By Abhilasha Khaitan
They talk about the overbearing burden of the expectations of a billion fans. It’s a really bad thing that people always expect us to win, they whisper loudly. Now, without judging whether and how the ‘burden’ affects their performance, it is fair to say that at least this little impediment has been removed from the Indian cricket team’s path to success against the Australians.
We have learnt to expect little, if anything, at all.
It wasn’t so over a year ago. India were headed to Australia as equal sparring partners. The fans were excited about what was touted to be a potentially epic series. Sure, both teams had chinks in their armours – India’s in particular were exposed embarrassingly in England – but there was enough firepower on paper such that there were even talks of a 4-0 series win from both quarters.
We know how that story ended.
Much has changed in the months following the drubbing Down Under. The Indian team has tasted more than its share of failure over the years but this particular thrashing took an unprecedented toll on its reputation and credibility. What began as a nasty bloodlust meandered into a slide towards apathy.
Anyone living in the public eye will testify: there’s only one thing more worrying than anger – detachment. It usually starts with disappointment, builds up to anger, plateaus at bitterness, tapers into cynicism and culminates in indifference. Most couples' counsellors may recognise these as the five stages leading to alimony hearings. But, hey, when has India's relationship with cricket been any less intense, complicated and demanding than marriage?
It is on this muted note that the next edition of the India-Australia rivalry will commence. And on a significantly different balance of power than the previous few series’ between the two countries. Michael Clarke’s team, despite the retirement of legends like Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, has managed to hold its own and survive the challenges thrown to it by the ever-threatening Sri Lankans and a reinforced West Indies. Australia’s star has been constantly rising and you have to be a serious optimist to see a silver lining in the dark cloud that has covered India’s fortunes.
Because I never believed in the Indian team’s invincibility, I am also more positive than others that there are still redeeming strengths that may just come to the fore. The greatest of these, as I have already said, is that there is a sense of reality that envelops the players this time around. Success will be celebrated but failure will hardly be unexpected. This is perhaps the best gift that the fans will have given the team in a while, as well as to themselves. By realigning expectations to the recent track record and a group of players in flux, they spare themselves the biting disappointment that defeat brings.
This is a more theoretical shift. On a more specific level, while there is so much newbies like Cheteshwar Pujara, can bring to the team, I sense that the old guard may well show their muscle when they are least expected to. For instance:
- You don’t have to like Harbhajan Singh or even admire his skill as a spinner to appreciate the importance of fielding him in a playing XI against Australia. I am hardly a fan of his methods but consider the fact that he, more than others, has the ability to get under their skin and rattle them. I believe that the Indians, during the 2011-12 tour, had lacked this psychological edge and, let’s face it, the brazen gumption that could have come so handy.
- The Terrible Ton bogey has been put to rest, thank god. It has been the singularly most embarrassing phase in Sachin Tendulkar’s career, this media obsession with the 100th century and his seemingly single-minded quest for the same. It became more important than winning the game, as far as fans and scribes were concerned, and it was too late by the time they realized that nothing was as important as playing to win. I maintain that Tendulkar was a spectator who was dragged into the circus and, consequently, failed to make his last series Down Under count. This is his chance to play a less pressured, more natural game against his favourite rivals. Unless someone, somewhere, finds another statistic to baffle us all with.
- Against the backdrop of all the debate about his efficacy as captain, MS Dhoni has batted his way into supreme form. The experts like to project current favourite, Virat Kohli, as skipper-in-waiting almost as a sword hanging over Dhoni’s head. But there is a certain joy to being relatively more thick-skinned than others. He is a veteran of this captaincy game and has learnt that it takes just a few solid solo performances to stave off the vultures. This may go against popular opinion but I believe that there is no real alternative to Dhoni as captain and a successful showing against the Aussies is all that he needs to cement that.
But I fall victim again to that old devil – hope. It lurks where it has no business to be. Only in its absence will Team India and its fans find peace and, perhaps, fun.
There you go then, boys. The pressure’s off. Go forth and survive. We’ll try not to care.
The author writes on popular culture, cricket and whatever else takes her fancy