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September 25, 1998


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Prem Panicker

YESTERDAY'S edition of the regular weekly cricket chat threw up a surprise: the consensus in there seemed to be that India would lose to Zimbabwe in the series of three one dayers beginning tomorrow.

A bit surprising on the surface, considering we are talking of a team that has won just two of 18 ODIs played head to head thus far, with India winning 14 and two resulting in ties.

Misguided pessimism? Just another indication of the up and down mindset of the Indian fan who, typically, is over the moon after a couple of victories and equally down in the dumps after another defeat?

Actually, I think the negative assessment of India's chances is not without an element of sense. Morale- and mood-wise, India is on a low after the twin defeats at Kuala Lumpur and Toronto. The players have, in the last few days, done a passable imitation of Phineas Fogg, flying from Toronto to India, then back to Zimbabwe (in the case of Sachin Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja, factor in a flight from Malaysia to India, then add on the other two trips).

As for Zimbabwe, they are at home, they are fresh and rested, and these factors add up to a good-sized advantage.

Interestingly, Zimbabwe with the bat has been steadily improving its performance against India in recent times -- thus, its three highest scores against India have come in the last year or so (240 in Benoni in February 1997, 261 in Baroda and 269 in Cuttack, both in April 1998). A trend that is in keeping with the general improvement in Zimbabwe's cricketing standards in recent times.

Alistair Campbell, during the Pepsi Cup triangular in India in April this year, summed up his team performance best: "We keep getting into winning positions, without however managing to wrap it up and force the result."

True enough -- Zimbabwe's problem has been its finishing -- which, if you recall, was a problem India had last year. And as with India then, so with Zimbabwe now -- all it takes is one win to give the team confidence, to get it rolling.

The time seems ripe for that win.

The interesting thing about the Zimbabwe team is that they have a host of bits and pieces players -- not much use when it comes to the Test arena, but perfect for the one day game. In Mbwangwa and Heath Streak, they have a more than fair new ball attack, with the dibbly-do bowlers chipping in with their containing line and hard-to-hit length in the middle. And backing the bowlers up is one of the best fielding outfits in contemporary cricket.

For India, it is back to the full team. With one crucial gap in the number three slot. In batting order, the side would in all probability read Tendulkar, Ganguly, then a number three, Azhar, Jadeja, Robin Singh, Nayan Mongia, Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar, Anil Kumble and Harbajan Singh.

One option that suggests itself is for India to go in with a batsman short, Mongia coming in at six, and using the extra slot for another bowler, the choice being either Mohanty or Sanghvi. Here, the spinner would appear to have an obvious edge -- India in any case will have two fast bowlers in Srinath and Agarkar, a regular medium pacer in Robin Singh and a part-timer in Ganguly, making a fifth purveyor of seam up stuff an avoidable luxury.

There is, however, a catch with that scenario -- India is not going to be playing on sub-continental tracks, but rather on wickets that will help seam and swing. Typically, those are the conditions in which the batting has been seen at its worst.

Then there is the case of Ajay Jadeja. The last time these two teams played, at Cuttack in April 1998, India were 20-something for three before Jadeja, with an unbeaten 116 off 123 balls, and Azhar with 153 off 149, put on an unbeaten partnership of 275 -- a world record for any wicket, against any opposition. (The pair, incidentally, also holds the world record fifth wicket partnership of 233).

But since then, Jadeja's slump in form has been marked -- which makes going in a batsman short a bit iffy. Besides, with four regular bowlers, an all rounder in Robin, another in Ganguly and then the ubiquitous Tendulkar to bowl his liquorice all-sorts, another regular bowler seems a bit of an overkill.

So that means another batsman at number three -- which opens up an interesting choice between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Rahul Dravid.

In Sidhu's favour, he got runs in his last outing. Against him is his running -- or non-running -- between wickets, allied to some atrocious calling. And further, the fact that despite all the hype about 'Jonty' Singh having turned over a new fielding leaf, the team has had to hide him in the outfield in recent outings (in Toronto, even Inzamam was regularly taking a second run on Sidhu's pickup and throw).

The alternative is Dravid. Every time I talk about him, I get my mailbox flooded with abuse-stroke-allegations, and I guess this piece will trigger more of the same. Still. Going against Dravid are the twin strikes of form (rock bottom) and confidence (nada). Going for him are the facts that he doesn't need to be hidden in the field (a consideration, on tracks that are not sub-continental belters, which means singles more than boundaries will hold the key to the outcome) and also the fact that through 1997, when India played a lot of its cricket abroad, he was one of the more consistent performers with the bat.

It's going to be interesting to see who the team management picks -- for given the conditions, I suspect the number three slot is going to prove crucial.

With the ball, India seems well served -- Srinath and Kumble, at different venues, recently indicated that they have their old venom back again. Sanghvi was a bit on the expensive side in the team's last outing against Zimbabwe (Cuttack 1998), but that was a belter of a batting track once the pitch dried out. And between them, Ganguly and Robin are capable of ensuring that the 'fifth bowler' doesn't get taken for too much.

So the key rests with Agarkar. In Toronto, it looked like the lad, facing Pakistan at the highest level for the first time, was trying too hard to succeed. The result, he kept spraying it about, erring in both length and direction, bowling short repeatedly and providing the batsmen far too much width.

His normal style, though, is to pitch the ball up, in the corridor around off, let the seam do the work, and get the batsmen making mistakes in trying to drive him over the top. If he reverts to that line and length, he could be the support Srinath lacked in Toronto -- the question on which India's bowling effort rests, then, will be: can he get it back together again?

At a more general level, Azhar will need to rethink his new-found penchant for inserting the opposition. Zimbabwe is one team which, at its present stage of development, you would like to see chasing. Because that is when the pressure mounts, and a team unused to winning makes the fatal mistakes.

A classic instance, again, is Cuttack 1998. As I remember that game, Zimbabwe, chasing just over 300, folded for 270-odd. The most interesting aspect of the Zimbabwe innings, though, was that throughout, it was ahead of the Indian rate of progression -- in other words, it had the game sewn up but its batsmen, unused to the pressures of the chase, went for big hits where singles would have done the job, and made a complete meal of it. (While on that game, the centurion for Zimbabwe in that innings, and its best batsman by far in that tournament, was a certain Grant Flower -- who is no longer a member of the team, so it is going to be interesting to see how they plug that particular gap).

And that, to my mind, is why Azhar would need to consider batting first, in the event his luck with the toss holds.

One thing is for sure -- this series of three ODIs is going to be a lot closer than India's success rate against Zimbabwe -- 83.3 per cent -- suggests.

THERE's a new game in town, and it's call 'dump it on the media'.

In the last 48 hours, two senior cricket officials -- ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya, and BCCI secretary J Y Lele -- have done just that.

Dalmiya in his interview to Rediff, Lele in a press briefing earlier this week, both made the point that this 'too much cricket' thing is a media scare.

Dalmiya goes further, to suggest that the captains are happy with things the way they are. Funny, that -- Azhar went on record to express his unhappiness, as did then Pakistan captain Rashid Latif, and South African skipper Hansie Cronje to name just three. But hey, Dalmiya says the skippers are happy, and Dalmiya -- to misquote Mark Antony -- is the ICC president.

But both gents took that a shade further, and said that the ICC had fixed a norm for international teams. Said norm, we are told, is a maximum of 12 Tests and 30-32 ODIs per year.

And that, mind you, is the outer limit.

Fair enough -- a norm like that is precisely what the media has been clamouring for. Some kind of ceiling, to keep boards -- read, BCCI -- from killing the golden goose in the unholy rush to make money.

So take a look at this year's schedule, if you wil. Between January 1 and December 31, 1998, India has played -- or will have played -- a total of 6 Tests (six under par, not forgetting that one of those Tests is the one-off coming up against Zimbabwe) and 38 ODIs (6 over par).

And that is fact and not, as Dalmiya and Lele would have it, a media creation.

I really don't get it. On the one hand, Dalmiya in his interview waxes sanctimonious about how Test cricket is the real thing, and should be promoted. And on the other hand, the Indian board, of which the selfsame gent is the moving spirit behind the scenes, tends to throw in Tests as some kind of afterthought to the real money-spinner, namely, the pajama game.

And having done this, they then blame the media for making a fuss. Well, this member of the media has one question to ask: why have a 'norm', when you have no intention of following it?

Before leaving this subject aside, an aside: As if the ODI schedule weren't tough enough, some mastermind figures that we need to fit in the Challenger Series as well (the why is easy to understand -- the matches are sponsored, so there is more money to be made).

So, immediately after the team returns from Zimbabwe and before it leaves for Dhaka, India A, India B and India C will take each other on in a triangular series.

The logic? It is supposed to be a selection tournament, from which the team for the ICC knockout tournament -- billed as a mini World Cup -- are going to be picked.

Sorry, but I don't get it: India has just fielded 28 players in Toronto and Kuala Lumpur combined. At the time the twin teams were picked, the selectors said it gave them an opportunity to try out players for the World Cup, which is a little under a year away. And before the Dhaka knockout tourney, India will have played three further ODIs against Zimbabwe.

None of which is apparently enough -- they need a Challenger Series, featuring much the same players, to pick a team for the mini-World Cup!

If there is some semblance of logic behind this, it escapes me. Why make the cricketers, just back from tour, go through a series of no-account matches? Wouldn't a far better option be to give them four, five days of rest, and then get them into another coaching camp to continue the initatives begun in Chennai?

And you know what is the funniest part of it? If you accept the BCCI argument that a Challenger Series is essential to pick the best possible team for the mini-World Cup, then how come there is no similar series ahead of the World Cup?

IN passing, a thought for Suresh Kalmadi -- that gent who, if you believe him, has nothing on his mind other than India's sporting glory -- to dwell on.

Immediately on his return, Kalmadi took off on his favourite hobbyhorse -- cricket-bashing. No more cricket team for the Games, he thundered. Cricketers are money-minded, he stormed, they played with their minds elsewhere. The athletes, shooters, lifters and such, who did the country proud in Kuala Lumpur, are to be praised, they are the real patriots, the ones who upheld the glory of the country, Kalmadi ranted.

Fine. All the above, accepted in toto.

Swallowed, too, without even a pinch of salt by way of seasoning, is Kalmadi's assertion that he is hell bent on improving sporting standards in the country, never mind the possible expense involved. Also accepted, his statement that he wants to bring about the economic uplift of our sporting achievers.

Accepting all that, Kalmadi might want to look at -- and explain, if he can -- a certain anomaly. Thus: the Indian cricketers, who went to Kuala Lumpur and, admittedly, played below par and were knocked out in the league stage itself, get to take home Rs 100,000 each, courtesy the BCCI which sanctioned that ex-gratia payment the other day at its AGM.

Meanwhile, what of the shooters, lifters and others who did the country proud? Courtesy the sports ministry and the IOA, the gold medallists get Rs 20,000 per head -- a sum that does not equal the monthly salary of even a middle level executive in any company worth its place on the stock exchange.

Given this, just how much incentive, according to Kalmadi, is there for the top flight sportsmen to perform? To 'uphold the country's prestige', as Kalmadi so stirringly says?

Just wondering...

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