When all the usual criticisms and abuse are directed at India's cricket team. They have had a horror series - a difficult series made worse through an astonishingly bad sequence of injuries, some of which were very poorly managed. A very limited fast bowling attack has been exposed mercilessly by an in form English batting line up in their prime. England have pounced on the indifferent, inconsistent lines and lengths from Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth with even greater gusto they mustered up against Hilfenhaus, Johnson and co. in Australia this winter. A batting line up in which the middle order keeps getting exposed to new ball have been allowed very little breathing space by a very well prepared pace attack that has mastered home conditions.
The English batting has been phenomenal since the start of the Ashes. Starting with a second innings of 517/1 at Brisbane, they scored 620/5 at Adelaide, 513 at Melbourne and 644 at Sydney. They won by an innings all three times. Against Sri Lanka they produced 496/5, 486, 335/7 and 377/8. They've followed this up with 474/8, 269/6, 544 and now 456/3 against India. Their three batting failures came in the two innings at Perth - 187 and 123, and in the first innings against India at Trent Bridge - 221 all out. It has been a remarkable run of form. India's new ball bowlers - S Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma have, between them, taken 14/811 in 198 overs - a wicket every 58 runs or 85 balls, in conditions that are far better for fast bowling then they can ever dream of getting at Eden Gardens or Chepauk or the KSCA or the Kotla or even the Wankhede. England's major bowlers have not done much better. James Anderson has bowled better before for fewer wickets. But their two change bowlers have been phenomenal. Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad promise to make up the most formidable lower middle order fast bowling all rounders in Test Cricket since South Africa could boast of Jacques Kallis, Brian MacMillan and Shaun Pollock in the same XI.
This English team is yet to be tested in the sub continent. But so far, they have mastered everybody they have been asked to play against.
In the face of such all round brilliance, the response of India's fans has been scathing. India's players have been accused of not trying, lacking "intent", of "throwing their wickets away". As always, the Worlds Number One Cricket Fan goes for the jugular - the players character. The more experienced (and better) players invariably get it in the neck. So Harbhajan Singh gets criticized mercilessly, while 14-811 in 198 overs is set aside as "inexperience". Never mind that Ishant Sharma has now taken over 100 wickets, and both he and Sreesanth have been played for 4 and 5 years respectively. Sachin Tendulkar gets accused of throwing his wicket away, as does VVS Laxman. Someone suggested to me the other day that VVS's pull shot should be outlawed. This, at least, was funny.
Most of this criticism is not. There are others, reasonable people, who say that fans should be left to their own devices. That each fan is entitled to seeing his team his own way. But it bothers me when India's players are accused of not trying their best. It is the worst thing one can say about a sportsman. In the case of India's players, it is invariably the first thing that is said.
India have had a miserable Test Match and a miserable series. They've brought it upon themselves to a large extent by scheduling 7 Tests in 9 weeks across two continents 3 weeks after a 7 week 20 overs a side tournament, which itself began only a week after a sapping, intense 7 week World Cup campaign. They've been exposed very badly by an excellent England team.
They remain excellent players. As indifferent as Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth have been in this series, they are both still potential world beaters - potential 300 Test wicket men. And they will play well again. Of that I have no doubt. Not much needs to be said about Tendulkar, VVS, Dravid and Gambhir. We may never see players like Tendulkar or VVS or Dravid again. By the time Gambhir finishes his career, we will probably say the same thing about him.
India will never be a consistently powerful Test Match team unless they can find pool of very good fast bowlers. Bowlers who possess basic control, and can do something with the ball. Currently, they lack these bowlers.
India's best bowler in this series has been Praveen Kumar. He has stood out because of his control. He's been hard to hit and has commanded the respect of an in form batting line up. It has been one of the greatest seam and swing bowling performances by an Indian bowler ever. What stands out about Praveen (like it did with Kapil Dev, who had a much more pace and a much better out swinger), is that he has been consistently good. I cannot recall him bowling a single bad spell in the 5 innings he has bowled in this series or in the 6 innings he bowled in the West Indies. He has given India 260 excellent overs of seam and swing bowling so far. His record has been 27 wickets at 24.96, and an economy rate of 2.58. His success is testimony to the conditions available for fast bowling on India's tours to West Indies and England this year. At some point, his lack of pace will hurt him. But if India can find a wicket keeper who can master standing up to the stumps to Praveen Kumar, they will have found a combination reminiscent of Bedser and Evans. Praveen is unlikely to ever run through a batting line up. But he can make a superb third seamer.
Eventually, the BCCI will have to take stock and make sure that it focuses on developing and nurturing talent. For without this, all the business acumen will come to naught. Eventually, the BCCI will decide which way it wants to lead cricket - down the T20, IPL route, or down a route that involves keeping Test Cricket preeminent. The Future Tours Programme from 2011-2020 gives India lots of Test Matches - many more than it has ever played in a single decade. Remarkably, India are also going to play an enormous number of ODI games in the coming decade, as well as a large number of 20 over matches. It all seems quite unrealistic if you ask me. India will need a pool of 20 Test players and 20 ODI players to manage that work load. And it is hard to build a top quality Test XI, let alone find 9 other players who could be just as good!
Caught between the cash crazy administration and the crazy fans, is a cricket team that is currently struggling. I'm going to support that team. I think they always try their best (to the extent that it is humanly possible to do this). And they are usually really good. They haven't been in this series, and they know it.
They owe me nothing. But they have given me plenty over the years. Times like these are when they should be able to lean on those achievements. If not now, when?