Rediff Logo Cricket MRF: Time for a tyre tip Find/Feedback/Site Index
October 12, 1998


Five Oaks - Residential property in Bangalore

send this story to a friend

In god we trust!

Prem Panicker

THIS was one Test I couldn't follow, live, having had to depend on Ashish Shukla, and assorted friends, in Zimbabwe to update me about the run of play.

Which is why I was more than ordinarily eager to see, in this morning's papers, what the Indian skipper and coach had to say, by way of explanation for the defeat in the one-off Test.

After reading their comments, the one emotion I am left with is a sense of futility. A feeling, unalloyedly pessimistic in nature, that nothing positive can be expected from the Indian side.

Sure, we will have the odd good performance, the odd good spell when wins outnumber losses. But these, I suspect, will be few and far between -- the general trend will be for a talented team to keep playing below par, to produce results that will continue driving the average fan, back home, into depths of despair.

If that sounds unduly pessimistic, it is not without reason. Look, for instance, at what skipper Mohammad Azharuddin has to say about the result:

1) "We did not get a good start and that was critical. A good start, most of the time, makes the difference."

2) "We kept losing wickets regularly and our batsmen did not play responsibly. Our bowlers did the job, but unfortunately our batsmen were not up to it. We were inconsistent in every department of the game."

3) (On the fact that he perished in the slips, slashing, twice in the Test) "You play shots to score runs and that is what I tried to do."

Meanwhile, what of coach Gaekwad? Sample sound bites:

1) "I don't mind losing, but it is the manner that hurts."

2) "I feel the third day's play was crucial to our fortunes. We bowled too short and gave them too many easy runs."

3) "Our openers failed in this match and in the second innings, most of our batsmen were irresponsible."

"There was nothing wrong with the pitch, it was excellent for batting all through."

Those are the salient comments made by the captain and coach.

Now sit back and examine them -- do any of them go back to first causes? For obviously, until you get right down to the root of the problem, you are never going to find a solution that works over a long term, right?

For starters, let us discount, completely, the bit about 'we batted badly, bowled badly and fielded badly' -- that is something we hear after every defeat, it says nothing to the point anyway -- I mean, other than batting, bowling and fielding, what the hell else is there to do in a cricket match?

The only point worth noting is the bit about India, in both innings, lacking a good start.

Which is something quite a few of us have been harping on, in the media, for a while now -- that it is high time India found itself a regular opening pair, and stopped this habit of using Nayan Mongia as some kind of wild card. For one thing, even the best of wicket keeper-batsmen is going to be under severe pressure if he has to keep wickets for an innings and then immediately go out to open. And equally importantly, Mongia -- as anyone who has watched him bat will tell you -- is an obdurate, sticky customer when he bats in his usual position in the middle, but sound technique is not his forte and, at the best of times, he is a reluctant opener.

So why do we have him there? Why hasn't either the team management, or the national selectors, thought in terms of settling the top of the batting lineup?

Because our assessment of the team's capabilities is based, for starters, on skewed figures. Consider this example: Since the end of the 1997 Sahara Cup series, India has played 40 ODIs. Of them, just 8 have been on foreign tracks (5 in Toronto this year, three in Zimbabwe this month). In other words, between September 1997-September 1998, our entire cricket has been played on sub-continental tracks (and in Sharjah, which again resembles conditions at home).

Further, all our Test cricket during this period has also been played on home soil.

The trouble is that on the kind of tracks obtaining here, a makeshift opening pair is still good enough to get the side off to a decent start, since swing and seam, early on in the innings, is pretty much non-existent. Thus, even a Mongia-Sidhu pairing comes in, gets 50-60 runs on the board, and then the rest of the strokeplayers come in and strut their stuff without any trouble at all.

This has produced, on paper, a super-strong batting lineup -- the catch being that by its very nature, the side was incapable of doing consistently well abroad.

Further, during the same period in which we played 40 ODIs, we have played all of seven Tests, including this last one against Zimbabwe. And six of them -- three each against Sri Lanka and Australia -- have been at home. Thus, not only is the Tests to ODIs ratio badly skewed, the home-away ratio is pretty much non-existent.

All of which has resulted, in both the selectors and the team management, in a mindset that tends to discount the problems of playing abroad. 'We can go anywhere, put at the top of the order a keeper who doesn't like to open and an opener who spent the entire coaching camp in Chennai warming a plastic chair in the pavilion, and still do well because hey, we are strokeplayers, right?' -- that appears to be the thinking.

It was the kind of thinking that was almost guaranteed to produce defeat.

Then, remember Azhar's explanation for getting caught in the slips twice in two innings, in Harare? "You play shots to score runs and that is what I tried to do."

Which completely misses the point, doesn't it? With something like 150 overs remaining in the game, with a target of just 235 to get, with Mongia, Sidhu and Tendulkar back in the hut, Azhar didn't need to try and play strokes at that point, without even getting his eye set. That he got out playing strokes is not the problem -- that he even attempted to play strokes that early in his innings, at that stage, is where the real problem lay.

It isn't only Azhar -- with the exception of Rahul Dravid and, to an extent, Saurav Ganguly, every single batsman 'played shots to score runs' -- remember Robin Singh's two fours off the first two balls he faced?

Apparently, it did not occur to them that Test matches are won -- especially abroad -- by teams that have the application to hang in there. Simply put, the Azhar quote reveals the malady of this Indian side -- the players, mollycoddled on home wickets where they can belt the ball around, refuse to come to terms with the real demands of Test cricket.

We often wonder why teams like South Africa and Australia are so consistently successful abroad. The short answer is, they win abroad because they play abroad, and therefore have acquired the adaptibility to play in different conditions (South Africa, for instance, has in the recent past played, in succession, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England, all away).

We don't play abroad, therefore we don't have the skills to win abroad.

Sounds simplistic, perhaps, but hey, who said answers can't be simple? The magnitude of the problem this team, this management and this board has created is underlined by the fact that India, playing for the first time in a year and a half on foreign soil, loses by 61 runs to Zimbabwe -- not the most feared of bowling lineups, and on a batting track that even the Indian coach gives a clean chit.

And you can't even blame the umpiring, can you? The only dodgy decision in the Test was the one Ian Robinson handed down to dismiss Rahul Dravid for 44, in the second innings of the Test -- but by that point in time, Messers Mongia, Sidhu, Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ganguly were already back in the hut, so the 'what if' is moot.

So why don't we play abroad? Because countries like South Africa, the West Indies, England and Australia are not interested in hosting quickie tours of say three, four ODIs or maybe a triangular, followed by a single Test. Those countries prefer more extended tours -- but the Indian board is not interested in accepting such invitations.

The reason is simple -- a long tour of say a minimum of three Tests, plus three ODIs, plus the mandatory warm-up three-day games between Tests, takes at the least a month and a half. Five Test tours account for more than two months. The Indian board, however, believes that two months are better spent playing four, five ODI tournaments -- easy enough to organise, thanks to the munificience of sponsors such as Pepsi and Coke.

And further, that it is better to schedule such tournaments at home -- because when you play abroad, the board gets only the guarantee money whereas when the tournament is being played at home, the BCCI gets to take the sponsors for big, big money.

Thanks to this situation, it has reached a stage where, increasingly, none of the top nations even bother inviting India for long tours because they are aware that the Indian board is not interested in such.

Then there is another deep-rooted malady that's been hurting the side very badly for quite some time now -- but again, given the success rate in recent times (being hungry for success, we don't look closely at the conditions they are achieved in, do we?), it has been completely ignored. Except when we lose, when the same quote keeps popping out of the captain's mouth.

'Our bowlers bowled too short' is the quote I mean. In just the last couple of months, we heard that one, four times, in Toronto. We heard it at the end of the third ODI in Harare. And now we are hearing it again, at the end of the Test.

Raises two important questions. When it happens once, even twice, it is understandable, excusable. But when it happens with this level of consistency, you wonder: before a game, does the team have a meeting? Are basic tactics discussed? Does the team go in with a gameplan?

The evidence suggests otherwise.

The other important question is this: what then is the captain's role, out in the middle? (Which reminds me, have we done away with the institution of vice captain altogether?) Essentially, you decide who you are going to open with, you set the field you think the bowler's skills, and the conditions, warrant, and toss the ball to the bowler.

And he goes and keeps pitching short, or drifts to leg, or gives too much room outside off, making nonsense of your field setting, messing up your battle plans, and demolishing your prospects.

What do you do then? Stand in slips, making faces and occasionally shrugging your shoulders in disgust? And then, at the end of another lost game, say, 'Our bowlers bowled too short?'

Doesn't a captain have an option, during the middle of the over, to go up to the bowler and say hey, bud, you may fancy yourself as a killer with a lethal bouncer, but I want you to pitch it up, on this particular line, and that's it!?

Ian Chappell, during his stint as Australian captain, once marched up to Dennis Lillee. This was when Lillee, aggravated by a batsman who had clubbed him for a couple of fours, launched a bouncer war. Chappell is on record as telling Lillee, out loud, on the field of play: 'Dennis, you damn well pitch the *&*^^@*^@ ball up, or you get the hell off the *^#*^*&^# field!'

That is the Australian way, perhaps. But ours is different. On a famous occasion a few years back, when Mongia and Prabhakar played for a 'draw' in a one-day game against the West Indies in Kanpur, Azhar when asked why he did not send out instructions to accelerate said, 'These are international batsmen, they should know what has to be done, without being told.'

A question that occured to me then, is still valid now -- why then does a side require a skipper? To give post-match media briefings? I mean, all 11 players are internationals -- so when the side walks in to the ground, Srinath knows he has to bowl the first over, therefore he can just pick up the ball and go for it, right? And then Agarkar does his bit at the other end. And when Srinath starts tiring, Kumble merely walks up and takes the ball...

Is that how it goes?

I would have thought that when the bowlers, presumably against the team management's gameplan, pitched short in Toronto, they would have been hauled up right then. Which should have guarded against a recurrence. Further, I would presume, too, that when a captain on the field of play sees his bowlers giving it away, he will march right up and go, hey, what the hell!

Am I being naive, here?

These are just two problems that affect this team -- the lack of a settled opening pair, and this trend of bowlers apparently going into a game without any kind of prior planning, and winging it on little or no instruction.

Add to that our inability to get out of the ODI mindset; the board's downright reluctance to balance the number of Tests and ODIs India figures in; and the apparent inability of any Indian side, in either form of the game, to expend some energy when fielding (just as with the earlier ODIs, this Test too saw its share of dropped catches), and you have to reckon that in that post-Test media briefing, Azhar got one thing right.

Remember what he said? "It was a collective failure, and it does not augur well for the team for the coming months."

The coming months bring the Dhaka knockout tournament. And another Sharjah extravaganza. But it also brings a Test series -- again, abroad -- against New Zealand.

I would think that if we are not to have a repeat of this post-Test media briefing, the Indian management would need to get its collective head working, and that right now.

Tailpiece: During our pre-match analysis, we had made a mention of the danger an irregular opening pair poses. We had mentioned, too, the unwisdom of taking Robin Singh in the side presumably to strengthen 'both the batting and the bowling.

I was frankly unprepared for some of the mails I got in response.

One, from an avid Robin Singh fan, said that I suffered from Bombay bias, and that I was prejudiced against him. The funniest bit about this is that last Thursday, on chat, someone asked about Amol Majumdar and when I said that in my view he didn't have what it takes to force his way into this team, my questioner suggested I suffered from south bias!

The truth is that far from being prejudiced against Robin, I tend to sympathise with the guy -- nine years in the wilderness, and a call up for national duty after your best cricketing years are behind you, is enough to sour any man. And yet Robin has cheerfully responded to the call, and performed to expectation and often beyond, in the one day arena.

But how does that translate into a Test call-up, after you have built him into a one day specialist? As it turned out, his batting remained in the one day mould, and as for bowling, he didn't turn his arm over enough to fit into the all-rounder mould, right?

As to the unwisdom of a regular opening pair, the scoreboard speaks for itself: 1/2 in the first innings, 1/3 in the second. And both openers back in the hut before the new ball bowlers had properly warmed up, both times.

This underlines a point I've been meaning to make. Often, readers write in saying hey, you know, your problem is too much bile stored in your system, you keep carping, even when the team is doing well, you have something critical to say.

True. Even when the team was doing well at home, we did point out, time and again, the unwisdom of using Mongia as a stop-gap opener. We did say it was time for India to find, and mould, a regular pair of capable openers who would do duty both home and away. But the trouble is, when the results are good, irrespective of where they are obtained, no one wants to hear bad news.

Ostriches have become legendary for just that kind of mindset.

Ostriches don't win cricket matches, though.

Prem Panicker

Mail Prem Panicker