During the third afternoon of the India-England Test at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, when Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir were trying to survive the inquisition by Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann, one heard a word that felt odd for the setting and the mood. ‘Pizza.’
A man from Domino’s cruised the steps of the North Stand, trying to find buyers for the pies. He was not very successful. When the sun is still hot and when India is being embarrassed on the pitch, thick crust or thin is not a decision many people want to make. Appetites diminished further when Tendulkar departed soon, consumed by Panesar, a man with the rugged build of a Mahabharata warrior and the large eyes of Radha. From where we were sitting, near long off, we could see the suffocating trajectory and pace of his bowling. There was no flight. Leave flight for the romantics. The ball travelled flat and fast, at 90-95 kmph. It jumped and turned away from right- handers and the odd one shot in straight.
When Tendulkar arrived, taking his time to emerge from the dressing room, I left the press box and sat in the North Stand. This might just be Sachin’s last Test in Mumbai and I wanted to watch it from the stands, one with the city, without the glass of the press box sterilising the experience. To my left was a dark man, like footballer IM Vijayan, in a bright orange shirt and gold bracelet. To my right was a cop from the Maharashtra Police, wielding a stick and shielding his eyes from the sun with his left hand. I could not enjoy their company long. Tendulkar got out. In the first Test in Ahmedabad, the England batsmen, including Mumbai Man of the Match Kevin Pietersen, had struggled against spin. Indian close-in fielders waited around them like relatives around a patient whose end was near. In Mumbai, the situation reversed.
The surprising thing was that there were not many tears when Tendulkar got out. Just disappointment and resignation. One man in the stand cursed, not out of dislike for any player, but out of frustration at India’s position. Then Kohli went, then Yuvraj, then Dhoni.
Multi-millionaire peacocks were made to look like chickens by one inspired bowler, his ally a 22-yard patch of earth that must have been watered by Vodka Red Bull. So scary this strip of land was that when darkness fell, ground staff covered it up with blue tarp dragged from the eastern end of the field, mainly to protect it, but also possibly to ensure that it did not give Indian batsmen nightmares.
In the press box the discussion was who would show up for the press conference. Who’d be the sacrificial goat. The bets were on Pragyan Ojha. It had to be someone for whom the knives were not out yet. It had to be someone who was not in some controversy. It had to be a person who was the human equivalent of the Ahmedabad pitch. They would have sent Manmohan Singh if they could. But since they couldn’t, it would be Ojha.
Up came Gautam Gambhir, however, in shorts and purple India training shirt and baseball hat, his stubble enviably uniform. Gambhir was the one batsman who had saved his reputation in the second innings. He spoke well and with some self-deprecating humour, a rare achievement for an Indian cricketer, some of whom have egos the size of SUVs. At that time 26 of 27 wickets had fallen to spinners. James Anderson was the only pace bowler who had taken a wicket. “And that one wicket was mine,” Gambhir said. India had three wickets left at close on the third day. Gambhir said they will try to put up a few runs on the board and set England a semblance of a target. And he left, taking the elevator down and crossing the ground to reach the dressing room at the other end. He was flanked by the media manager and the team’s travel coordinator. Almost all through this, Gambhir held his mobile phone by the fingers of his two hands and seemed to be texting.
The next day, England wrapped things up before lunch. And in the hush of the prematurely empty stadium, the wake- up call for Indian cricket trilled even louder. The series is not over yet and India could still recover. But that is not going to change the reality that nearly half a dozen famous players in the team are on shaky ground for reasons ranging from age to form.
Now and then Mahendra Singh Dhoni does alright with the bat and keeps his Test average in the higher 30s. Not bad for a wicketkeeper. He had a decent run in the home series against New Zealand, and prior to that a fifty in Australia and a century at home against West Indies, and in the mayhem in England last year he had 70-plus scores in both innings of the Birmingham Test. But Dhoni needs to get more consistent to command authority. Leadership qualities may be important, but they are secondary to tangible contributions. Even as a leader, Dhoni has been struggling since last year. His golden run ended with the World Cup win. India lost eight Test matches in a row last year, four in England and then four in Australia. At least, there was then the excuse of playing away, in conditions made to suit the hosts. In Mumbai, England showed that India could be beaten at home, that too at their own game— spin. This is demoralising.
Tendulkar is sinking deeper into the whirlpool of poor form and advancing years. His highest score in his past ten innings is 27. Maybe even he now realises that the end is closer than he wished it to be. His Ahmedabad dismissal could be attributed to shot selection but in Mumbai it was a matter of time before Panesar got him, which he did in both innings. Tendulkar has now fallen to left arm spinners 25 times in his career. Tendulkar is a legend and does not have anything left to prove, but now the selectors need to have a chat with him about the future, as Sunil Gavaskar suggested. It won’t be easy. Some squeaky voices can be intimidating to speak to because their bat has a baritone. But in the interest of the future, the job will have to be done. Zaheer Khan’s fitness concerns continue and it is believed that once he gets to 300 Test wickets, he will take a call on his future. He has 294 wickets as of now. The other man on the cusp of a milestone is Harbhajan Singh, who has played 99 Tests for India. Then he too may review his future. Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, despite recent successes with the bat, need to perform more consistently, or the Nike swooshes on their India shirt will turn into question marks.
As there can be no excuses for India’s performance; it also cannot be denied that England are a quality side. They were not overly dependent on one batsman or bowler. Panesar and Swann did the spadework with the ball. Alastair Cook and Man of the Match Pietersen consolidated. A day before the Test, during Tendulkar’s felicitation at the Cricket Club of India, host Cyrus Broacha asked England batting coach Graham Gooch in Hindi, “Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra aur Anshuman Gaekwad ke bare mein aapka kya kehna hai?” Gooch was flabbergasted. But on the pitch, his wards had answers to everything the Indian bowlers spun at them.
When the match was over, Dhoni could not avoid facing the press. After the presentation, he walked across the ground in his whites and offered himself for interrogation. There was, as usual, a whiff of a smile on his face. Behind us, a train passed between the Churchgate and Marine Lines stations. Dhoni was asked if he would ask for a different pitch from the Mumbai wildcat. He said, “Yes, of course, that’s what our speciality is (spin). What’s the point in playing on flat pitches, trying to win the toss and bat for three or four days over the Test match? You want to face challenges in Test cricket and these are the tracks that push you to do that. Definitely all the wickets should be like this.”
He was asked if he was concerned that there were no suitable replacements for struggling players. He said, “It’s not like we don’t have replacements. But you don’t chop and change players on the basis of one or two Tests. We have to give them a fair run, so they are comfortable and not thinking of selection.”
The selection for the following two Tests was the very next day. It seems hard to believe that the players were not thinking about it. Some players are hopelessly in love with the game, some with the benefits that come with playing cricket for India. And so they want to keep playing, even when the writing is on the scoreboard.