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April 6, 1998


Young guns fire for India

send this story to a friend Prem Panicker

A phone call from a cricket administrator and former manager of the Indian cricket team opened up an interesting train of thought.

'Do you realise', he asked, in course of our chat, 'that the national team has effectively buried the thinking, prevailing internationally, that the side's success or failure depends on Sachin Tendulkar firing at the top?'

Actually, that particular 'myth' has been exploded quite a while ago -- a review of India's most spectacular run chases of recent times, successful or otherwise, indicates that it is not Sachin, but the likes of Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Ajay Jadeja, Robin Singh et al who have been the cornerstones.

What this does is free Tendulkar of all pressure, and put him in a position akin to that of Sanath Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka. Tendulkar -- presuming the realisation dawns on him that he doesn't have to do it all himself -- can now do what he is best fitted to: go out there at the start of an innings and destroy the bowling, without worrying over much about his wicket staying intact, secure in the knowledge that even a first ball dismissal will not exactly stymie the team's overall chances.

But that same conversation led to another interesting thought -- reinforced, subsequently, by an India star who now finds himself out of the one day squad. 'No player,' this star says, 'can now be 100 per cent sure of his place in the side!'

Review India's performance, thus far, in the tri-series now going on and you realise what this player means.

Item: Even while the debate about whether or no Rahul Dravid merits a place in the one day squad rages on (commentators of the calibre of Ian Chappell, Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev and such have, in recent times, deemed it criminal folly to go into any international game, of whatever duration, without that batsman anchoring the innings), Vinod Kambli grabbed his chance with both hands and, with his performance against both Australia and Zimbabwe, ensured that Dravid won't have an easy re-entry into the side. In fact, Kambli is now in the happy position of being an immediate pick, while it is Dravid (not to mention N S Sidhu and V V S Laxman) who have to fight to get back into the team.

Item: Robin Singh, a sure starter for the first game against Australia, unfortunately injures himself the evening befor the Cochin curtain raiser. Two games later, Singh is suddenly unsure of his comeback, given the brilliance with which Hrishikesh Kanitkar has slipped into the all-rounder's slot with outstanding performances with bat, ball, and on the field.

Item: When the ODI squad is picked, some eyebrows are raised about the non-inclusion of Venkatapathy Raju. Against Zimbabwe this Sunday, Rahul Sanghvi gets a bowl -- and now, it is Raju who has to fight his way back into the squad, and not just in ODIs either, Sanghvi having done enough to indicate that he is a good prospect in the left-arm spin department.

Item: The selectors reluctance to consider Venkatesh Prasad (until Srinath's injury leaves them with no alternative) means Ajit Agarkar gets a bowl. And in just two overs in Cochin, on a flat batting wicket, the rookie shows enough nip in the air and off the track, coupled with late movement, to trouble a Mark Waugh who, till then, was merrily coasting along. The question that should be bothering Prasad (not to mention Mohanty and Harvinder) now is, what happens when Srinath comes back to full fitness, given Agarkar's display? (And it is worth noting, here, that the tyro is a good solid batsman as well, far better than his current number ten slot in the order indicates).

Take, by way of contrast, the situation through the 1996-1997 season. A Vikram Rathore comes in, and proves incapable of grabbing his chance. So he makes way for a W V Raman, say, who is found similarly wanting. So Raman makes way for a Sujit Somasunder, same difference.

Picking a player, at that point in time, was a question of replacing one incompetent with another. Sort of like that famous story of Thomas Alva Edison experimenting with 1000-odd materials before he finally got the right filament for the light bulb.

Once the basic material was found, once the filament was in place, it was merely a matter of fine-tuning. Of getting the right one for the right job, whether it is power conservation, or enhanced light, whatever.

Same difference, here -- finally, after a good 18 months of agonising, the basic team is in place. And better yet, the bench strength the selectors have been looking for becomes increasingly evident -- like, the current ODI squad can afford to go in without Srinath, without Toronto heroes Mohanty and Harvinder, without Rajesh Chauhan, without Sidhu and Laxman and Dravid, not to mention as yet untried young stars.

This however raises a further thought -- isn't it about time for the selectors to move from "team building" to "team consolidation" mode?

In other words, isn't it about time to really tighten things down, to mould the existing players into a tight unit, every nut and bolt firmly in place, so that India goes into the 1999 World Cup as a cohesive, confident unit?

Meaning what? Simply this: that it is time to put together a final shortlist of around 22 players. Five batsmen, and three reserves. Four pace to medium pace bowlers, with at least two reserves. Four spinners. No reserves, simply because there arent that many good ones around. And four good all rounders.

And to have this bunch together all the time, from here on till the end of the World Cup campaign, so all players can practise together, and weld themselves into a team in the real sense of the word.

More importantly, it would bring about a situation where every single member of the side is constantly performing to the peak of his ability -- for the simple reason that there are too many hungry ones out there, waiting for him to slip so they can grab his place.

Ask Dravid. Or Sidhu. Or Raju. Or Prasad.

As the star I quoted earlier put it: "I've been around for a bit now -- and never felt the pressure to perform, to quite this extent!"

Tailpiece: The Bharatiya Janata Party has been talking about transparency in government. I wonder just when a similar virus will strike the BCCI.

Take the case of Javagal Srinath. Like you, I've been reading the papers. I've also been hearing the buzz behind the scenes. And for the life of me, I can't figure out just what the scene is with him.

First up, Azhar and Anshuman Gaikwad are reprimanded by the BCCI for "hiding" Srinath's injury. Then he is dropped from the side.

Next thing you know, Srinath in a media statement says he pulled his side muscle going for a catch in the recent Calcutta Test against the Aussies. That his shoulder is aboslutely fine. That he hopes to play in the final of the ongoing tri-series featuring Australia and Zimbabwe besides the host nation.

And before you digest that, you hear noises from the BCCI -- J Y Lele being the principal noise-maker -- to the effect that Srinath may even miss the Sharjah tour. And a day later, coach Gaikwad and captain Azharuddin maintain that Srinath could possibly play in the tri-series final, and most definitely in Sharjah.

Shades, here, of the situation surrounding Venkatesh Prasad's injury during the Sri Lanka tour last year -- the bowler says one thing, the board says another, a lot of noise is made in the media and no one is seemingly sure of exactly what the problem is.

I find this kind of situation puzzling. I mean, the board now has, attached to the Indian team, a doctor. And a physio. How much time does it take for these two worthies to assess injury to a particular player? To define the nature of the injury? To prescribe the treatment, and oversee it? To monitor the player's progress?

And just what does it take before the board will be candid with the media, will tell the media and, through it, cricket fans worldwide, the dimensions of the problem?

The idea, here, being to keep the record uncluttered, and clear?

Sound like carping for the sake of carping? Not really -- the trouble here is that in recent times, "injury" is becoming a bit of a weapon for the board. A label to stick on a player when it wants to keep said player out of the side. Or hadn't you noticed that Sidhu, to name one, has contracted a mystery injury between the first ODI, when he opened, and the second, when Ganguly came back into the side and Sidhu found himself out?

Hadn't you noticed the case of Prasad? Not picked for the Tests despite the consensus being that he should have been in the side? Not picked for the first ODI because of "injury"? And suddenly, miraculously, found fit for the second ODI?

This kind of thing is happening because the board, in its statements, is allowed to get away with murder. "Injury", it says, and out goes a Sidhu, a Prasad, a Srinath, whoever. "Not found good", it says, and it is bye bye Dodda Ganesh...

Am I the only one, or do you, too, figure it is about time the board went into specifics, cleared the air about these things rather than permit a situation, like now, where all concerned -- the bowler, the coach, the captain, the board -- come up with totally conflicting, contradictory statements?

And before my regular mailers go into the usual number about how I am, as usual, getting my jollies by bashing the board, that body needs a pat for the way it handled the Saurav Ganguly suspension. True, they didn't play him -- but they ensured that he went to Cochin with the squad, and further the board, (totally contradictory to their own policy that players should not give media interviews during a tour) allowed him to join the ESPN commentary team, and to speak very frankly about matters to do with the team, with the umpiring, and his own performance.

Felt good to see the board, for a change, stand four square in back of a player unjustly treated by the ICC.

Prem Panicker

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