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December 14, 1998


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Knock, knock, who's there? Opportunity!

Harsha Bhogle

If Indian cricket ever needed a public relations firm, all they would need to do would be to go to Delhi and appoint a team from the Ministry of Sports, the Ministry of Human Resources Development and the Indian Olympic Association. “Gentleman, we have a problem with our image. Could you help us by selecting teams for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, or any tournament really. We will pay you a decent fee as long as you do what you’ve been doing all along.”

Sad isn’t it? Now you know why they keep shouting about cricket all the time. They say, don’t they, that if you shout loud enough nobody will hear the whispers in your own house? Sadly, none of the gentlemen who had anything to do with selection of teams for the Asian Games, care for sport or sportsmen. Honestly, if I was in charge of India’s opponents, I would unleash the various ministries and the IOA and tell my boys, “Just go and have fun.” I don’t know if all these officials realise that they are the strongest reason for the popularity of cricket in India.

It’s clear isn’t it? If I produce horrible biscuits, or if I left my good ones out long enough for them to turn stale, wouldn’t I would drive more people towards Brittania? Sadly, in this era of governance by squabble (or in Mumbai, governance by violence), there is no time for anyone to look up and think of something good. But if the government was at all committed to sport, it would get at it.

The biggest favour that all the officials in all the ministries can do to Indian sport is to say goodbye and do nothing. For in the current situation, doing nothing would be the most productive alternative. Actually, there is one thing that the government can do if it cares. Allow live sport in India and stimulate competition between Doordarshan and the private networks so that there is a need to sell the sport. Otherwise, Indian sport will remain the world’s longest running, tear-jerking soap opera.

The only difference between these officials and the villains in the movies is that they are trampling on real people with real ambition. In the movies, they embrace each other after the shot is taken. Forget Gabbar Singh, forget Mogambo, they were only little pranksters by comparison.

This is being written on the first day of the Asian Games. I desperately hope that India win a lot of medals, but I hope every medal winner makes it clear that he or she has won a medal in spite of everything that their own governing authority did to prevent them from getting one. Not surprisingly, in spite of the Asian Games being our biggest sporting event (the Commonwealth Games aren’t), more people will be interested in India’s cricket tour to New Zealand.

I think it is a huge opportunity to erase India’s shocking record overseas. India haven’t won in New Zealand since 1976, haven’t won outside Asia since 1986 and haven’t won anywhere in the nineties except a solitary Test in Sri Lanka. I wonder if that is symbolic of a mindset rather than ability, and if that is the case, I would back this team to win in spite of what happened in Zimbabwe.There should have been a huge post-mortem after that, not necessarily in public, because it would have shown that this team has the skill to win anywhere.

One of the conclusions of that post-mortem would have been that you cannot win Test matches without a proper pair of opening batsmen. The best team in the world, Australia, never experiment with openers and if Gary Kirsten had any support at all from his opening partner, South Africa would win far oftener in Test cricket. Certainly they would have beaten England convincingly.

That is why India need to tell either VVS Laxman or Ajay Jadeja that they will have the job for the entire series. Not one Test, not two, but all three. And if at the end of the series, the selected batsmen hasn’t performed, you could tell him that he has blown his chances. It is all very well to say that nobody can take his place for granted but you cannot get performance out of someone if he is on the edge all the time.

I remember an incident that Ravi Shastri once told me about India’s tour of England in 1990. A couple of matches into the tour, Bishan Bedi, who was the coach, asked Shastri if he would open the batting. “Yes,” he said “provided you don’t push me down after one game. Give me three and judge me at the end.” “Done. Three," said Bedi in his endearing staccato style. Shastri trusted the coach enough not to have to look over his shoulder all the time. By the end of the series, he had two centuries.

As the more experienced player, and one who has proved himself so capable at another form of cricket, Jadeja should really get that vote first. If he does, it will give him a wonderful opportunity of erasing the “one-day player” tag that everyone seems to have bestowed him with. He is confident, willing and the coach should trust him to give off his best. One of the reasons India don’t have a settled partner for Sidhu is that we are pampering ourselves by playing five bowlers. If the fifth bowler is a genuine batsman, or at least capable of batting at number six, that is fine. But such cricketers are rare and a team that does not have one has to learn to live without him. Having more than four full bowlers spoils the balance of the team and, in most cases, leaves one of them underused.

The ideal situation, in the absence of a genuine all-rounder, is to have one of the batsmen bowl 10-12 overs a day and if necessary, ask another to turn his arm over for 4-5 overs. That is what India have to learn to do and that is why Sourav Ganguly must bowl. Two spells of six overs each are all that a team really needs and if he does well he could bowl more, especially since he bats down at number six in the Test matches. If, on a particular day, he bowls a long spell, he has enough time to recover. And in any case, he needs to bowl as much as possible before the World Cup if India need him to bowl ten overs consistently there.

This kind of set-up will also allow Nayan Mongia to bat at number seven where he can be an extremely valuable batsman. For a start, it means that number six will feel a lot more secure and can allow himself the luxury of building an innings and I am convinced that Mongia will actually help Ganguly score a few more runs. It will give India some badly needed insurance against the second new ball, for there will then be two people who have opened in international cricket to counter it. The team management can then go up to Mongia and demand 30-40 runs per innings and the onus will have to be on him to go and get them.

Of course it would have helped if Agarkar could have then come in at number eight with Kumble and Srinath to follow. That would have made it the perfect line-up; six batsmen, wicket-keeper who can score runs, number nine and ten who can hang in and get runs with number eight and number eleven, the only men who is allowed to be....well.....number eleven.

But in the absence of Agarkar, Kumble is a perfectly capable number eight. It must be a huge disappointment for Agarkar, but I am sure he realises that this is a blessing in disguise. Had the injury been allowed to grow, he might have ended up missing the World Cup and that would have been a massive blow; to him and to India. As it now happens, there is a silver lining because India will have to learn to live without a leading wicket-taker and it will allow Venkatesh Prasad to complete his comeback. He must actually be hoping that the call for green wickets is taken seriously and if he can recover his confidence by bowling on those, India will have a very well-rounded attack for the World Cup. As they say, one man’s problem is another man’s opportunity.

Sadly, that is true only of Indian cricket. For the rest of our sportsmen, who work just as hard and in some cases are just as good, it is a case of one man’s incompetence being another man’s problem.

Harsha Bhogle

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