The Indian Angle: Futures of Dhoni, Fletcher and national game at stake

 

Eden Gardens

Indians did not actually say – as Viv Richards once did after India had beaten the West Indies on an underprepared track in Chennai – "come home and we'll show you". But it was implied after MS Dhoni's men lost the series in England 4-0 last year. Well, England have come, and it is India who are being shown up. It might be too early to write India off in the Kolkata Test, but if the England players take time out to check the price of champagne here, it is understandable.

Sachin Tendulkar had just got into double figures, when India last lost a series to England at home. That was 27 years ago; the Berlin Wall remained, the Soviet Union was in place.

If India lose, two gentlemen who have got away unscathed after the recent disasters abroad might find their jobs in danger. Dhoni, the second most powerful man in Indian cricket (after the board president N Srinivasan), and coach Duncan Fletcher, the Buddha.

India lost every Test of their last two series abroad (4-0 in Australia as well), and Dhoni was captain in seven of these. He is only one win behind Sourav Ganguly's record of 21 victories, in this, his 42nd Test in charge. He has already indicated a desire to give up the highest form of the game and concentrate on the two lower forms. India are still the world champions, and Dhoni's final six of last year's tournament is one of the iconic photographs of Indian sport.

Yet a defeat will certainly loosen Dhoni's hold on the captaincy, even if the board uses the classic Indian excuse: the acronym TINA ("There Is No Alternative"). It hasn't helped Virat Kohli's case that he has been struggling in the series, for he is the anointed one. Virender Sehwag has led in Dhoni's absence, while Gautam Gambhir too has led and nurses ambitions of a more permanent tenure. A defeat is always the best time to ring in changes at the top.

Remarkably, neither Dhoni nor Fletcher paid the price for India's defeats. Dhoni plays for the Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League, the team which is owned by Srinivasan. Read into that what you will. Fletcher, possibly the brain behind the plan not to play spinners in the warm-up matches against England, can claim that he did it not so much to hide India's strength as to keep them from exposing their weakness. Not that he will, of course.

After the experience with his predecessor Greg Chappell, it is understandable if the cricket board suggested to Fletcher – a suggestion buttressed by the pay cheque – that he should be wary of opening his mouth. Fletcher possibly nodded.

He had taken England, then residing in the bottom half of the rankings to an Ashes win, and paved the way for their climb to No 1. In India, it has been the reverse. He has overseen the world's No 1 team dropping to No 5.

Yet, amazingly, no questions are being asked. Such is the power of silence. Fletcher has escaped scrutiny and criticism, which is strange in a sport where managers and coaches, especially high-profile ones, are constantly reminded that with power comes responsibility. This means either that the authorities do not think the coach is important or that the coach has little to do with the way India have been playing since he took over. Neither is a happy alternative.

Dramatic as it sounds, the future of Indian cricket might be decided over the next three days. A defeat will give voice to those in the board who have been contemplating old-fashioned virtues like responsibility, and pushing for change. It could pick up momentum, especially if the fans and the media add to the volume. A strong recovery, on the other hand, will hold down in place for a while longer the paper over the cracks.

Suresh Menon is editor of 'Wisden India Almanack'

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