Nothing stirs the imagination of sports lovers in India more than a debacle in cricket. India's gradual rise to the top of the Test ladder was an event to celebrate, but the euphoria did not take long to evaporate. Its downhill slide has been so swift and stunning, that today we have even lost the home advantage, something we had been proud of even when we were losing abroad. In the age of Twenty20 (T20) cricket and its very lucrative avatar, the Indian Premier League (IPL), India's Test team finds itself at its lowest ebb.
We are already down 1-2 to England in the ongoing Test series and everyone is hoping that the Nagpur Test, which begins today, does not end in another disaster. A victory for India would level the series and possibly assuage the pain and anger of the fans, who are demanding the sacking of the entire team as a punishment for their abject surrender so far. But even a win at Nagpur should not deter one from taking a serious re-look at Indian cricket and the reasons behind a series of embarrassing losses, outside India as well as at home.
India's growth as a strong Test playing nation had a lot to do with the coming together of exceptional talent like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble. These were cricketers of outstanding merit and commitment, which got reflected in India's win-loss ratio. These players, through their performances, made us forget the drawbacks that the domestic cricket structure may have had — there are plenty of them. Now that they have all retired, barring Tendulkar, this Indian team finds it almost impossible to fill that void. It is now competing for the wooden spoon in the Test hierarchy.
That the exit of these stalwarts should leave the Indian team in such a sorry state is as much a reflection of their ability as it is on a system that failed to prepare itself for such an eventuality. It won't be an exaggeration to say that today Test cricket in India could possibly be heading for extinction, given the fact that IPL has become the centrepiece of our cricketing calendar. This shortest and briefest form of cricket, which is high on slam-bang entertainment value but very low on real skills, does not — and cannot — prepare a player to withstand the demands of the longest version of the game. The patience, concentration and technical know-how required to play Tests is very different from being able to hit a few sixes or bowl a few dot balls.
Unfortunately for those who swear by Test cricket, the vast majority of aspiring players today are more keen and motivated to prepare for a place in the IPL team, than to play for India. They can't be blamed for limiting their aspirations, as IPL offers an easy route to stardom and is far more lucrative. It is slowly but surely creating an imbalance that could eventually see the total demise of Test cricket in our country.
Even for those players who value Test cricket, the IPL becomes a bane as it is scheduled when exhausted players need rest and time to revitalise themselves. That they still choose to play in it has a lot to do with the kind of money on offer as well as the fear that the Board would target them if they give it a skip.
The IPL is not the entire part of the problem. Even our domestic structure, which includes the Ranji and the Duleep trophy, is played on dead, flat tracks that give a batsman an inflated sense of his skills and a bowler no idea of how good or bad he is. But even with this shortcoming, India has, over the years, managed to produce players of outstanding quality, whose motivation and commitment lifted the team.
For India to still hope that players of that quality will continue to surface despite the drawbacks of domestic cricket appears almost impossible today. Instead of improving the quality of first class cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India has created a 'monster' in IPL, which will gobble up the best possible talent even before he can flower into a Test player of any merit. Unless this imbalance is corrected, I see little future for Test cricket in India.