In the gloss and glory of the trouncing India handed out in Hyderabad, the ensuing celebrations and the outpouring of pro-Dhoni assertions – the most absurd one being Sunil Gavaskar’s suggestion that MS Dhoni be appointed captain till 2019 – a few things slipped by unnoticed.
First, MS Dhoni’s candid admission of how deeply affected he was by the losses in England and Australia, a significant departure for a man who much prefers hiding behind a mask of nonchalance.
Talking about his negative thoughts, self-doubt and fallibilities, Dhoni said, “You start questioning yourself. That’s the reason all of us are human beings and the only ones who say that they don’t get bothered (by defeats) are the ones who lie.” News for the media in India? The man does have feelings after all.
The second was the slightest hint of a jibe at Cheteshwar Pujara for the latter’s comments that his true measure as batsman would be determined by runs overseas. “He watches the TV channels too much because that’s what they all say!” Dhoni quipped, somewhat cheekily, after India’s win.
He went on to say, “I always believe in living in the present. Of course, he has set his standards but he needs to enjoy the moment. Why can’t we just let him live with the enjoyment of this particular match and I am sure he will score runs in future too.”
Living in the moment is fine, which one has no doubt Pujara did abundantly during and after his doughty double hundred. As meditation masters, pop psychologists and cod philosophers repeatedly remind us: the only power we own is in the present; refraining from the human tendency to dwell in the past and fantasise about the future must remain a constant endeavour. Pujara, with his Zen-like presence at the crease and remarkable powers of concentration, knows this only too well.
Instead of trying to deflect attention from India’s future challenges – of which there are plenty – the captain should be mighty pleased that one of his young wards is pragmatic and goal-oriented. “What I want to prove is that I can score Test runs overseas as well,” Pujara said after his match-winning 370-run partnership with Murali Vijay. “I will judge myself on the basis of how I perform in the tough foreign conditions.”
Pujara is that rare breed of anachronistic cricketer not dazzled by the bling of tiddlywinks or corrupted by post-modern cricket. Blessed with ambition, a composed temperament, an uncomplicated approach, self-awareness of his limitations – he’s spoken openly of his trouble with certain aspects of the game like the sweep shot – Pujara seems a less intense and brooding version of his idol, Rahul Dravid.
A brief interaction I had with Dravid years ago – on the eve of India’s 2002 tour of the West Indies – provided some insight into his meticulous preparation and dedicated approach. He spoke of maintaining a tour journal where he outlines his goals and objectives before every series – the book served as a ready reckoner and inspiration, especially during a tough series. “His journey, you could tell, was driven by self-improvement,” as Dravid’s Kent teammate Ed Smith wrote upon his retirement.
Pujara seems to have his sights very clearly on following in the footsteps of the world’s highest-scoring number three. Dravid is among a handful of players to possess a better Test average in foreign conditions than at home. Perhaps, Pujara is looking to do the same. Or to, at least, make a start.
Even in jest, let us not be dismissive of a cricketer who is clearly professing his goals instead of the usual inanities about “taking it a game at a time” or “crossing that bridge when we come to it”. This is exactly the kind of attitude the Indian captain needs from his young team, when India embark on their first overseas tour without Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, maybe even Sachin Tendulkar, against South Africa in December.
It is this well-defined approach and careful consideration that Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke were in search of when they benched two of Australia’s best prospects – Shane Watson and James Pattinson – despite being desperate for a revival in Mohali, for their failure to comply.
Australia may have shot themselves in the foot by making a point about player discipline and commitment, but the fact is players who have a clear idea of how they see themselves contributing to the team cause must be appreciated, not told to forget about the future and bask in the present.
If India are looking to make a dent overseas, they need batsmen who can gut it out on the fast and bouncy pitches. India’s next 11 Tests are in South Africa, New Zealand and England, followed by three at home against the West Indies and four Tests in Australia — a total of 15 Tests outside the subcontinent between December 2013 and January 2015.
This is a team with young batsmen (and bowlers) who are yet to prove their worth overseas. The reason Sehwag is likely to be out of the reckoning is not so much his current loss of form but his poor track record outside the subcontinent since 2009– 523 runs from 12 Tests at an average of 22.73 and a highest score of 67. If they are to do well on these tours, India will rely heavily on Virat Kohli and Pujara, especially if Tendulkar is conspicuously absent.
Kohli has spoken about the confidence he drew from his first Test century, in Adelaide in 2012, and how it changed him as a Test cricketer and instilled the belief in him that he belonged there. Pujara will be hoping for some of the same. He went to South Africa soon after he made his debut in 2010 and had very limited impact on the series with scores of 19, 10 and 2. Here is a young man desperately looking to set that right, wanting to test his skills against the best bowling attack in the world in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
I could be accused of reading too much into Dhoni’s comments, but one has to question whether this is an attempt at getting in the excuses early for possible failures in South Africa and England. Sourav Ganguly – whose record of 21 Test wins was broken by Dhoni in Hyderabad – was quick to jump in with a reminder of India’s embarrassing track record on recent away tours. Ganguly – with 11 overseas wins from 28 Tests, compared to Dhoni’s five from 19 – has sounded a timely reminder for India to rein in the celebrations.
He is right. This team can go on winning at home like the sides of the nineties and noughties, but the days when that was regarded as a laudable achievement are now long gone. India’s worth as a Test side will be judged on how consistently and competitively the team performs on foreign soil. Not on how well it defends its borders.