I still have nightmares about the summer of 2011.
I was living in Edgbaston with three English lads who, every evening when I got home from work, were only too eager to remind me of India’s cricketing plight. The Indian team’s tour of England was billed as many things, but not an English whitewash.
Like a ’Nam veteran, I still remember the carnage. I get flashbacks of the timid, wafting Indian bats that glanced comfortable catches to the slip cordon, the filth served up as India’s bowling attack resorted to Dhoni and Raina and the only saving grace in an otherwise gory train wreck, the languid, effortless Rahul Dravid.
Okay, India were without many star performers. Fine, India were jaded after a World Cup and possibly the worst-timed IPL to date. But for the so called #1-ranked test side in the World™©® to be so unceremoniously slaughtered was just embarrassing. As Indian fans, we too were brought back down to earth. 4-0 and in no less than eight efforts, the mighty Indian batting line up couldn’t even score more than 300. “Never again,” we thought.
The winter tour of Australia saw another capitulation. What made it all the more comical was the rhetoric that preceded it: every media outlet told us that this was the weakest Australian side in two decades, that India would win their maiden series in the outback, that this would be revenge for the injustice of 2008. This time, it wasn’t a strong England side, buoyant from a tremendous Ashes win, but an inexperienced, relatively unknown bunch of Australians.
When Star Wars fans walked into theatres to watch the Attack of the Clones, they must have said to themselves, “well at least it can’t be as bad as The Phantom Menace”. The horror etched on the faces as they emerged from cinemas was the same that we Indian fans shared: this was even worse. What transpired was annihilation worse than that of the summer. Virat Kohli’s century was the only one India could muster.
Even Rahul Dravid’s defence failed as he was bowled an astonishing six times out of eight. Thank heavens it wasn’t a five-match series.
8-0. How did it get this bad?
As South Africa began preparation to take on England this summer, I noticed how many of their players were playing county cricket. I watched in awe as the Saffers decimated England. They were as superior as India were when we beat England in England in 2007.
Of the Proteas team, almost every single player that thrashed England had played county cricket. Most of them had played there before the 2012 series got under way. Alviro Petersen (Essex), Ashwell Prince (Lancashire), Vernon Phillander (Somerset), and Jacques Rudolph (Surrey), all played for the first part of the 2012 summer for their club sides. The rest of the side had also spent considerable periods on the swinging English county circuit. Imran Tahir (Hampshire), Hashim Amla (Essex), Morne Morkel (Kent, Yorkshire), Dale Steyn (Essex, Warwick), JP Duminy (Devon), Jacques Kallis (Glamorgan, Middlesex) and captain Graeme Smith (Somerset, Hampshire) all did stints in England as they began their international test career.
In fact, only the unfairly talented AB de Villiers is absent from the list; and he had a relatively poor tour.
Contrast this with the Indian side that came back in 2011 with its tail between its legs: from the side that lost the third test by an innings and 242 runs (!) just five players had had the benefit of playing county cricket in the past. And three of them (Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman) were in the twilight of their careers.
There were only five county cricketers on show for India in the Australia series too. Coincidence?
Is it coincidence that Rahul Dravid’s purple patch followed his spell with Kent? Or that Zaheer Khan’s best period for India followed his 2006 stint with Worcestershire?
From the 2007 India side that beat England 1-0 in the three test series in England, no less than seven players had played county cricket. In the second test that India won, only Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni and S Sreesanth had never played county cricket. Seven county cricketers also took to the field in the 2008 Perth test win, arguably one of India’s finest Down Under. Though India narrowly lost the series 2-1, it was a promising performance and for once, India really competed on the notoriously quick, bouncy Aussie wickets. When India beat South Africa at Durban in 2010, the number was again seven. India seem to give themselves the best chance of success abroad when they have more county players in the team. So is there a definitive relationship between county cricket and success abroad?
Zaheer Khan and Rahul Dravid have both said so, and the stats back them up. Many of India’s finest players—and in particular, India’s finest overseas performers—spent at least one summer playing county cricket: Gavaskar at Somerset, Tendulkar at Yorkshire, Ganguly at Lancashire, Dravid at Kent, Sehwag at Leicester, Zaheer at Worcester, Kumble at Surrey, Leicester and Northamptonshire, Srinath at Gloucester and Leicester, Bishan Singh Bedi at Northamptonshire, Farokh Engineer at Lancashire, Amarnath at Durham, Vengsarkar at Staffordshire, Ravi Shastri at Glamorgan, Azharuddin at Derbyshire, Kapil Dev at Northamptonshire. All of them perfected their batting techniques on darting, seaming wickets or honed their skills with a new, red swinging ball. It was a totally new environment compared to the dusty, slow turners of the Ranji Trophy back in India. They were exposed to top-class talent from all over the world. They were pulled out of their comfort zones and were better players for it. Back then, summers were reserved for an England tour or county cricket. Now other events take precedence.
Currently only Murali Karthik (Surrey) is a regular. Harbhajan Singh looks rejuvenated after his spell at Essex this summer and last season Pragyan Ohja (Surrey) took 24 wickets in four games on seamer-friendly wickets and is now a test regular. As Khan and Dravid both say, county cricket is an ideal ‘finishing school’ for country-specific skills. Indian players get a chance to fend for themselves without being treated like gods; on the field, they have to train hard and face genuine pace bowlers on swinging, bouncing tracks; off it, they learn to do their own laundry and live with foreign roommates. County cricket gives them ‘seasoning,’ in much the way bats have to be seasoned.
As the golden generation of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble fade out, as Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh inevitably decline, there’s no doubt that we have a pool of young players brimming with talent ready to take their place. The problem is that Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and Unmukt Chand—and even Virat Kohli—are still raw and need a season of two of white-sweater cricket if they want to become well-rounded test match players.
County cricket builds professionalism, something that the money and glamour of T20 and the IPL do not necessarily do. Talented test match regulars from other countries have been plying their trade for the Shires over the last three years and some of the names aren’t too shabby. Players like Martin Guptill (Derbyshire), Kane Williamson (Gloucester), Ramnaresh Sarwan (Leicester), Phil Hughes (Worcester), Mitchell Starc (Yorkshire), Saeed Ajmal (Worcester), Chanderpaul (Warwick) and Darren Bravo (Nottingham) have faced off against quality English players like Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell, Jimmy Anderson, Graham Onions and Chris Tremlett.
The problem is that for Indian cricket, times have changed. The glitz of the IPL cash cow is too bright to be interfered with. There is simply too much cricket scheduled. IPL 6 ends 26th May and the ICC Champions Trophy in England begins June 6th so when will players have time to play county cricket?
It all depends on how much Indian cricket values competing abroad. If we remain with the current system, we will produce tremendous T20 players who will flop and flounder away from subcontinent. Are we happy with that? Are we going to revert to type after our 2008-2011 high and go back to the India that finds it acceptable to win at home and lose away to the top sides?
If the BCCI and ECB can work together, everyone can benefit, and none more than young Indian test cricketers. The IPL can be scheduled a few weeks earlier, Indian players can be exempted from ‘lesser’ summer events and instead play in the County Championship. And English players can be drafted into the IPL, which would go a considerable way into solving their deficiencies against slow, spinning subcontinent wickets. Non-resident and travelling Indian crowds would also flock to see Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and company, and raise the profile of county cricket (which is already beamed to us on Star Cricket anyway). It seems like a no-brainer.
Sending our young test players to play five-day county cricket is not a quick fix. It is not a be-all-end-all solution but it is a vital part of a subcontinental cricketer’s education, both on and off the field.
I would love it if, like the Saffers in 2012, we saw a glut of Indian talent playing county cricket after the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013, but I’m not holding my breath. I guess we will have to be happy with playing Sri Lanka every four months and then capping it with an ODI series win against Bangladesh.