Vanishing dominance: India appears more vulnerable than it has in a decadeNo matter what time of the year, in Indian cricket it is always silly season. The past three months have gone by in a blur of bruises, and pessimism hangs in the air like Kolkata’s grey winter fog.A collapse,Vanishing dominance: India appears more vulnerable than it has in a decadeNo matter what time of the year, in Indian cricket it is always silly season. The past three months have gone by in a blur of bruises, and pessimism hangs in the air like Kolkata’s grey winter fog.A collapse in batting form led to failures in four one-day tournaments. A series defeat to Australia brought the lunatics out of the asylum. The still-suspended elections left the BCCI without the pretence of credibility or care. And as India creaked, an inexperienced South African team dug its heels and nails in.When Team India catches this kind of flu, everyone who whirls around in its force field breaks into a cold sweat. Recently, a prominent agent was heard exclaiming on television, “This is not the box office, the Indian team cannot have mood swings.”Oh, but they can and they do and they have. Whichever way you like your coffee-latte, frappe or decaf-now is a good time to smell it.Never mind what has happened on foreign fields in the short game,the real tsunami is probably still around the corner. In the last 10 Tests played at home (before the Kolkata Test against South Africa) India have won only three. In the last eight home Tests, India has failed to bowl out the opposition twice five times and the visitors have crossed 350 on six occasions.Statistics up to the India vs South Africa, Kanpur TestFortress India-that mighty bastion of slow pitches that turn more viciously than roads winding up the Himalayas, unfathomable passion and roaring crowds-while not on the verge of collapse is certainly looking more vulnerable than it has in more than a decade.Captain Sourav Ganguly believes this home-turf hesitancy is because his team has not played much in India recently-only four Tests in 12 months between October 2002 and November 2003. But 2004-5 will feature no less than nine Tests and by the time the Pakistanis leave in April, we will all have our answer.As victories have dried up, the first round of finger-pointing has begun and revolved around the wickets prepared. The ruckus around a Test match surface has gone from the occasional affliction to full-blown epidemic.Predictions and speculation are followed by much prodding of soil, inspection with keys and muttered disapproval. The tracks used have turned into punching bags either for frustrated bowlers or befuddled batsmen with talk of skill taking second place.advertisementFormer India player L. Sivaramakrishnan says an Indian obsession has now in fact become a weapon for the visitors. “Overseas teams have caught onto the hype and go on about how terrible the wickets are.We then expect our spinners to perform miracles.”In the groove: The South Africans celebrate a dismissal in the Kolkata TestIndia-A coach Sandeep Patil feels the wickets of the past 24 months (after 10 tracks were relaid in 2002) are no different from those that teams played on in the 1980s. “We have always had flat and placid wickets until the ’90s when we doctored them under Ajit Wadekar. The team has had a bad run with the bat but you cannot try and create sympathy by talking about the wickets,” says Patil. The draws of the ’80s turned into a huge spike in performance in the decade that followed (see box), but accused of conspiring to trip visiting teams, he believes there is too much confusion. “We have no idea which way to go,” says Wadekar. “We want faster wickets in domestic cricket so our batsmen can play better overseas, but we want spinning wickets in Tests.” Instead of producing morechal-lenging surfaces the relaid tracks have stolen Indian tracks of their life and bounce. Exhausted by the talk, Sanjay Manjrekar recently wrote that as a policy the Indian team should make only minimal reference to the wickets before matches. “No one made a big deal about how there were cracks in Brisbane recently while the Aussies went on about Bangalore,” says Wadekar.Leg spinner Anil Kumble, whose career straddles two decades, has seen wickets change since the time hemade his debut in 1990-and not just in India. Globally he believes pitches are now weighed in the batsmen’s favour. India’s sluggish performances at home are also part of a worldwide trend of more teams travelling better than before. “What you see now in world cricket is the competitiveness and the drive to succeed outside your own comfort zones,” says former South African player and convener of selectors Omar Henry. India’s success in the ’90s raised expectations to a point where the average fan believes that a home win is a foregone conclusion. But the growing number of one-day tournaments in the past decade has seen frequent visits by overseas teams. That familiarity has bred adaptability and a change in mindset. But a home series continue to be seen through the filter of nostalgia rather than altered reality. No longer do teams come to India as timid travellers.Kolkata centurion Jacques Kallis says, “Coming to India means playing in front of large crowds, being part of the passion that the game thrives on here. We don’t get to play in front of such large crowds at home.” So there go the invisible members of the Indian team: heat, dust and Delhi belly.Great expectations: (From left) Harbhajan Singh, Irfan Pathan and Anil KumbleWadekar remembers England coach Keith Fletcher spying on the touring Indians in South Africa in 1992 before England’s tour of India and declaring that his team had nothing to fear. England lost 3-0. Rather than such hubris, teams touring India now take special pains. The South Africans have spent a week at their board’s high performance centre in Pretoria where they played on wickets that had been left to dry for a week, spent time in heat rooms, and woke at 4.30 a.m. to get their body clocks accustomed to the time difference in India-measures that would have been deemed to be a bit too much 10 years ago.Apart from local point men, ice vests, Sun Tzu and mental disintegration, the Aussies have the most reliable method-sending out regular developmental and A-teams to India.For teams with less potent bowling, the prevention of defeat is seen as a victory in itself. Sivaramakrishnan says that the clean-out betweenWorld Cups makes rebuilding a priority for many teams. Only the Australians, world champs two times running, who have met India five times in six years, play with menace and intent. As batsmen have learnt, bowling tactics have changed too. “Teams set different fields to our batsmen here, they bowl to contain and frustrate and go out to attack. They see it as their best chance of getting a result or forcing a draw,” says Kumble. England bowled wide of Sachin Tendulkar’s leg stump and South Africa’s batsmen have batted with excruciating slowness, scoring at 2.6 per over in three innings. Nasser Hussain remains unapologetic about his leg theory against Tendulkar and South African coach Ray Jennings took the pragmatic view. “The way you play depends on the players you are surrounded by. It is all very well to say that Kallis should be scoring at 70 per cent strike rate. You can do that when you have Tendulkar batting behind you, but we had a debutant behind Kallis.”Teams are also aware that when India fails to bowl out visiting teams, the pressure on thehomeside begins to crank up. Harbhajan Singh defends his mates, “I don’t think we would be happy playing for draws. Playing this way won’t take the South Africans anywhere. You don’t become great by drawing matches.”advertisementadvertisementIt is a predicament the Indians understand: backs to the wall all season, they know that they too cannot aspire for greatness if they do not find a way to win more often.