Why India struggle to win abroad
India’s record overseas is so poor it should be a matter of deep study, not just perennial breast-beating. What is it that prevents India’s cricketers—especially batsmen —from coming to terms with different conditions quickly and ably? Is it to do with technique or temperament? Or both? What is the solution?
India have never won a Test series in Australia and South Africa, going back a staggering 70 years and 25 years, respectively, in these bilateral contests. No major cricket team (discounting newer, smaller nations like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) has fared so poorly.
Outside the subcontinent and Zimbabwe (where tours have been few and far between), the only place India have done well in the past 15 years is the Caribbean. But this too coincided with the dramatic decline of West Indies cricket.
There is a sense of déjà vu when India tour, and it’s not misplaced, as the recent series against South Africa shows. What looked like an even contest to start with ended up becoming disappointingly one-sided.
The issue becomes even more worrisome when you consider that in the past 30-35 years, India have been the richest cricketing nation, with the largest player base and excellent livelihood opportunities for them, supported by high-class infrastructure and coaches aplenty.
Despite such advantages, they have struggled every time overseas in the past few decades. Take away 2006’s 1-0 series win over West Indies (by then already slipping badly) and 2007’s 1-0 versus England, and there has been little by way of reward outside the subcontinent.
There has been a great deal of consternation over the loss of the current series. This was inevitable, since the chutzpah expressed by captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri before the tour, turned out to be hollow. Seen in the perspective of past performances overseas—the real cause of the debacle since bowlers were magnificent —however, what’s been different?
In 2011, for instance, India had gone to England amid much fanfare and expectations. The team had held South Africa to a creditable 1-1 draw (playing away) and was ranked No.1 in Tests. Between the two tours, there was the spectacular World Cup victory to boost morale too.
As it happened, India were blanked 0-4. A easy victory over weak West Indies playing away was misleading as this was followed by another humiliating 0-4 surrender in Australia. The No.1 ranking was lost and several reputations were in tatters.
This was not a team flush with rookies. The batting included Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag (missed three Tests against England), Gautam Gambhir, V.V.S. Laxman and M.S. Dhoni, all of them vastly experienced playing home and away.
Which brings me back to square one: Why do Indian batsmen struggle overseas? The question acquires an even more perplexing dimension considering that the junior teams—under-19 and India A—have been fairly impressive in similar situations.
Perhaps past and current players who excelled overseas consistently—Sunil Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Dravid, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, Kohli, to name some—would have something to offer for current and succeeding generations on how to cope.
It is not anybody’s case that playing overseas is easy. The hardship quotient for all teams increases substantially. As Test match results in recent years suggest, “home” success has become even more pronounced.
Individuals and teams who overcome this hardship come to occupy a special place in the annals of the game. When they left for South Africa for the ongoing tour, it appeared the Indian team was on the cusp of making this breakthrough.
Instead, the threat of a whitewash looms large. Reports emanating from Johannesburg before the final Test suggested that the Wanderers pitch will be a “greentop”, which could put Kohli and Co. under even sterner scrutiny than in the preceding Tests.
It is never easy for players—individually and collectively—to recover from such defeat. In these days of abbreviated tour schedules, when you go from Test to Test without matches in between to recover form or try out other players, this becomes doubly difficult.
This is where Kohli faces perhaps his stiffest challenge yet. He has to pick up the pieces, regroup the team and reinforce self-belief in players.
The series has been lost, but the problems encountered in South Africa will recur through the year. Unless the lessons are learnt, the results too will.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.