When cricket leaves you flat
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Soon after India won the 2013 Champions Trophy in England, they flew to the Caribbean to take part in a tri-series against the home side West Indies and Sri Lanka. Responding to a question on what the significance was, if any at all, of such a tournament when the team had just won the Champions Trophy, India’s skipper, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, summed up the reality of playing for India: “The demands and expectations on the Indian cricket team have always been the same. It doesn’t matter whether we won the last series or lost, or what has happened on the field, the expectations are always the same. If [at all] the expectation levels are [changing], it is moving in one direction: up.”
More recently, India had just completed a 3-0 Test series demolition of the soon-to-be-replaced World Test No.1 side South Africa, admittedly in more familiar home conditions, before being shipped out across time zones to Australia for a set of five one-day internationals and three T20s. India have since lost the ODI series 1-4, and the knives are out. Dhoni’s captaincy is in question. His ability as a batsman and utility as an ODI finisher are under the microscope. Questions have been raised about whether certain top-order batsmen were after personal milestones while sacrificing the team’s goals. The Indian bowlers have been pummeled on the field and in the press.
Let’s be real about what has happened. In an inconsequential ODI series, the two top ranked ODI sides in the world, on pitches that were flat as pancakes, with no real gun bowlers on either side, engaged in a slugfest. Four of the five matches were won by the team chasing, and the exception was India fumbling a straightforward chase that was very much under control in the 4th ODI. The fact that a 360-run chase appeared straightforward for the most part should tell us all we need to know about the series that has gone by.
Generally, the Australian summer of cricket involves two Test series with an ODI tournament following it. New Zealand and West Indies —not the most crowd pulling visitors—toured Australia for six Tests and instead of a tri-series featuring them, it was India that have appeared in a bilateral series, even though India toured down under in 2014-15 for four Tests, a tri-series and the ICC World Cup. If you have even a tinge of cynicism to your thought processes, it can be seen that this bilateral series was bereft of context and was entirely geared towards filling up cricket board’s coffers and pandering to broadcaster commitments. It shouldn’t be a surprise that flat decks that guaranteed batathons were rolled out to ensure maximum return on investment. Win or lose, the matches run almost their entire quota of 100 overs and eyeballs are guaranteed.
This abbreviated tour of India to Australia is no different from when the Antipodeans visited India in October 2013 for seven ODIs. Two of the matches were ruined by rain and India won the series 3-2. It too was a slugfest with both teams regularly raking up 300+ scores. It even featured India chasing a 350+ score with nearly seven overs to spare. Devoid of any bowling threats on harmless pitches in small grounds, batsmen from both sides treated the bowlers as bowling machines. The games turned in to glorified net sessions.
Now in 2016, Australia, although known for its varied playing surfaces, rolled out toothless decks. Even the Aussie captain Steve Smith had issues with them. With more than 3000 runs scored combined by the two teams, Smith expressed his disappointment. “For me the most disappointing thing was the characteristics of our wickets. I’d like to see the Gabba and WACA produce the traditional fast and bouncy wickets that we’re used to. I thought they were pretty slow and benign and it was very difficult for the bowlers.”
I am as addicted to cricket as the next fan, but watching slugfests where it is a contest of bat v. bat instead of bat v. ball sucks the joy out of watching cricket. Even as batsmen are pushing the boundaries of what is possible—thanks at least in part to power play rules, two new balls per innings, big bats and flat tracks--the role of the bowlers in limited-overs matches is forever diminishing.
Former India cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar opined in a column that the Indian batsmen need to do more, that Dhoni needs to reinvent himself as a captain and that India must always bat second on a flat pitch. I cannot help but laugh to myself at the futility of these recommendations. The most straightforward solution, I would have thought, would be to provide playing conditions and surfaces that at least begin to address the vast imbalance between bat and ball.
Without serious pace and magical spinners—neither of which exist in any great number currently—ODIs on flat tracks are as good as the flip of a coin. The Indian fans might be disappointed at their team losing the ODI series 4-1 to Australia and are looking to blame their bowling attack who have performed reasonably on unhelpful pitches, or the batsmen who averaged “only” 312 runs per innings or Dhoni, but that would be all missing the bigger picture.
But who am I kidding? As soon as the Indian players suit up again for yet another meaningless, context-stripped match, they will be expected to roll over the opposition, the hows and the whys be damned. Dhoni is right. The expectations will be moving in just one direction: Up.
Subash Jayaraman is an Engineer by training and a cricket writer & podcaster by choice. He hosts a popular cricket podcast Couch Talk on thecricketcouch.com and tweets as @thecricketcouch.