February 02nd 2024: World Test Championships: The Indian cricket team was shaken as well as stirred by the ‘Bazball’ approach of the English side in the 1st Test match in Hyderabad. India was cruising to what looked to be a certain victory, especially with a lead of 190 runs and a made-to-order wicket to get their opponents out.
England showed a ‘never say die’ approach like they have done on quite a few occasions in the recent past. A magnificent innings of 196 by Ollie Pope gave them a lead of 231 runs which turned out to be enough to get them an unbelievable and remarkable win.
The English side in their 1st innings looked unprepared, uncertain and completely at sea, not only in their batting but in their bowling too. India had them by the throat and were all set to end their misery. With nothing to lose, the England side played their trump card of sweeping their way out of trouble. Graeme Gooch did this to the Indian side in the World Cup’87 semi-final match in Mumbai, the only difference being that the present England batters did it with a reverse sweep in their armoury. This, one gathers, is something that they practised during the 10-day preparation camp that they had in Abu Dhabi.
India were swept off their feet with the English batter’s response in the 2nd innings and with their tails up, the English bowlers and especially Tom Hartley, who looked very mediocre in the 1st innings, came up with a sterling performance of claiming 7 wickets in the 2nd innings. To do so in his debut Test match was a feat he should be proud of. The wonderful aspect of his performance was his quick learning by changing the way he held and released the ball, as well as adjusting the line and length. Both he and Ollie Pope completely outsmarted the Indian camp putting Rohit Sharma in a state of bewilderment.
The Indian batters had performed extremely well in the 1st innings, each one looked self-assured and set to play a big innings. A few of them could be blamed for losing their wicket to shots of overconfidence and not to the skill of the English bowlers.
A glimpse of hope is what Indian cricket has been giving their millions of followers with confident performances in the past. Finally, they succumbed to pressure when most required. This has been the story that has been repeated in several important matches in the recent past as well. India fails to deliver on that day.
When one sits to analyse as to why this happens to the Indian cricket team, the one thing that comes out strongly is “The fear of failure”. It is not as a team that they fail but as individuals. An Indian player goes through far more pressure than any other player in world cricket. The prime reason is the immature and huge following that an Indian cricketer is faced with. The pendulum swing of the behaviour of the fans and followers that they confront, both of adulation and criticism makes them mentally fragile. The player’s first response is to ensure that they secure their position in the team and among the minds of their millions of followers and critics.
To get in or retain a place in the Indian side, is like everything else in India, very competitive. However, a change or transformation is only looked upon when the situation goes totally awry. This is the primary reason that the present Indian side has had just one young-blooded batter in Yashasvi Jaiswal to adorn the Indian cap for quite some time.
The limited-overs cricket and the number of matches played have seen players come and go, however, the Test side has been constant for quite a while. In the 2 cycles of the World Test Championships as well as in the recent one, the Indian Test team has remained more or less the same. This is precisely why, after the recent defeat, the suggested fallback option was to recall two of their experienced performers in the middle order, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara. This could happen if India lose the 2nd Test match against England.
A recent example after the Indian debacle at a press conference by their coach Rahul Dravid is one to ponder upon. He rued the opportunity that the Indian batters missed as they should have scored 70 more runs in the 1st innings. Similarly, after India’s defeat in the ODI World Cup’23 against Australia, he said India did not play fearful cricket. To get just 2 boundaries off the spinners in 30 overs with Kohli and Rahul batting, one wonders, was it fearless or fearful cricket?
The Indian Test side is an exceptionally good outfit. The team comprises good batters, spinners as well as a lethal pace attack. An area that they fall short of is a good fielder at forward and backward short-leg as well as at silly point. The two catches taken initially by Ollie Pope for England, in India’s chase in the 2nd innings at short leg and at silly point, made a significant contribution towards the mental and fragile state of the Indian batters to follow. He established his presence. The Indian batters rather than finding ways to get wristy singles in the gaps, which they normally do, started playing straight and defensive. This is the fear that a good close-in fielder can bring about in a batter and one which is essential on a turning track. India, unfortunately, lacks such a fielder.
The England coach and captain must have been rather crestfallen after their 1st innings performance. To get their side to go out and enjoy themselves and play fearlessly is what is remarkable about English cricket’s new approach.
India needs to put aside the dreaded fear of failure. They need to go and stamp their authority, after all, the last time they lost a series in India was a decade ago.
Red or black soil, green or turning wicket, India have the players to win the series. However, they now need to be fearless and strong.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former India cricketer. The views expressed are personal)