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India needs to hunt in pairs, not crib over injuries

The build-up to the third Test at Edgbaston has been centered around what’s not right about Indian cricket, with a focus on the team’s overall preparedness — rather the lack of it — and its players failing to prioritise among the three forms of the game. An additional tour fixture before the first Test would have helped the tourists gain some added confidence, but scheduling of tours is the prerogative of their bosses, so the accountability rests with the BCCI.

India just needs to turn the clock back four years to their previous tour of England for inspiration. Darren Staples/Reuters

Injuries too aren’t always controllable. The loss of key players in Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan for the first two Tests was a solid blow, but in hindsight, better injury management would have helped arrest that situation. But it should be noted that India didn’t rise to No.1, thanks to just a handful of players. Marquee players have missed out in the past, but the team invariably found ways to work around those losses and not allow Test series to slip away from their grasp.

Though India has been denied their best XI in both Tests so far — and will continue following Zaheer’s departure — it doesn’t mean that the remaining personnel don’t have what it takes to bounce back. The majority of those who shaped the No.1 ranking are still around. The games were hardly a walkover for the hosts as they were made to sweat in specific passages in both matches. But the Indians failed to tighten the noose for extended periods and it exposed a weakness few thought existed – the inability to attack as a unit.

It only reiterated the fact that cricket is indeed a team game. Collective responsibility has been the hallmark of England’s resurgence as a Test team. The two games had several examples of how England managed to attack their opponents in pairs, something India can learn from.

India has been found wanting in both disciplines, which explains why the same set of players was successful in both games. At Lord’s, Praveen Kumar shouldered the responsibility after Zaheer pulled out, taking five wickets as India got hammered. Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan went wicketless. In the batting, barring Rahul Dravid’s century, nobody managed to pass fifty.

On the fourth day, arguably the best to bat with the sun out, Ishant bent his back to trigger panic among the hosts. But while Ishant dictated terms at one end, there was nobody to back him up at the other, as Praveen’s swing wasn’t as threatening as it was in the opening day. Matt Prior and Stuart Broad combined to feast on a tired attack and a listless Harbhajan Singh to turn the game. In the fourth innings, besides Suresh Raina, nobody batted with the will to fight out a draw.

The opening sessions at Trent Bridge gave more than a glimpse of India’s capability to fire as a team. Ishant, Praveen and Sreesanth took three wickets apiece with exquisite seam bowling to reduce England to 124 for 8. But this time, Broad the batsman found another able partner in Graeme Swann to take the initiative away. The security provided by Swann gave Broad the licence to attack.

India’s response was characterised by another Dravid masterclass, but that was overshadowed by Broad’s hat-trick. Despite trailing in the first innings, England’s body language showed that they were in the ascendancy. Once again, only one bowler, Praveen, looked like troubling England as they set India a target.

In each innings, India was guilty of not playing solid supporting acts to the man in form. On the contrary, England has had the majority of their players stepping up, including Tim Bresnan, and it only leaves them with a pleasant selection conundrum. The key to winning Test matches, as all captains will say, is winning the individual sessions. But that requires more than just one player to step up.

India just needs to turn the clock back four years to their previous tour of England for inspiration. Curiously, for a side high on numbers, only one player, Anil Kumble, managed to score a century. Their 1-0 series win was built on crucial half-centuries and a staggering 16 fifty-plus stands, boosted by a stable opening pair. Zaheer then complemented their efforts with a match-winning 5-wicket haul at Trent Bridge. England found India’s synchronicity too overwhelming.

Similarly, the success of Australia and the West Indies from the mid-70s is an example of sides attacking in pairs. Australia had Lillee, Thomson and Max Walker while the West Indies had four menacing fast bowlers and another quartet capable of replacing them. An example of a team which suffered due to lack of world class players is New Zealand. For years, Richard Hadlee shouldered the burden as his team’s leading bowler without anyone of similar talent supporting him. He and Martin Crowe were the only two players capable of making a World XI.

One mantra for success is focusing on the present and cutting out the past. Therefore, moaning over the loss of Zaheer and other departures isn’t going to help their cause. They’d be better off utilising the resources they have and importantly, attacking like a pack of wolves.

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