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September 4, 1998


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Of football, fun, and some cricket...

Prem Panicker

Saurav Ganguly -- they call him 'Dada' -- backheels a pass to Javagal Srinath, who runs along the right flank, showing a good turn of speed, and from the line, crosses at chest level across the goalmouth. Venkatesh Prasad tries to volley, but gets it high on the thigh, the ball balloons a bit and goalkeeper Anil Kumble collects, quickly over-arming the football towards the midfield, where Ajay Jadeja traps in style, and starts a run down the middle....

No, I am not making this up. Not dreaming, either. And I haven't indulged in hallucinogens, thank you very much -- the above para is a pretty accurate rendering of proceedings, at the M A Chidambaram Stadium, on the afternoon of September 3, the penultimate day of the conditioning camp for the 22 cricketers picked to take part in the first of a series of camps with the World Cup in view.

As cricket coaching camps go, this one has certainly been unusual, as witness the football match the 22 probables, split into two sides (Rahul Dravid, running a slight flu, sat out, his place being taken by physio Andrew Kokinos), played as soon as the landed at the MAC stadium for their training session.

"It is a very good way to warm up," said coach Anshuman Gaekwad, standing on the sidelines, cheering his boys on and -- once a coach, always a coach -- yelling exhortations and advice to both sides impartially.

That, it certainly is. For the record, they used the junior size football, smaller than regulation match size for adults, and kept it fractionally under full pressure -- the last thing you need, just a week before two major tournaments, is for your prime players to be sitting on the sidelines with injuries caused by faulty kicking techniques.

As you sit there and watch the cricketers trying out a different ball game, you can't help but be struck by certain thoughts. Thus:

It really doesn't matter what game you excel in -- a sportsman of any class will manage to avoid looking like a duffer on a field of play that is not his natural habitat. As the Indian cricketers did, on the football field -- true, their kicking techniques may not have been quite the thing, their ball control and aerial skills might have left a little to be desired, but it was no uncouth scramble, either. The basic skills were all on display -- organised play, well thought out passing, off the ball running into gaps ahead... instinct at work, allied to the natural coordination a top class athlete, in any discipline, would have anyway.

Equally interesting is to see how, no matter what sport you are playing, your basic personality comes to the fore.

Dada Ganguly gets the ball near the left corner flag, dribbles his way towards goal, displaying some nifty footwork in the process, gets into a tangle. Kumble, the opposing goalkeeper, claims the ball has gone beyond the goalline, for a throw-in. The throw is taken, but Ganguly still stands there, arguing that this was the spot he was in, and it is not over the goalline, but still very much in play. That's Saurav for you -- it's not bad sportsmanship that makes him dispute a line call, or question an LBW decision, it is just his extreme reluctance to relinquish his turn at bat, or with the ball. He is a performer, and he wants to perform all the time.

Sachin Tendulkar, an overdose of zinc cream making his face look like a kabuki mask, makes what the French call a moue because he thought he was in perfect position to score, but Jadeja failed to pass the ball to him. You watch him shaking his head furiously, like it was the final of the World Cup or something... and a short while later, you see him collect a loose ball, bulldoze his way past Kokinos and slot it home, beating goalkeeper Nayan Mongia... and you realise that this little vignette is quintessential Sachin. The man is an achiever, and whatever the field, he has to achieve, to score... it is, for Tendulkar, almost a pathological compulsion...

From August 31st -- which is when I had my first look at the camp -- till September 2, I saw Navjot Sidhu hobbling around, wincing every now and again, sitting in the pavilion for the most part, occasionally hobbling over to the nets and standing there, watching the proceedings with a wistful expression. Blisters underfoot, is the diagnosis.

A day after the teams are announced, Sidhu is out there on the football field, running around, kicking the ball vigorously, yelling encouragement to his team-mates, his face split by the kind of smile you normally see when he has a bat in his hand and a spinner is coming in to bowl. Typical Sidhu, wouldn't you say? When he suffers whatever ailment he has at the time, or thinks he has, he really suffers. But let him once get him out on the field and the guy proves to have a heart as big as all outdoors, and a very childlike, uncomplicated sense of fun.

I could go on, down the roster of all 22 players. But more than these individual quirks is the insight you get when you step back and look at the collective. There is, along with the football, a lot of horseplay going on. Lots of teasing, good natured joshing -- as when Mongia lets another goal through, and Ganguly goes, 'Arre bhai, byes kyon chodthe ho?' or when Navjot Singh Sidhu ambles lazily after a long ball and Jadeja, whose pass it was, yells, 'Quick single, Sherry, bhag!'

It is indicative of a changed atmosphere within the squad. In earlier camps, while the players went through their paces as a group, once the session was over they broke up into little groups, largely based on regional considerations. This time round, there is togetherness, a markedly higher shade of intermingling -- and the entire team looks more relaxed, more happy and at ease with themselves and with each other.

Or am I seeing things? "No, it is true," Gaekwad -- 'Anshu', to everyone and his uncle -- says. "The boys are much more united, no little groups among them, that is one of the things we have taken pains to inculcate."

It is to this end that football -- as opposed to the structured kind of exercises that earned previous coach the nickname 'Drillmaster' -- is occasionally introduced during the warm up phase.

Of a piece with that was the trip the Indian probables took to Fishermen's Cove, the picturesque resort in Mahabalipuram, on August 31.

There, again, they played football and volleyball on the beach, went wading in the surf, got up to the kind of hi-jinks you expect schoolkids to get up to at a picnic. And in between, there was room for more serious stuff -- running singles on the sands, wickets marked out and Kokinos monitoring the performance with a timer in his hand, exhorting the slower ones to try and beat their previous best timings...

But through it all, there was an air of camaraderie that stood out. Even to the casual observer, it was evident that this was a bunch of blokes at ease with one another, and ready to shed reserve and just have fun.

Gaekwad elaborated on how this was achieved in course of an interview later -- but that is for another time, and place.

So okay, I am not seeing things, the team is united, comfortable with each other. And to my mind, this could well be the biggest gain of the Chennai camp, which concludes later today.

THERE was much pre-camp speculation about the possible synergy -- or lack of it -- between coach Anshuman Gaekwad and consultant Bobby Simpson.

Like most speculative analysis, it proved to be pretty unfounded -- the two coaches, together with physio Andrew Kokinos and doctor Ravindra Chaddha, worked smooth as silk.

There's a lesson in there, someplace. As per the board's directives, the plan was that Gaekwad would do the actual coaching, while Simpson would consult with him, make his suggestions to the coach and leave it to the latter to implement the ideas, if he saw fit.

In practise, the two men got together and quickly evolved a much easier working style. Thus, during the camp, you saw both of them doing their thing simultaneously. If Gaekwad was in the nets, getting Nayan Mongia to put a little more power behind his defensive pushes -- 'Don't just push, try working it into the field for the single, Nayan' -- the Simpson was with Rahul Dravid, Venkatesh Prasad and Mohammad Azharuddin, taking them through the intricacies of slip fielding.

The last time I spent any amount of time at an Indian coaching camp was in May 1997, in Bangalore, just prior to the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka. Then, as before, such practise was limited to one player tossing the ball to coach Madan Lal, who would edge it and whichever slip fielder it came close to, would grab at it. After a while, off they went, their respective ways.

This time round, it was different -- I eavesdropped on Simpson explaining how, when a chance split the gap between first and second slip, one fielder could go for the catch, his colleague covering him... explaining, too, how the slips could, in specific circumstances, move closer, or spread out a fraction further... or when first slip could stand so fine he was almost in the keeper's shadows... technicalities, which were then immediately tried out in practise...

Again, in a marked departure from the earlier regime, I noticed that 'slip fielding practise' was not something just anyone indulged in (I mean, in Bangalore, I had watched the likes of Debashish Mohanty practise in that position and wondered why, since I couldn't conceive of a match situation where Mohanty would be asked to man the slips). Here, players were selected specifically for the slots. And given indepth, intensive practise.

Why Prasad, though, I wondered. Gaekwad's answer was quick: "He is throwing quite okay from the deep now, but it doesn't make sense to put him in the deep all the time, it adds to the pressure on his shoulder. If you watch, you'll see he is doing well in the slips, he is getting down quickly, taking some good reflexive catches, so it gives us the option of using him there once in a while, give him a rest from the outfield without having to 'hide' him."

A while later, it was Gaekwad masterminding the slip catching practise. What, then, if say Simpson had given one bit of advice, and Gaekwad were to give the opposite? Wouldn't it cause needless confusion in the minds of the players?

"No," said the Indian coach. "We consult, check with each other all the time, if one of us has told a player to do something, we make sure the other guy knows it too... I am aware at all times of what Bobby is doing, and he is aware of what I am up to."

What this has meant is that where, earlier, India had one coach who would concentrate, for a time, on one aspect -- say batting in the nets -- while the players not actively involved pretty much did their own thing elsewhere, in Madras we had the situation of the players being under the eye of three coaches -- the third being Chaddha, himself a former Ranji player, and on this occasion, an active member of the coaching team.

All this was aided and abetted by videographers -- the team had apparently hired a local crew for the duration. "We film the boys as they go through the paces and every evening, we find time to get together, review the films," explained Simpson. "First, Anshu and I see it, make notes about corrective measures, suggestions to be made, then we call the player concerned, explain our thinking to him..."

The synergy was obviously pretty good, between the coaching staff. Which brings up a point. Kapil Dev, in course of a brief interview, said categorically that he was not in favour of the two-coach system. The media -- present company included -- has been pretty severe on the appointment of Simpson, in the past.

Having watched Gaekwad and Simpson work in tandem, from close quarters, do I now have cause to do a rethink?

In a sense, yes -- this camp showed very obviously that they make a very good combination. Indian cricket has, in any case, been desperate for an infusion of new ideas -- here, for the first time, they got some, and the cricketers without exception sounded quite happy despite the enormously increased workload.

In that sense, I would tend to support the two-coach theory as it was applied here. My reservation would be that at this time tomorrow, we will be back to square one. Simpson flies back to Australia, and Anshuman reverts to being the sole coach. And that situation will persist, till January some time.

Asked about his future involvement with the team, Simpson said, "Well, we think that if the Pakistan team's visit scheduled for early January doesn't materialise -- we understand that as of now, it is not likely to -- then we can have one more camp like this at that time, for which I will be here. If possible, we also want to squeeze in a camp in April. And then I will join the team in England, where they will be practising for two weeks before the World Cup."

Therein, for me, lies the problem -- this lack of continuity in Simpson's presence with the team. A coach who materialises once in about four months, however beneficial those visits may be, is not as good as a coach who is there full time. So if we do need a foreign coach to supplement the local one, then what would really be welcome is a for that foreign coach to be here full time. That gives the coach an opportunity not merely to theorise during a coaching camp, but to monitor the players during matches, to fine tune their application of his theories -- and that is what Simpson is not going to get a chance to do, given the nature of his present contract.

Seems a pity, that.

WHEN you are sent to cover a coaching camp, your editor expects you to produce a lot of technical stuff, how the camp was structured, the nature of the exercises in use, stuff like that.

Which, of course, I intend to do -- tomorrow. For today, the serious bit ends with the two items above. And from here on, what you get are incidental stuff.

Like, a journo getting access to 22 Indian cricketers would be expected to come back with a series of 'exclusive' interviews, right?

Okay, I am back -- with nary a single 'exclusive' in hand. Didn't bother asking for them, even. Reason being -- in fact, one example is illustrative enough.

On the afternoon of the 3rd, the team bus had just landed up at the stadium, the players went into the dressing room to change into their gear.

Sairaj Bahutule, who apparently had gone on a little shopping side trip that morning and, in consequence, missed lunch, raced straight into the players' canteen, asking to be fed. Kutty, the canteen's resident veteran, produced idlis and sambhar.

"Hi, Sai," I go, from the next table, where I was having a cup of tea. "Hi, man, how's it going?" he replies, through a mouthful of idli. "Skipped lunch, did you?" Sai explains about the shopping trip. So I'm like, how're you enjoying the camp, huh, seems different from the previous ones? "Yeah, it's been hard work but it's fun, enjoyed myself," he says.

But how does this two-coaches thing work, Sai, does it get confusing for you guys? Next thing you know, his face has gone into deep freeze. "I don't know, boss," he says, on a rather vague laugh, and promptly concentrates on the plate of idlis like it is the last meal he is ever going to get.

Not once does he look up at me. Message received and understood -- no such questions, please.

That is the crux of the problem. Players who know you are only too ready to talk -- about anything under the sun, except cricket. And if they know you really well, and trust you not to betray any confidences, they will talk cricket, too -- completely off the record.

But on record? Forget it -- what you can do is the canned stuff, how did it feel getting your last century, are you looking forward to the coming tour, what do you think are the chances for a win... that kind of stuff, to which the responses are predictable. And a complete waste of time -- so, sorry, folks, no 'exclusive' interviews with the players.

COME to think of it, maybe us media types are missing a good bet anyway, by chasing after the cricketers when the real stories, and the fun interviews, lie elsewhere.

Like, say, the morning when I landed up too early. The team hadn't even gotten to the ground yet, and there was nothing to do but sit in one of those ubiquitous plastic chairs, and yawn.

Sitting in the chair next to me, keeping an eye on a crew of groundstaff doing their thing out in the middle, was K Parthasarathy, resident curator of the MAC. We get to chatting about the stadium, the wickets -- all of which had come in for handwritten words of praise, the previous evening, from both Simpson and Gaekwad and such.

"I would like to pay tribute to Mr Parthasarathy and his his hardworking team," Simpson said, in a letter handed over to the curator. "The condition of the ground is a tribute to their skill and enthusiasm. We have made many demands on them in the 14 days the Indian team were in training in Chennai, and they have always responded. I have made many trips to Chennai, and I feel the centre and practise wickets were the best I have experienced."

"Parthasarathy did an excellent job," Gaekwad said, in his own letter. "The wickets prepared by him were among the best I have ever seen in India. The Indian team was extremely happy with the ground facilities during the entire camp."

Have you relaid the pitch recently?, I ask -- remembering how, just the day before, when the probables were split into two teams for a practise match, both Srinath and Agarkar had worked up a considerable head of steam out there, getting cracking pace and steepling bounce.

"No, we didn't relay it or anything, just prepared the pitches the team wanted, they asked for a couple of batting wickets in the nets, and in the middle, one fast wicket one standard track with a bit of spin in it, which is what we gave them," says 'Pacha', as the MAC curator is more commonly known.

At my prodding, he goes into technicalities, talking of how the amount of clay top dressing can be increased to produce a slower wicket, or reduced, letting the grass beneath do all the talking to produce a fast wicket...

So hey, why not do this all the time, why do we have Test wickets that turn on day one and crumble by day three?

"We can produce any kind of wicket, we can give you a wicket that is faster than Durban if you want," says Pacha, professional pride to the fore. "Why, when that team from New Zealand, those ground experts, came here earlier, what did they say? They said there is nothing wrong with the soil or with our method of pitch preparation. But you tell me, what can we do when the team management itself asks for slow turners?"

Pressed, he takes off. "Look, Kapil Dev is chairman of the pitches committee, he has been giving interviews about how we need to produce fast wickets, how only that will help us produce fast bowlers. But what happened when Kapil was captain of the team? He was a fast bowler, but he personally had asked for a slow turner when the team played a Test here, I can tell you that from first hand experience.

"All this talk about sporting wickets, that is all bullshit," Pacha says. "When the time comes, the local association, if it is a Ranji match, or the team management, if it is a Test or one-dayer, tells us what to produce. What can we do? When the Indian team wants a turner, can we give them a fast one?"

Thus much, from the man who, for just over a decade, has been preparing the tracks at the M A Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai. Thus much, for now, from me, too. More on the camp -- the technical stuff, other sidelights, and such -- tomorrow...

Prem Panicker

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