By Kanishkaa Balachandran/The Hindu
A word that was often used by commentators and writers to describe India’s preparedness — rather, its lack of it — their tour of England in 2011 was “undercooked”. After the high of being crowned the one-day world champions months earlier, followed by a lengthy IPL season and a tour of the West Indies, India began the first Test at Lord’s with just one three-day game as preparation in very different conditions. It was the start of eight consecutive Test defeats away from home and begged several questions as to where the priorities lay for the men managing Indian cricket at the time.
Champions in one format, duds in another. The coming of age of all-format players like Virat Kohli has played a big part in India’s development as a cricketing superpower on the field since that 8-0 thrashing. An overwhelming amount of their cricket in recent months has been at home and in the neighborhood. They arrive in South Africa with boosted egos after hammering Sri Lanka. But, something doesn’t feel right.
A couple of weeks ago, head coach Ravi Shastri said India would bedropping its only warm-up game ahead of the first Test in Cape Town, starting January 5, and instead opt for center-wicket practice against local bowlers. A two-day game against a composite local side, not even deemed first-class standard, wasn’t considered adequate enough preparation. With India scheduled to leave for South Africa just three days after the final T20 against Sri Lanka on December 24, leaving a very short window before the Cape Town Test, you can’t fault Shastri or the management for making that request. With these limitations, this was deemed the best India could do acclimatize.
More than six years after that 4-0 humbling experience in England, we’re still wondering if some lessons were learnt. You would expect a minimum of two three-day games against first-class teams ahead of an important Test series like this. This feels like stepping off a plane after an eight-hour journey and heading straight to a conference, all jet-lagged. Could the calendar have been less cramped to allow more preparation time?
This was the topic of a primetime debate on a news channel during the Test series against Sri Lanka, shortly after captain Kohli lamented the lack of preparation time.
“Had we got a month off ideally, we would have done a proper preparation in a camp sort of scenario. But we have to sort of make do with what we have. Everyone starts judging players when results come after Test matches. It should be a fair game, where we get to prepare the way we want to and then we are entitled to be criticized.”
When a statement like that comes from Kohli, considered the most powerful man in Indian cricket (unofficially), you know there is resentment from the players on the cramped schedule handed to them by their bosses. Most experts in the said debate sided with the India captain, the general consensus being that the Sri Lanka series was pointless. Dropping the series altogether would have had financial implications, and the BCCI, despite its deep pockets, was not going to free up precious weeks in its home season.
Recently, the BCCI, when releasing its Future Tours Programe (FTP) proposal, identified October-December as its primary home season. However, the ICC’s Future Tours Programme for 2017-2020 shows that Sri Lanka were listed to visit India in March 2018, after India’s return from South Africa. Pakistan were due to tour India for a full series this October, but that, it must be recalled, was merely a Memorandum of Understanding between the two cricket boards signed in 2014. Given the frosty political relationship between the two countries, without government sanction, a bilateral series was never going to take flight. Hence, Sri Lanka, not for the first time, was asked to fill the gap made by Pakistan, but this arrangement begs further questions.
The concept of the “split series” not unusual in today’s context. Couldn’t it have be applied to the Sri Lanka series? (We’ve seen English sides in recent years depart after playing Test matches in India and return for the one-dayers after their Christmas–New Year break.) Couldn’t the limited-overs games have been shifted to March 2018, thereby leaving India’s Test squad the opportunity to head to South Africa earlier? Even then, it’s not so straightforward because India will fly to Sri Lanka to play a T20 tri-series with Bangladesh a play their last match in South Africa on February 24, so that leaves a tiny gap before they have to fly out again. Fitting in the limited-overs leg after the tri-series would have been just as impractical, with the IPL around the corner.
A cramped home season, and the BCCI’s commitment to play a clump of limited-overs matches (there are nine in South Africa, followed by the T20 tri-series) seems to have come in the way of preparing for the Test matches.
This is eerily similar to the weeks leading to India’s 2010-11 tour to South Africa. The then coach Gary Kirsten had requested the BCCI to reschedule the home series against New Zealand (prior to South Africa) and cut the Test series down to two matches instead of three. When that turned out to be non-negotiable, they agreed to rest certain senior players for the New Zealand one-dayers and send them early to South Africa. Still, there was no tour game ahead of the first Test and the ones that arrived after the seniors had just a few days to acclimatise. India were routed in the first Test. They did, however, come back to win the second and came close to closing out the series in the third.
While India may have turned out better than expected, the fact remains that India were not adequately prepared at the start. In their previous 2013-14 tour, India played the one-dayers first but the only tour game ahead of the Tests was washed out. India lost the Tests 1-0. In 2006-07 the one-dayers and a tour game helped India prepare for the Test series. India shocked South Africa in the first game and yet went on to lose the series.
India’s preparation ahead of select overseas tours
|Series||Tour matches/ODIs ahead of Test series||Test series result|
|India in England (1986)||3 three-day games, 2 ODIs||2-0 (India)|
|India in Australia (2003-04)||2 three-day games||1-1|
|India in England (2007)||ODI series in Ireland, 2 three-day games||1-0 (India)|
|India in Australia (2007-08)||1 tour game (washed out)||2-1 (Australia)|
|India in New Zealand (2008-09)||ODIs, T20s, no tour games||1-0 (India)|
The number of preparatory matches, either in the form of practice games or one-dayers, can never really guarantee success in the ensuing Tests. But the important point here is the intent. If the BCCI was serious about attempting to win a Test series in South Africa for the first time ever, making adjustments to the schedule in December would have given players the breathing space the players needed. After all, the ICC’s FTP, in the BCCI’s eyes at least, is hardly sacrosanct.
India had plenty of time to acclamatise in the UK in 2007 ahead of the Tests in England, a series they won. Importantly, this was a year before the IPL descended and transformed the dynamics of cricket. With the IPL fixed for April-May (now with a dedicated window in the international calendar), coinciding with England’s home season, teams touring England may not always get the ideal preparation, with their stars honouring commitments in the IPL before hurriedly showing up for national duty.
Though the Indian players are not allowed to participate in other T20 leagues, they remain more overworked compared to their peers and often have little time to cool off between tours. Short trips to Zimbabwe get squeezed in somewhere when the BCCI sees a gap in the calendar. Last season, India hosted 13 Tests, against four teams. India’s superiority in the format will be tested on away tours, starting with South Africa, and England and Australia in 2018.
If India do beat South Africa, it will have been despite the schedule. If India lose, accountability should start with the top bosses managing those schedules.