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October 7, 1998


Five Oaks - Residential property in Bangalore

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Endangered species

Prem Panicker

IT feels rather strange -- and, frankly, restful -- to be sitting here at ease, writing the latest instalment of Cricket Diary, on a day when India and Zimbabwe engage in the first day's play of a one-off Test.

As a fan, you do miss the odd game and don't give it a thought -- but since I first began covering cricket, for Rediff, in February 1996 with the World Cup, this is the first occasion that India is participating in an international engagement and I am not getting to see it.

Thank Doordarshan for that -- apparently, 'technical reasons' precluded the live coverage. At least, that is the official reason.

Unofficially, however, there is a different explanation -- and it embodies all that is wrong with Indian cricket in particular, with Indian sport in general. And that reason is, no sponsors, no advertisements. At least, not enough of either to make it worth Doordarshan's while to telecast the Test match.

So, today's telecast is off for 'technical reasons'. Never mind that the entire camera/commentary crew are right there, in Harare. Never mind that the cameras were already in place for the third ODI in the Hero Honda Series. DD believes it is better to blank out the game, rather than let the cricket fan watch it, without the mandatory ad clips at the end of each over.

But ask the powers that be -- whether in the ICC, the BCCI, or even in government -- and you hear the predictable lines being parroted. 'Test cricket is the real thing', they will tell you. 'One day cricket might have some thrills, but there is no alternative to Tests, that is the true challenge for the players', they say. And so on and so forth.

But when it comes to putting their money where their big mouth is, and see what happens -- Imtihaan, on the national network, to be followed by Baatmya, to be followed by...

One thing for sure -- if, between now and tomorrow, the marketing department at Doordarshan manage to line up sufficient ads, just watch how fast the 'technical problems' will resolve themselves, and the live images will stream through.

And if this is the case of cricket, with its incredible following in India, imagine then the plight of other games like hockey, football, tennis and the like.

And yet we -- the Suresh Kalmadis, the ministry of sports, the man on the street, the journalist -- all of us ask each other, ad infinitum: Why is India not doing well in sports?

MEANWHILE, for the last couple of days, I've been hearing -- courtesy Ashish Shukla and others in Harare -- how the Indian camp has been doing heavy duty thinking about the greentop they are going to be faced with in the one-off Test.

'Strengthen the batting', goes the mantra within the Indian team management. I don't know about you guys, but to my mind, there is a major problem with attitude, right there.

Put briefly, the Indian team management seems afraid -- there is no other word for it. Afraid that its lineup will collapse on a greentop, irrespective of the bowling strength it is facing.

Look at it this way -- for Zimbabwe, the quick bowling is being led by a debutant, Neil Johnson, with Heath Streak (94 wickets in 23 Tests), Olonga (10 wickets in 7 Tests) and Mbwangwa (15 wickets in 6 Tests) in support. That is a cumulative experience of 36 Tests between four bowlers -- just four games more than India's leading strike bowler, Javagal Srinath, with 109 wickets in 32 Tests.

But more to the point, look at the line up this bowling side, with all of 36 Tests behind it, is going to be taking on: Navjot Singh Sidhu, with 9 centuries and an average of 44.97 in 48 Tests, Sachin Tendulkar, with 16 100s and an average of 54.84, in 61 Tests, Mohammad Azharuddin, with 20 hundreds and a 45.94 average in 91 Tests, Saurav Ganguly, with 5 tons and 51.13 in 20 Tests, and Rahul Dravid, with a 51.34 average in 22 Tests.

In other words, the lowest average among your frontline batsmen is 44.97 and, between them, those five have 51 Test centuries, against a bowling side that has, among its four frontline pacemen, just 10 wickets more than Srinath has solo. And this is the batting lineup you are so unsure of, that you feel the need to strengthen it?

What it reveals is a lack of self-confidence -- and this, in turn, could provide the clue to our poor performances in the longer version of the game, especially when playing abroad. We talk of aggression -- but the body language, the thinking, is essentially defensive.

And we end up playing right into the opposition's hands. Outside the sub-continent, the thinking runs, 'give the Indians a greentop, and watch them crumble'. And the Indian team, for its part, promptly panics, and 'strengthens' its batting.

Look at it in the cold light of logic -- if the fearsome Zimbabwe pace machine is capable of taking out Sidhu, Dravid, Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ganguly for next to nothing, just what kind of miracle are we expecting of Robin Singh, supposedly the starch that stiffens up that lineup?

Some day, maybe, we will get around to figuring that it is bowlers who can win you Test matches -- and, when faced with a greentop, we will go in with a strong bowling lineup, thereby sending the other team the message that you figure your batsmen are better than theirs (which, by any yardstick, they are). In other words, a more confident Indian side would have gone in with a Debashish Mohanty backing up Agarkar and Srinath -- not a Robin Singh backing Sidhu, Azhar, Tendulkar et al.

And all this fuss for a 'greentop' pitch on which a Saurav Ganguly has to be brought on as early as the 14th over!

MOVING on from matchplay, did you guys check out the new no ball rules introduced by the ICC for both Tests and ODIs?

Stripped of the jargon, the new laws say that no-balling will be penalised doubly, henceforth. Thus, not only will the extra be given and the ball have to be rebowled, but any runs that accrue off a no ball will be credited as well.

In other words, if a batsman scores a run off a no ball, the score will go up by two -- one extra, plus the one run.

And this rule, when it comes to one dayers, will also apply to any ball that bounces over shoulder length of the batsman standing at the crease.

Simultaneously, a neat little addition has been made to the conditions relating to ODIs. As per Appendix 1, the 30-yard circle will henceforth be drawn from the middle stump, not from the edge of the crease.

Meaning? That effectively, the circle has been brought closer, and the batsman therefore has been given more freedom to simply club the ball over the top in the first 15.

It's all part of the pattern of recent rule changes, every single one of which seems aimed at further rendering the bowler a virtual bit-player in the cricketing arena. The front foot LBW rule pushed him back, the double indemnity now introduced further penalises him, and the shortening of the 30-yard-circle will mean we will be treated to the sight of jumped up pinch hitters taking on the world's finest fast bowlers and clubbing them around, relying on pure muscle and on the fact that the fielders have been brought further in.

Time was, cricket used to be a contest between bat and ball. Sometimes, the batsmen would get a good hard wicket, with a nice carry onto the bat, and would then display the full range of attacking strokes. At other times, the bowlers would delight at the sight of a greentop, or a sticky (which, of course, became the stuff of nostalgia once the practise of covering wickets was introduced), and then it would be aggressive batting against the best of defensive techniques.

Today, the bowler is out of the game, which has been reduced to a straight contest -- which of the opposing batting lineups can hit harder, further, longer, and more consistently?

All this, in the name of popularising the game. But whatever gave cricket mandarins the impression that fans don't like a good, even contest between bat and ball? What makes them assume that the average fan is there at the ground only to see fours and sixes clubbed by sheer dint of muscle? What makes them imagine that the sight of a brilliant piece of bowling -- fast or spin -- does not give us a thrill?

I'd hate to be a bowler today -- especially in an ODI situation. I mean, just what can I do? Can't bowl short, because it will become a new ball. Can't stray an inch outside leg. Can't stray outside off, because even if the ball then heads onto the base of middle, they won't give me an LBW. Which leaves me just one thing I can do -- pitch it up nice and full, in the slot for the batsman to drive me to distraction.

Tell you what -- why not completely revolutionise cricket, while we are about it? Let's introduce another amendment, which permits each team to field 11 batsmen.

Bowling? Hell, simple -- keep a bowling machine at either end and let it do the work. After all, all we need is for someone, or something, to send the sphereoid down the track, so that the batsman can have a go. And a machine can do that as well as a Srinath, a Donald, a Walsh or Ambrose or McGrath or Akram or Younis.

Sounds laughable? Think about it -- isn't that where all these anti-bowler laws are taking cricket, anyway?

Prem Panicker

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