No 1 Test ranking under serious threat

Ask Sunil Gavaskar to pick his best Test innings, he’ll sally past five double centuries and 29 others besides to settle on 57 he made against England at Old Trafford on his first tour there in 1971.

Gavaskar isn’t the only one who will choose a knock overseas as his top effort.  Likewise, Sachin Tendulkar, would rate his 114 at Perth in 1991-92 as perhaps his best and Rahul Dravid would tilt towards a double century at Headingly in 2002.

These three are not just the highest run-getters in Indian cricket, but also the best performing Indian batsmen overseas. It is for this reason that they have been recognized as all-time greats.

What makes succeeding overseas so coveted, especially for batsmen? It’s to do with the hardship quotient imposed on by pitches, weather conditions, but depending, of course, on the quality of opposing bowlers.

All batsmen — and not just from India — are in their comfort zone playing at home. Familiarity with climate and pitches helps develop battings skills that become almost second nature.

But it is how the same batsmen perform overseas which reveals their true calibre. Technique and temperament come under scrutiny. How they adjust and adapt reveals their mettle.

This is a now a cricketing truism. Those who show such versatility climb up several notches in the estimation of critics, fans, selectors, fellow players and opponents. Those who don’t slip some notches, never mind the runs made at home.

India’s defeat in the first Test against South Africa is the context for this sermonizing. Failure of the top order batsmen — in both innings — ruined prospects of a possible win, set up so admirably by the bowlers and all-rounder Hardik.

Apart from debating the playing XI, which was a lot of wisdom in hindsight and not germane to the result, two other issues were also hotly discussed: quality of the Newlands pitch and experience (or lack of) in the Indian batting.

I am dwelling on the latter two because these are often thrown up when rationalizing overseas performances – individual and collective. Usually, these are deployed in a failing effort which, in my opinion, is largely excuse-making.

For instance, because the first Test ended in under three (playing) days, there were murmurs — thankfully not from the team and captain — that the Newlands pitch was not Test worthy.

Such complaints are not restricted to Indian players and teams. Visiting sides coming to the sub-continent, voice similar compunctions. When South Africa played in India in 2015 and lost 0-3, they had a lot to say about spinning pitches.

This is hogwash, for two reasons. One, playing on different surfaces and conditions are both the charm and challenge of cricket. It is intrinsic to the sport and the five-day format certainly.

Secondly, preparing home pitches to suit home players is the norm. And why shouldn’t it be? What could be more idiotic than preparing prepare pitches to suit the strength of the opponents.

Unless tracks are badly underprepared or play out as a threat to life and limb, it redounds on the visiting team to overcome the odds, show greater ability and resolve. Like England did when beating India in India in 2012-13.

The issue of overseas experience, while not to be pooh-poohed, is badly overstated. How much experience is necessary for a batsman to shed his inhibitions, uncertainty and come to terms with the conditions early enough to be of value?

Some of the greatest names in the history of the game — Bradman, Sobers, Gavaskar, Richards, Tendulkar, Lara to name some — didn’t need more than a year or so and a handful of Tests.

Of course, these are batsmen of the highest calibre. But even for others, 2-3 years at the international level should be enough. Beyond that, it’s wasteful indulgence or wishful thinking.

In the current Indian team, only K L Rahul could be considered an overseas `rookie’. The others have all been around for 8-10 years in Test and/or first-class cricket: enough time to deliver results anywhere.

Point is that Kohli & Co need to come to terms with this rapidly. This is going to be a recurring problem considering that most engagements this year will be overseas. Unless they are up to it, India’s rating as the world’s best side is under serious threat.

Source: Google Sports

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