helplessness felt by a 10-year-old having exalted hopes and aspirations about his national side cannot be easily described in words. The crumbling of my make believe world where India were the uncrowned champions of world cricket, a thought propagated by national media after three consecutive series wins in between 1971 and 1973, was a traumatic experience, to say the least.
After the advances in technology made available highlights of the match to cricket viewers across the world, I had watched the events unfold on that fateful day many a time to understand how a batting collapse of this nature could happen to a side that had in its ranks such great players as Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath, Ajit Wadekar and Farokh Engineer. I also realised that such bad days can occur to any side, from the club to international level. As Gavaskar himself said about this episode later, “(Chris) Old and (Geoff) Arnold bowled five good deliveries to dismiss the top five Indian batsmen and the rest did not have the gumption to put up a fight.” Simplistic as it may sound, this offered the best explanation to the complete batting meltdown that took place at Lord’s during India’s summer of woes in 1974.
The worst part of getting dismissed for 42 was its aftershock, which led to the disintegration of the side as a cohesive unit. There were fights aplenty among team members even at the start of the series and this became progressively worse as captain Wadekar lost his authority. It was evident that players were only going through the motions when India took the field for the last Test at Birmingham. The team was in no physical or mental shape to play cricket and went down meekly by an innings and 78 runs. The scorecard of this match - India 165 and 216, England 459/2 declared - stands as testimony to the totally one-sided nature of the contest. The 0-3 defeat in this series almost pushed Indian cricket back into the dark ages of 1950s when the side used to lose matches withe astonishing regularity.
As the Indian batting line-up gained in strength from the turn of this century onwards with the coming together of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag, low scores became increasingly rare and two digit total scores a distant memory. The departure of these legends left behind a huge void but the rise of Virat Kohli as one the best batsmen in contemporary cricket and increased focus on limited overs cricket helped to gloss over the deficiencies in this area. Hence one was completely unprepared for the sudden catastrophe that struck last Saturday at Adelaide when the national side lost 8 wickets in the space of just 81 balls to end up with an all time low total of 36 runs. We were saved from the ignominy of the lowest ever score in Test cricket by a mere 10 runs!
How did this debacle happen? Captain Kohli stated in the aftermath of defeat that it was lack of intent, which made the bowling appear more formidable than it was, that lay at the root of India's failure. Kohli is batsman who prefers to take charge and dominate the bowlers while at the crease and he wants other willowwielders to follow this approach. In his thinking, it was the defensive mindset of the batsmen that allowed the bowlers to dictate terms. In other words, had the batsmen attacked a bit more and seized the initiative, bowlers would not have commanded over the proceedings in the manner they did. When this is analysed further, it would appear that the skipper was placing the blame at the doorsteps of Mayank Agarwal and Cheteswar Pujara, who faced 40 and 8 balls respectively but could score only 9 and 0 runs.
Is it fair to blame intent alone for this batting disaster? Batsmen playing at this level know their roles and Pujara was the hero who held together India’s batting when the visitors registered their first ever of series win in Australia two years ago. He is a batsman who builds his innings brick by brick in an unhurried manner. He does not seek to overwhelm the bowlers through the brilliance of his strokeplay; instead he prefers to grind them down. In the first innings, he came in to bat in the very first over following the dismissal of opener Prithvi Shaw and he stayed at the wicket till the 50th over, by which time the total had reached 100. His innings of 43, scored off 160 balls in 218 minutes, would appear to be slovenly but it was worth its weight in gold as it helped to defang the Aussie bowlers on a wicket favouring the strengths of the home side. Unfortunately Pujara received a beauty from Cummins in the second innings which was pitched close to the stumps, thus making him play, but moved just enough to take the edge. It was the wicket of Pujara that opened the floodgates for Aussie bowlers and they utilised this brilliantly by bowling in the right areas, without giving any easy runs through loose deliveries.
It should be remembered that the pitch at Adelaide Oval was one that helped bowlers, especially the pacers. The steep bounce that they were able to get off the wicket and the not too predictable movement of the pink ball under lights made life difficult for the batsmen. This was evident when India and Australia batted in their first innings, when the batters struggled to stay at the wicket and score runs. Usually pitches tend to lose their pace and bounce as the game progresses but the one at Adelaide was an exception as it retained these traits at full strength even on third day. Seizing the initiative by counter attacking was certainly an option but the only player in the present Indian squad with the skillsets to do so was Kohli, whose attempt in this regard resulted only in a slash at a widish delivery that ended up as a catch to the gully fielder.
Gavaskar summed up the situation best when he said that any other international side that faced this bowling would have fared in a similar manner and ended in double digit totals, if not one as low as 36. In fact, Australia too would have finished with a final score in the region of 100 runs in the first innings had the Indian fielders held the catches they were offered. Hence, despite the ignominy of a seeing the national side fold up for an abysmally low score of 36 runs, it would not be fair to be overly critical of the team. They had one bad session when confronted with top quality bowling on a wicket not conducive for batting.
Where does that leave the Indian squad? There are three more Tests to go and the side stands weakened by the departure of Kohli, who will be returning to India to be with his wife at the time of her delivery. The team should remember that they had the better of the exchanges during the first two days till the collapse on day three. Ajinkya Rahane, who will be leading the side, has a tremendous load on his shoulders as he will have to prop up the morale of the side, which would have descended to boot lace levels at present. He would also be required to come good with the bat to bolster the faltering middle order. However, this also presents him with an opportunity for demonstrating his credentials as a leader and regain his stature as a top class batsman.
Ravi Shastri faces his toughest challenge as the head coach of the national side as it is his responsibility to ensure that the team gets over the disappointment of this embarrassing show and puts up better performances in the matches ahead. His statement two years ago that this was the greatest ever Indian side had invited criticism as exaggerated hyperbole. Now he is faced with the challenging task of motivating the members of the squad to rise up from the ashes of this disastrous outing and put up a decent show in the remaining games. Shastri would do well to remember that posterity would judge him solely on the results he is able to achieve in this regard.
Finally, this provides a God given opportunity to Rohit Sharma, who is expected to join the squad sometime in near future. The Rohit conundrum did not show the Board of Control for Cricket in India in good light as the player chose to show the whole world that despite being a contracted player, he values commitment to his IPL team more than his obligations to the national side. Imran Khan had, during his playing days, coined the name “flat track bully” to describe batsmen who used to score heavily on slow pitches in the Indian sub content, where the ball barely rose above ankle height, but were rendered “hors de combat” on pitches in England and Australia that offered bounce and movement to the bowlers. Rohit has so far scored heavily in Test matches within India and in ODIs and T20 matches where bowlers are constrained by restrictions on number of overs and placement of fielders. This would be his final chance to prove that he possesses the mettle to perform well in the most difficult format of the game against the toughest of opponents. If he succeeds he will elevate himself to the same pedestal as his captain; in case he does not, he would be condemned to be affixed with the tag of flat track bully for the remaining portion of his career.
Thus, the prospects of India in the remaining matches of this series depend on the leadership skills of Rahane, the prowess of Shastri as a coach, and the ability of Rohit to do justice to his potential and come into his own in Test cricket. If all these three aspects come good, India would be able to stage a comeback and give Aussies a run for their money in the games ahead; if not, this side faces the peril of recreating the horrors of the “summer of 42”.
Let us join the millions of cricket lovers in the country in wishing the team management good luck in their efforts to retain the resolve of the side and prevent disintegration of morale, as happened in 1974. Indian cricket cannot afford one more drubbing of the sort received in England 46 years ago.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)