MS Dhoni has a point. I’ve never liked the metaphors and excuses he pours into every post-match overseas conference, but this time, it’s hard to disagree with him.
The Dhawan practice pitch debacle apart, Dhoni reiterated that patience could pay off with this exact same bunch of players in the near future. He compared this young team to ‘wine brewing’, and while that’s a bit farfetched, it’s hard to find a better Indian group of players to represent the team’s future. Ample proof comes from the fact of how good they’re on home pitches, arguably better than the golden generation of last decade, but they’re equally bad overseas. To be fair, Australia is clueless on Indian pitches too, but they’ve stuck to the same bunch to take them ahead. Steve Smith is now the captain, and he will lead his players into a new era.
This Indian team is taking longer than normal, but what really is normal?
Before India launched into a string of impressive mid-decade overseas tours a decade ago, virtually the same younger team had to go through the 90s, where their record was as dismal as it is currently. Imagine if Tendulkar or Dravid or Ganguly had lost heart in 1999.
Someone somewhere saw the future with them, and let them take the team forward—where they drew series in South Africa, won in West Indies, won in England, drew in Australia, won in New Zealand, Pakistan, drew in Sri Lanka.
Those are impressive results for any team, more so because they eventually reached the no. 1 rank at the end of this era. This was almost the same team that won a single overseas test (Sri Lanka) between 1990 and 2000. They toured the countries for the first time, lost miserably, learned and came back with notes the next time to compete. It worked, but they weren’t also totally impregnable at home. That’s a small price to pay, the sort of zone the South Africans have been in since 2001—having a better Away record than Home, but not completely losing the plot. It makes for a more balanced team, and a more reliable and all-skilled set of players for all conditions. They’re not the best anywhere, but they’re very good everywhere. And they won’t lose a series.
Dhoni has seen eras changing at his helm. He has never panicked, but he has felt helpless often. His batsmen are showing glimpses of the future he keeps talking about, but it’s hard to imagine where he can find the bowlers from.
For the first time in decades, India doesn’t have a decent strike spinner. They don’t have an all-rounder, and their strategy of having to play an extra batsman in tests in the form of Rohit Sharma isn’t working. But they’re sticking to Rohit, the way they did in ODIs, because as of now, Dhoni’s plan revolves around un-damaging a team that requires belief and confidence. He won’t be around forever, and his job is to guide the kids into a mindset where they believe they can win. They showed signs of it at Adelaide, and even at Brisbane, but a test match requires much more than flashes of brilliance. West Indies wouldn’t be in the doldrums if tests were like T20s, and the odd wicket burst here and the odd daring chase there won’t change much.
Perhaps a few minor changes could make a difference, but it’s always easy to make predictions and changes when the team is down. Sooner or later, knowing their rate of maturing, they will win a test. A test could become two, and then perhaps a series at some point. How long, even they don’t know, but when something clicks, it clicks.
It’ll be a while before they learn to play the swinging ball in England, and doing a few domestic seasons there could help, but this needs foresight from BCCI. It could happen the day the DRS issue is resolved. High hopes, but if these players don’t hope either then it’s hard to see where the next test win will come from. They’ve now toured South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia winning just one test against a weak English side at Lords. How curvy is their learning curve? And how much longer do these players need to brew before becoming cultured and stable?
But these are also the same players who might win India its second consecutive World Cup on the back of some impressive ODI form. Chopping and changing makes sense in the shorter formats too. Test cricket needs its Indian army, and they’re still in the process of having cold feet after being recruited. Soon, they will step up. And any win would be a surprise. I look forward to the time a solitary win would be more of a routine.