The last two Test series each in Australia and South Africa tell a story. While the series score line reads 1-1 and 1-2 for down under, it reads 1-2 and 1-1 with the Proteas. What that shows is: Though we are a very good competitive team, something is missing.
We lack the knockout punch.
To put things in perspective, let's see how the other tough teams have fared against their toughest opponents. Before England conquered Australia, they went 0-5 down to their Ashes nemesis in 2006-07. Before SA could tame the Aussies, they went down 0-3 on home soil!
Even Australia has been blanked 0-2 twice by India. India, on the other hand, has never gone 0-2 down against any team in the whole decade. Despite this amazing consistency, India has never been well and truly on top, especially on fast pitches.
Ashes: Australia vs England
The third SA Test at Cape Town was a very familiar story. We had our opponents on the mat at 130-6 in the second innings, but the last four wickets added 211 runs, one of our worst performances with the tail.
While Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher are class batsmen, what do you make of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel making 60 easy runs to rub salt in our wounds? In the first innings also, the last two wickets put on 79 runs.
So near, yet so far!
In fact if you look at the four series I mentioned at the beginning of the article, then we had four different captains: Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni.
Four captains. Similar results. That clearly shows that it's an endemic problem.
So, what's missing?
If you look at the batting line-up, then we have one of the fastest and most consistent openers in Virender Sehwag. He forms a solid opening with Gautam Gambhir. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are men of steel who have bailed us out many many times. Of course thereâs Sachin Tendulkar with his 51 centuries and 14K+ runs.
So obviously, the problem does not lie in the batting.
Kumble in the twilight of his career had a great run on foreign soil. This has been one of Harbhajan's best performances on green and fast pitches: He even picked up a 7-wicket haul in the last innings of the SA series.
So obviously, it's not the spin department either.
Ganguly brought aggression to the team, while Dravid had victories on England and West Indies soil after decades. Kumble bolstered the team with his professionalism and Dhoni is India's most successful captain to date. Gary Kirsten is seen as a successful coach.
So obviously, it's not the team leadership too.
India vs South Africa
The usual culprits
Fingers are always pointed at India's weak pace attack and this time it seems no different. Interestingly, this time we went with one of our best attacks: Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth.
They did flatter to deceive. While the first match collapse of 136 virtually shut out the match for India, the pacers set things up in the next three innings. They picked up 12 wickets in the second match and all 10 wickets in the first innings.
But come crunch time and the three could pick up just 2 wickets in 62 overs in the second innings on a hostile South African pitch! That's got to be a new low, no matter which way you look at it.
The question which keeps coming to one's mind is why Indian fast bowlers keep failing in these crunch matches.
Or maybe the larger question is why the BCCI fails to groom them. Why do Indian pacers have such a short shelf-life? Why do all Indian quicks keep slowing down so drastically as their career progresses? Why are all of our fast bowlers mere aaya rams and gaya rams?
Irfan Pathan stormed international cricket and was the 2004 ICC Emerging Player of the Year. He took Test cricket's only hat-trick to happen in the very first three balls of the match. He was Man of the Match in both the 2007 T20 World Cup final and the famous Perth Test victory post the monkeygate crisis. Today he is totally in the wilderness.
When Ishant Sharma debuted, he was seen as India's answer to Dale Steyn. Today, he looks a pale imitation of that.
Zaheer, Sreesanth and Ashish Nehra have been in and out of the teams so many times that one doesn't know when they're going or coming.
What of talents like RP Singh and Munaf Patel? What is their future? Talents like VRV Singh also came and went just like that.
India has never had an array of bowlers who could cross even the 140kmph mark consistently. Yet in many matches, like the last one, the fast bowling cupboard looks totally bare.
Till the Indian management answers this question, we are doomed to lose it just at the finishing line time and again!
The author is a Bangalore-based journalist and blogger.