SA debacle: Dire need to unhook from past & reinfuse spunk in Team India

Indian cricket has traditionally been more reluctant than most to let go of the past. It has seldom come down hard on those who have overstayed their welcome, falling back on tired cliches to justify their continued selection

India's Deepak Chahar in the third ODI against South Africa: Even Rahul Dravid will struggle to explain Bhuvneshwar’ Kumar's presence ahead of, say, a Deepak Chahar on a regular basis. PIc: Twitter

Among the loudest messages emanating from the disastrous tour of South Africa is the urgent and uncompromising need to divorce the past if India has to stride confidently towards a bright, successful future.

An outing that began with so much promise and hope ended with disappointment galore as India wiped the floor in both the Test and One-Day International series. One must go a long, long way back in time to find a parallel to an overseas tour of such unmitigated failure. For all their not-unjustified favouritism when they set foot in Johannesburg towards the middle of December, India surrendered the Test series 1-2 after firing the first salvo and wiped the floor in the three ODIs, playing with little of the fire and energy that had characterised the Virat Kohli era.

Tough calls lie ahead of the brains trust and the national selection panel as India plunges headlong into another busy spell of international action. Over the next month and a half, they will engage West Indies in both white-ball formats and back it up with a multi-format face-off against Sri Lanka, both at home. The time to take stock is behind us; now is time for action, and that must begin with selectorial decisions that have been hanging fire.

Indian cricket has traditionally been more reluctant than most to let go of the past. It has seldom come down hard on those who have overstayed their welcome, falling back on tired cliches to justify the continued selection of personnel who more than pulled their weight in the past, but are pale shadows of their once imperious selves.

Ishant Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been wonderful servants of Indian cricket for several years. The lanky paceman is a 15-year veteran on the international circuit, Pujara’s first game in India colours was in 2010 and, in 2013, Rahane stepped into the middle-order breach created by the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. They have been influential figures in India’s climb up the charts in the longest format, but even they will be hard pressed to argue that their best days aren’t behind them.

Rahane and Pujara, the bulwarks of the middle-order alongside Kohli for the last eight and a half years, no longer inspire the confidence that they can turn things around. Occasional impressive cameos aren’t anything more than dying embers sparking briefly to life. Every time they have gone out to bat in Test cricket in the last 12 months, they have placed themselves under immense scrutiny because of what they did – or did not – achieve in the preceding 12 months. With their returns dwindling alarmingly and with back-up options available, it’s time to bite the bullet and take the plunge into the unknown.

Also read: Crumbling middle order to run drought: India’s 3-0 loss to SA an eye-opener

Or actually, not that much of an unknown. There will be arguments galore over whether Shreyas Iyer and Hanuma Vihari will fare any better than the misfiring veteran duo, but you won’t know unless they get a long rope, will you? In their limited international appearances thus far, both have shown more than a sporadic glimpse of their skills and steel. It will be in India’s best interest if they invest in this duo, and in the likes of Shubman Gill and even Suryakumar Yadav, if their stock in Test cricket is not to keep travelling south.

Iyer has a hundred on debut, Vihari has done more than enough to deserve greater faith and opportunities. If this is not their time, then when? Change for the sake of it isn’t advisable, but stubbornness isn’t a virtue either when there is a pressing need to move on. If the team management is reluctant to see that reality, then it is incumbent upon the selectors, tasked with taking Indian cricket forward and paid handsomely to do so, to put their foot down.

Ishant’s case for continuation has been weakened by the team management itself. He wasn’t even considered as the fourth pace option in south Africa when Mohammed Siraj was unavailable for the final Test and Umesh Yadav got the nod. What’s the point of carrying a 300-wicket veteran as a tourist, when a rookie will be better off sharing a dressing room with the likes of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami?

So much for Test cricket. The 50-over washout has also exposed unpalatable home truths. Such as, that Bhuvneshwar Kumar is way past his best-before date. That R Ashwin’s 20-over skills don’t necessarily mean being rewarded with a fortuitous ODI call-up after four and a half years. And that as barren as India’s spin reserves might be, Jayant Yadav is neither the short-term nor the long-term answer.

Oh, and that the decision-makers must think long and hard, take a step back, and then again think long and hard about whether KL Rahul must be conferred with leadership responsibilities with any permanency.

Head coach Dravid must be wondering how things have unravelled so dramatically in the three months since he took charge. When he was on the outer, he was seen as the messiah who would set right the wrongs in a set-up that was already doing quite well, thank you.

Now with his guiding hand on the wheel, Dravid had to face unexpected setbacks for perhaps the first time since his international retirement nearly a decade back. For all his diplomacy, even he will struggle to explain Bhuvneshwar’s presence ahead of, say, a Deepak Chahar on a regular basis, or the continued faith in the 50-over version of Ashwin who, beyond his ten overs – no matter how expertly they are delivered – has little else to offer and is a definite liability on the field.

There is an urgent need to reinfuse spunk and spirit in a team that appeared jaded and out of sync in South Africa. The return of Rohit Sharma will go some way towards addressing that. But there must also be a concerted effort to focus solely on what’s to come, no matter how glorious the past might have been. Otherwise, this could be one long, bleak, unforgiving ride.

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