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October 3, 1998


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War and peace

Harsha Bhogle

In victory as in defeat, there are lessons, for life is such an unending learning cycle. At Toronto this year, there was much to take home, and so little of it was cheerful. To many, the genesis of what happened at the Commonwealth Games and at the Sahara Cup lay in the decision of the BCCI, forced or otherwise, to split the national team vertically.

I would tend to agree, though there are two ways of looking at it. One view, and this is a popular one, is that it allowed a larger set of people to experience what it is like to play for India; that it gave the selectors a larger pool to choose from. I believe, though, that the contrary view, that India were disheartened at having to play Pakistan with a less than full strength side, is more likely to be correct.

The Sahara Cup is a barometer of the nation's mood. When India won in 1997, it was almost as if cricket lovers had given themselves a new identity. For years, Indian supporters, and I suspect some cricketers as well, had reconciled themselves to the feeling that India could never beat Pakistan in a cricket match. It was, even if these sound like strong words, a matter of shame to the man in the street. Then, suddenly, India won the Sahara Cup and it was like a new dawn in Indian cricket. Pride returned, not in ampoules but in family sized packs. The crickters themselves were rejuvenated. The cloak of doom had been lifted, and now Pakistan was a team like any other, that you could beat or lose to.

I am convinced that it was the confidence born out of winning the Sahara Cup in 1997 that propelled India to two outstanding victories -- at Karachi and, more sensationally, at Dhaka. Make no mistake, Sahara Cup 1997 was the trigger for India's wonderful run in international cricket this year.

And yet, India chose to sacrifice this enormous advantage, this huge momentum that had been generated. Slicing the team open in the quest of a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games was too big a sacrifice for too small a gain. Now India has returned, defeated, from Toronto and there is a very real chance the Pakistan bogey will surface again. And that would be disastrous, especially in a season leading up to the World Cup.

There were two other disappointments as well, and perhaps they emerged from the larger one. India will be concerned about those particularly, since they surfaced after a camp with Bob Simpson in Chennai where it had presumably been discussed in some detail. Right through the tournament, India's quick bowlers bowled too wide. By giving the batsmen room, they effectively negated the advantage Azharuddin gave them by winning the toss. Apart from brilliant first spells by Javagal Srinath -- and India would have looked very ordinary without him -- the bowling seemed bereft of thought. And even Srinath was unable to stem the tide in the second spell.

I would be most interested in seeing how Ajit Agarkar reacts to his first real below-par performance. He has been a magnificient wicket-taker for India in a career that is still only six months old, but he has consistently been scored off at over five an over. That can be exasperating to a side if it is not accompanied by wickets, and hopefully, Agarkar would have learnt the great benefit of bowling a consistent line.

It didn't help either that Venkatesh Prasad struggled. On these wickets, with some early morning freshness, Prasad is still the bowler anyone would have backed to be successful. But he was strangely inconsistent, invariably producing one excellent ball per over, but allowing that to mingle with at least a couple of bad eggs. One got the impression as well that he was significantly slower through the air than he was in England and South Africa, the scenes of his two great successes. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that India needs a fit and hungry Prasad for the World Cup, and if that means he has to be handled in a particular way, so be it.

His inability to find his rhythm meant that India were bound to struggle in the end-overs. Prasad and Kumble had always been Azhar's favourite combination in the death. But Prasad's main weapon is the slower ball, and neither he nor any other bowler was noticeably keen to bowl the yorker, the staple delivery in the slog overs. The ideal candidate to bowl that, given his extra pace, is Srinath but for some reason, that has never been his favourite ball.

The most disheartening aspect of India's performance, though, remained the fielding. The fact that this came so quickly after a training camp that specifically targetted that deficiency only made it worse. India are a funny, unpredictable fielding side. When the going is good, when the bowlers and batsmen are doing well, the fielders seem to be on their toes. When the going gets tough, the fielding seems to wilt.

It should, really, be the other way around, the fielders should be able to lift a side with a brilliant catch or an inspirational run out; wven with some great saves in the field. But India remain outdated -- a bit like our highways that hinder smooth progress.

Related to this and indeed, quite integral to it, is the inability to hit the stumps direct. Early in the fourth game for instance, the stumps were missed twice from half the length of the pitch, and that has to be inexcusable. A direct hit can makeup up to six inches of space that often makes the difference between being in and being out. The great fielding sides achieve a very high percentage of direct hits -- the South Africans do it all the time, and Australia's Ricky Ponting is quite sensational at it.

I believe a good fielding side adds the equivalent of a batsman to the team. In modern cricket, in spite of the skills of batsmen and bowlers, that is an enormous handicap to overcome. India have the ability to do it, but in a ridiculously crowded year, it will be asking too much of specific individuals to do it consistently.

The Sahara Cup also threw up a situation that cricket lovers from both countries might want to ponder over. In the first two years of the tournament, we had wonderful crowds, even some good-natured banter in the stands. But this year, the familiar tensions returned to haunt everyone. On more than one occasion, the police had to march into the stands and I suspect it was only Canada's strict laws against assault that held parts of the crowd back. And yet, until India and Pakitan came to Toronto to play cricket, these people were co-existing quite happily.

Now, in a burst of passion, with only a slim line dividint it from violence, they have re-discovered their differences. I wonder then, having observed this happen in Sharjah and now Toronto, whether cricket between India and Pkaistan brings people together, or drives them apart.

It is very easy, very fashionable, to dismiss this argument. But think about it.

Harsha Bhogle

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