It’s hard to win in sport but it’s even more difficult to maintain a standard of excellence over a long period.
The Indian cricket team has managed to reach and retain a high standard of play under the leadership of Virat Kohli but at Pune they faltered badly. The most confounding aspects of India’s calamitous loss were the passive way they succumbed to the left-arm orthodox spin of Steven O’Keefe and their fumble-finger attempts at catching in the close fielding positions.
For many years it’s been accepted that Indian batsmen play spin better than most. On the evidence of Pune that is now a myth. If batsmen continually allow an accurate spinner to maintain the length he wants to bowl on a helpful pitch, then disaster is sure to strike.
KL Rahul was one Indian batsman who adopted an aggressive outlook. He was enjoying mounting success until his adventurous shot-making outweighed reason. Under the conditions provided in Pune, batsmen needed to utilise calculated aggression rather than a knockout blow approach.
A crucial part of batting under Pune type conditions is knowing what is possible against each bowler and just as importantly, what will be the most dangerous shots. Armed with that knowledge batsmen should then try to keep the percentages slightly in their favour when deciding which shots to play.
Rahul’s attempted lofted shot was badly timed given the field was back, his shoulder was damaged and India’s position in the match was on a knife edge. This was the time to further frustrate O’Keefe by utilising the deep set field to pick singles; a surgically dissected approach rather than striving for nuclear devastation.
Following Rahul’s dismissal, India’s cause went from bad to worse in a short time and O’Keefe’s confidence shot through the roof.
With India’s chances of victory tumbling like an upended downhill skier, their fielding needed to be brilliant in Australia’s second innings. Instead, it was abysmal and Australia raced away with the match.
Any fielder can drop a catch but it was the lack of anticipation and faulty technique that seemed so out of place in catching positions where India once used to excel. If Eknath Solkar was still alive he would’ve been appalled at the botched attempts to catch reasonably straightforward chances close-in on the leg-side.
On the evidence of the last couple of years it would appear that the IPL has brought about a rapid improvement in India’s out fielding and an equally quick decline in close-in catching standards.
The Pune experience could become a blip on the radar screen or the first indicator of a downhill slide for India. Their fate rests in the hands of the players and approach of the captain.
Kohli is a lead from-the-front style of captain and a dashing contribution with the bat in Bangalore would go a long way towards rectifying the ills of Pune. However, Kohli must be expected to have the odd failure and Pune was a time for the other batsmen to pick up the slack.
There’s a good chance Kohli will bounce back strongly in Bangalore given his class and competitiveness but he’ll need help in restoring India’s reputation.
The first thing the Indian batsmen must do in Bangalore is acknowledge this Australian attack is all-round the best they’ve faced lately. Australia might only have two front-line pacemen but they are both top-class and Nathan Lyon and O’Keefe are genuine spinners, as distinct from England’s part-timers.
India needs to produce some batten-down batting rather than the expansive buffet stuff.
They must also uncover a way to dismiss the prolific Steve Smith cheaply. Catching his first offered chance would be a promising start.
India have tasted success regularly and experienced its addictive qualities. A key to staying on top is to quickly recover from a reversal.
(This column was written before the start of the Bangalore Test)