Here’s a quick recap of all that’s happened so far: India land in South Africa at the back of a home series win against Sri Lanka, head into the first Test without playing any warm-up matches, the batsmen are found wanting in the series opener in Cape Town and the team loses by 72 runs. In the second Test in Centurion, the batsmen fail yet again, and the team loses the Test by 135 runs.
India were holders of the Freedom Trophy after they defeated South Africa 3-0 in the Four-Test series at home in 2015. But two matches into the current three-Test series, the Freedom Trophy has changed hands; it will now lie in the Cricket South Africa headquarters in Johannesburg. Thus also came to an end India’s streak of nine consecutive Test series wins.
Just like ‘momentum’ becomes a buzzword around the time of the Indian Premier League or any major Twenty20 competition, the word ‘intent’ can be heard in most conversations relating to the Indian cricket team, particularly when they’re traveling abroad.
The Indian captain Virat Kohli has asked for his players to show ‘intent’, coach Ravi Shastri has spoken about ‘intent’, and former players and pundits in the media have written about ‘intent’.
In context of the two defeats, what exactly did India do wrong – on the ‘intent’ front? And what is ‘intent’ for cricketers? Have the Indian cricketers understood ‘intent’ correctly? Did the players interpret ‘intent’ as:
- the permission to play aggressive strokes all the time, like they would in the limited overs formats
- the permission to take unnecessary risks, not weighing returns for risks taken
- the permission to sledge an opponent
- the permission to sport aggressive body language on the field, even when not required
- the permission to say all the positive things during media appearances
There surely appears to be a disconnect between the team management’s definition of ‘intent’, and how the rest of the team has interpreted the word. Intent should have meant:
- Look for runs, without taking undue risks
- Wear the opponent down
- Once in, convert a start to a big score
- Capitalise on any opportunity the opponents may present
- Seize the initiative when the match hangs in the balance
- Nail the opponent when they’re down
India had their opportunities in both the Test matches – but they never really seized the moment. South Africa were dismissed for 286 and 130 in the first Test – scores far from match-winning totals; yet they defended them quite comfortably. In Centurion, the pitch was more to the Indian team’s liking than the hosts’; yet Team India was bowled out for 307 and 151 and lost the Test by 135 runs.
In ideal circumstances, having dismissed the hosts for modest totals in the first innings of both Tests, the Indian team would have wanted to take a big first innings lead and put pressure on the home team.
That would not be the case. Team India was always behind the eight ball, and they never managed to catch up.
And for that, the blame has to squarely fall on the batting line-up. Here’s comparing the performance of the two team’s top six batsmen:
The numbers clearly establish what cost India the two Tests and the series: The batsmen didn’t do the job expected of them.
Only one score in excess of 50 from 24 visits to the crease by batsmen batting in the top six – just not acceptable. What also irks is that India’s top six have gifted away 16 of 24 wickets by playing poor strokes or to run outs. To do it against a top class opponent is unpardonable.
Team India needed warm-up matches to give themselves a chance to win on challenging surfaces like the one they encountered at Cape Town. But to blow away a chance to win a Test on a surface like the one at Centurion smirks of lack of application. In Test cricket, where time is not of the essence, batsmen need not go fishing at deliveries (which several batsmen did), need not play aerial strokes (which few batsmen did) or attempt risky runs (like Cheteshwar Pujara did twice).
One thing for sure. The Indian players will be hurting. Hopefully, they will be able to sit down, look back at everything they did in the two Test matches, learn from it and ensure they do not repeat the same mistakes. The third and final Test of the series begins at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg on 24 January. The players will be aware that the Indian team has never lost a Test match at the venue and will be hoping to keep that record intact at the end of the series.