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Indian cricket’s away blues continue

Lack of preparation, and a horror show by batsmen, cost India the South Africa seriesthat's what the team should learn from

Vernon Philander (left) of South Africa celebrates the dismissal of India’s Virat Kohli during the fourth day of the first Test match at Newlands, Cape Town, on 8 January. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
Vernon Philander (left) of South Africa celebrates the dismissal of India’s Virat Kohli during the fourth day of the first Test match at Newlands, Cape Town, on 8 January. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

The Indian cricket saga this century has seen two significant forks in the road. The first, and most important, was Eden Gardens in 2001, where Steve Waugh’s all-conquering side were stopped in their tracks. India had beaten Australia on home soil before but, this time, the success became a springboard for the creation of a team that could win in all conditions.

The next Rubicon crossing was the 2011 World Cup. For several in the 15-man squad, winning the trophy after nearly three decades of hurt was the pinnacle of their careers. Some had been part of a Test side that had gone to the top of the rankings in the year leading up to the World Cup, and the white-ball triumph on home turf felt like a full stop.

We can only speculate as to whether scaling that peak caused desire levels to dip, or whether it was simply a case of Father Time catching up with a gifted bunch of players. After that, though, Indian cricket has gone back in time, to a period where they are almost invincible at home and ingénues away.

In the decade between Eden and the World Cup win, India played 110 Tests, winning 45 and losing only 26. The win-loss record in home conditions was an imposing 23-6 (48 matches). Even away, they won more than they lost (22-20). And in the four countries—Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand—where the conditions were most challenging for Asian sides, they won seven and lost 10. Despite the trenchant criticism of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and its obsession with the bottom line, the country finally had a team whose performances often matched the expectations of the fanatical support.

Since the World Cup win, India have won 34 and lost 21 of their 72 Tests. But the discrepancy in home and away numbers makes for disturbing reading. On home soil, India are 25-3. The away figures are 9-18. And if we break it down further, the win-loss record in Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand is a depressing 1-17. That lone win came at Lord’s in July 2014, when England’s batsmen chose the Happy Hooker option against Ishant Sharma and the short ball.

A cursory look at the tour statistics will tell you why India lost the first two Tests in South Africa. If you take out Virat Kohli’s sublime 153 in Centurion, the highest score by a specialist batsman was Rohit Sharma’s 47. Kohli aside, not one specialist batsman has scored even 80 runs in the series. Hardik Pandya (115) and R. Ashwin (90) are next on the chart.

The bowlers may have excelled—with Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami all averaging less than 21—but 20 wickets alone can’t win you matches. Had India batted even moderately well in Cape Town and Centurion, they could have been level or even ahead in the series. Instead, the top-order horror show was a throwback to the dark days of the 1990s, when scoreboards around the world showed totals like 66 all out (Durban, 1996) and 81 (Barbados, 1997).

Michael Holding, who was part of West Indies teams that didn’t lose a Test series between 1980 and 1995, knows what it takes to win in alien conditions. Your bowlers need to adapt, but more importantly, the batsmen need to step up. “Look, India’s bowling could have been a bit better, especially in the first innings in Cape Town (where South Africa recovered to 286 after being 12 for 3)," he says. “But it’s the batsmen that cost them this series.

“When both teams went in with one batsman short in bowler-friendly conditions, I said that they would then need to bat out of their skins to win. India’s batsmen didn’t turn up."

When asked about the difference between the two sides after clinching the series in Centurion, Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, made it a point to mention how each of his batsmen had made at least one significant contribution. India couldn’t say the same thing, and Ravi Shastri, the coach, admitted that the conditions had played a big part in his side being unable to fight back.

“Conditions back home, we are familiar with," he said. “We shouldn’t be in positions back home where you have to fight back as far as I am concerned. Here, conditions are different. In hindsight, I would say another 10 days of practice here would have made a difference. But that’s no excuse. The pitch we play on, it’s the same for both sides, and I would rather focus on the 20 wickets we have taken. That has given us a chance in both Test matches to win games."

The key takeaway there is the “10 days". It’s no coincidence that India’s best performances in South Africa came in 2006-07, and 2010-11, when they won Tests in Johannesburg and Durban. In 2006, they were pummelled in the One Day International series that preceded the Tests, but did acclimatize well enough to rattle South Africa in the five-day format. Four years later, the Test specialists arrived early and trained at Gary Kirsten’s academy in Cape Town. They were still routed at Centurion, but bounced back to square the series at Kingsmead.

One of the recent criticisms of Kohli, who is quickly learning that defeat is an orphan, has been that he interfered even when it came to itineraries. That should be applauded. If this Indian team is ever to emulate the so-called golden generation and win consistently away, then the scheduling and preparation are of utmost importance. This brutal reality check in South Africa has taught them that much.

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