This was to have been a journey of discovery, an opportunity to parade the embarrassment of riches Indian cricket is privileged to summon. Instead, India’s white-ball tour of Sri Lanka unspooled into a tale of what might have been, while re-exposing gaping inadequacies against top-class spin on surfaces that aid that craft.
Shikhar Dhawan’s men clinched the 50-over series 2-1, but surrendered the T20Is by the same margin to a beleaguered Sri Lankan side enduring a painful drought dating back to 2019. Those are the cold facts. In truth, India’s second side was reduced to a second-string side from the second T20I, once Krunal Pandya tested COVID-positive and eight close contacts, most of them batsmen, too had to quarantine for ten days.
While this unkind cut most likely altered the outcome of the T20 series, that will come as scant consolation to Rahul Dravid, whose first assignment as national coach (in an interim capacity) was filled with challenges.
Dravid isn’t the sort to open up publicly, though he too will agree that Sanju Samson, more than anyone else, should have done more to grab his lifeline with greater impact, especially considering he has been around for a while and there is mounting competition for batting slots with the T20 World Cup less than three months away.
A knee injury kept Samson out of the first two ODIs. When he did make his 50-over debut, he was all sinewy grace and supreme timing, dancing to an eye-catching 46 before throwing his hand away. His returns in the T20s were even less impressive; 27 in the first encounter ought to have been the appetiser; instead, it turned out to be the main course with efforts of 7 (13b) and 0, tied up in knots by the excellent leg-spinner, Wanindu Hasaranga.
Hasaranga laid threadbare India’s tentativeness against the turning ball. That we are talking batting against spin in the context of 20-over cricket is perhaps the greatest indictment of the quality of playing surfaces on offer, but that’s a subject for another day. In games two and three, Hasaranga reduced Samson to a blubbering wreck with the ball that drifted in and turned away wickedly, reiterating that there is little end in sight to India’s travails against spin post the retirements of virtuosos Dravid himself, VVS Laxman, and Sachin Tendulkar.
Far too often in the last half-dozen years, India have succumbed to spin, and not necessarily out of the top drawer, in Test cricket. Questions to the team management on increasing fallibility against the turning ball are met with a casual nonchalance bordering on the disdainful, even if evidence suggests otherwise. It’s a malaise that has extended to the domestic circuit too. India’s spin cupboard might appear well-stocked, but that’s primarily from a limited-overs perspective. The long-form tweakers, bowlers who could lure batsmen with guile and set them up with patience, are rapidly going out of circulation, a direct fallout of which is hesitant footwork and clammy minds when batsmen are confronted with the spin of some pedigree at the next level.
Perhaps, some of it has to do with the power-hitting that has become an integral feature of modern-day batting. Perhaps too, a lot of it stems from a greater emphasis on playing fast bowling, pretty much the staple diet in international cricket. Dravid and Laxman themselves have admitted that they weren’t as good against spin after a few years at the highest level as when they made their India debuts in 1996. But they had grown up facing spin of the highest order in their backyard – Dravid against Karnataka aces Anil Kumble, Sunil Joshi, R. Ananth and K. Jeshwanth in practice, Laxman confronted by Venkatapathi Raju, Arshad Ayub and Kanwaljit Singh in the Hyderabad nets. They could therefore fall back on excellent muscle memory, even though there was little outward hint that their approach to playing spin had been compromised in any way.
It’s time for the mandarins to come to terms with the fact that in the relentless quest to unearth fast bowlers and batsmen adept at playing such bowling, India have allowed their focus on spin to drift. Far too often for comfort, India’s batsmen have frozen like rabbits in headlights against spinners who are accurate, smart and do no more than stick to the disciplines. While Nathan Lyon is in a league of his own, India have found even the Moeen Ali puzzle too hard to crack more than once. As recently as in February this year, India gifted Joe Root, at best a part-time off-spinner, five wickets in the day-night Test in Ahmedabad. Clearly, the time for remedial measures is nigh.
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Back to the Sri Lanka tour. The one indisputable truism is that Suryakumar Yadav can only be ignored at India’s own peril. He might have had to bide his time as the likes of Prithvi Shaw, Samson, Ishan Kishan and Shreyas Iyer streaked ahead of him in the race for an international cap, but Yadav has looked the most accomplished and the most composed, traits that allow him to unfurl his all-round game with such unfettered authority.
Yadav had already done enough previously to be hailed as the find of the tour. That sobriquet belongs to leg-spinner Rahul Chahar who, despite having to defend low targets, bowled with heart and purpose. He could be the answer to the middle-overs incisiveness India have struggled for of late, given the waning returns of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav.
Dravid will look back on his stint with mixed emotions. He blooded as many as 14 newcomers in six games, some due to the extenuating circumstances right at the end, and oversaw just six days of action in a 45-day period beginning from when the team assembled in Mumbai for quarantine before flying out to Colombo. His wards will certainly be the better for his wisdom, but whether Dravid is any closer to throwing his hat into the coaching ring on a permanent basis continues to remain far from obvious.