A major grouse of teams touring Australia is that local media relentlessly targets visitors for mind games and thus becomes a force multiplier for the home team.
The Aussies have traditionally had a go at the best player or captain in the visitors’ ranks, for they believe that if the head is messed up the rest would be easy to mop up.
England too follow a similar strategy, with their tabloids looking for sleaze or match-fixing stories against opponents.
The more acceptable broadsheets and broadcasters which are staffed with public school-educated former Test cricketers are motivated by ‘old school ties’ loyalty and hence staunchly bat for England’s captain.
Their media amplifies barbs or cleverly planted comments by key English players in the hope that the visitors would sooner or later be psychologically bogged down. In fact, fast bowler James Anderson has already fired the first salvo at Virat Kohli, saying that he would be desperate to score in England.
Further, in his quest to put that extra pressure on India’s best batsman, he added, “I am sure he is practising hard at certain aspects of his game and that will make the battle between him and not just myself, but him and the rest of our bowlers, a really exciting one.”
This “united us vs solitary him” positioning is a tactic to single out an opponent and make him feel that he is lonely and isolated in his battle against a combined force.
Of course, there are occasions when this sort of jibe has gone horribly wrong. The most infamous of those was when Tony Greig in the run-up to a home series in England said he would make the visiting West Indies team “grovel”. The comment was played up again and again by the local media in their attempt to get the visitors to cower in shame.
West Indies ace speedster Michael Holding, is his autobiography Whispering Death’, said that the remark was a deliberate throwback to his ancestors’ slavery days. Instead of making them cower, it incensed the entire West Indies team. They never let Greig forget that remark as their fearsome pace quartet went after him with a vengeance whenever he batted. When England bowled, master blaster Viv Richards took it upon himself to tear their attack to shreds. In the end, it was Greig who fell to his knees in public and sought forgiveness.
The point to be made is that most teams and their media work as a unit to score brownie points and psychologically upset visiting teams. The latter has to work extra hard to stay united in the face of relentless onslaught on tours. It is not an easy task, especially as the home team is keen only in dividing the opposition.
It is here that things get murky as far as the Indian team and the entourage are concerned.
It is a fact that 18 players have been selected on the tour but only eleven players can make the Test team. However, every single one of those 18 players is representing India and needs to be wholeheartedly backed and encouraged in the run up to the challenging Test series.
Instead what is taking place is a hack job on Cheteshwar Pujara. It does not matter if it is the supporters of Shikhar Dhawan or Ajinkya Rahane or KL Rahul or whoever it is that is initiating this attack. What should be of concern is the attempt to destroy the confidence of one of the key batsmen of this Indian team.
Selective statistics have been pulled out of context to suggest that Pujara deserved to be dropped from the playing eleven. For instance, when his score of nine in a match was pointed out, there was no mention that his team Yorkshire was shot out for 50 on a beast of a pitch. Or that his teammate and England star batsman Joe Root was dismissed for zero.
Little mention was made of the unseasonal snow fall and heavy rain that wrecked batting averages at the start of the English season. Teams were struggling to put 200 runs on the board.
Yorkshire’s director of cricket Martyn Moxon pointed out that the early season weather was very bad for batsmen. “The ball was moving around a lot. All batsmen struggled. The heat wave conditions came only much later.”
He added that Pujara got a couple of very poor lbw decisions, but there was nothing wrong with his technique. Moxon, former England opening batsman, expected the ball to seam a lot less in August, and hence making batting relatively easy.
It is a well-known fact that in a team sport various players have differing roles to play. Pujara’s great asset is to soak up deliveries, occupy time at the crease and blunt bowling attacks. This paves the way for others to score a lot more freely in less demanding situations.
Former India skipper Sourav Ganguly drew attention to this at the start of India’s tour: "The best team had the best number three. When India played at its best the best number three was (Rahul) Dravid.
“Number three batsmen actually take the shine off the new ball, allow the stroke makers to make batting look easier. He (Pujara) is as important to this Test team as Virat Kohli. But sometimes he goes unnoticed. Look at his Test records, after 57 Tests, he has 14 hundreds.”
The irony of Pujara’s situation is that just a few months ago when the chorus was for increasing BCCI-contracted players’ annual fee, he was held as an example. The same folks who are now running him down, had then said that he was a brilliant Test player but not getting his due because of a lack of IPL contract! His contract was increased from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore and all others also benefitted.
Actually the time for nitpicking and diagnosing is long past. Every one of the 18 members needs to be backed and supported on this tough 5-Test tour. Else, every player ought to embrace the advice given by Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Shreyas Iyer: Don’t read newspapers!