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How did the chumps of test matches turn into champs in ODIs?

I have the right phrase to describe the down-up fortunes of the Indian cricket team in England – “We are like this only”. You may smirk but I am willing to put out my neck and say that among the things we do for which proffer the “we are like this only” justification is our penchant for shortcuts and our inability to run the full course. What I am saying is that just as Indians are hardwired to find comfort in knee-jerk answers to problems while quailing at the thought of devising real, sustainable solutions,  the Indian cricket team too does relatively well in the short-format games, but fails to perform in long-duration matches.

Two weeks ago, the Indian team was being derided for having capitulated without a fight to English bowlers in three of the four Tests it played over the summer. Now, it is the English who are at the receiving end after Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team found second wind when the competition veered to the shorter format of the one-day internationals. With still one match to go, India has already won the series 3-0, with each victory having been the one-day equivalent of an innings victory in a Test.

But we are like this only. We love shortcuts, even to win in cricket. That’s true of all of us Indians and of the Indian team. Look at it this way: a Test that runs over five days requires the team management to plan properly – to come up with a game plan in which the factors are not only the opposition and the resources in hand, but also the ground and pitch conditions and changes that might occur over five days. But no, that is much too much hard work, let us instead take it as it comes. The end result is that we lose our way with stop-gap answers to crisis points during a match.

But short-cut methods win us short matches. In a one-day match, in contrast to Tests, you go in essentially to make sure you manage certain situations perhaps over the duration of a few overs. You don’t need real planning, not even a Plan B. If too many runs are being scored, spread the fielders around. If the bowlers are not getting bite, put in a part-timer, who might just take and wicket and allow you to segue back to the normal pattern of play. Like decisions taken by Indians, Dhoni’s captaincy revolves around reactions, not planning. And in a match of just 50 overs, or 20, this is enough. We win. A more classical English team approach loses them the one-dayers. And then we rejoice. We celebrate. We call Dhoni our best captain ever. We are like this only.

Also perhaps because we are not meticulous about preparing for anything, we Indians are nervous about anything unfamiliar. We hardly factor course-changing possibilities in our plans. The Indian batsmen, back home, enjoy the cushion of good beginnings on familiar, placid wickets. In England, the team might just have expected to play normal cricket, but then the batsmen suddenly found themselves up against deliveries that seemed to go everywhere but where they thought the balls would land. When this led to a few quick walks back to the pavilion, the nervousness changed to helplessness because very few had the temperament, or the experience, to stem the rot. Each mentally burdened batsman came in, succumbed and contributed to a vicious cycle of pressure-dismissal-pressure that destroyed the innings.

When the one-dayers started, the Indians knew one comforting fact: the white balls would not swing as much as the red Dukes used in the Tests. The thought of facing conventional deliveries was enough to make even the dispirited Shikhar Dhawan prance around in anticipation of a good knock, which he finally got on Tuesday. And once the bowlers were able to restrict England and the batsmen were able to put up a decent score, the defensive maestro that Dhoni is would not be denied his record as the Indian skipper with the most one-day wins. Now if only a skilled batter like Virat Kohli had been prepared for the unexpected on English pitches, we would have done so much better in the Tests. But then we are like this only.

(The author is an associate editor at Business Standard, and, like all Indians, thinks he is an expert on cricket)

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