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August 18, 1999


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Men in back

Harsha Bhogle

This is the era of the interior designer rather than of the bricklayer. The man of substance is increasingly under attack from the provider of gloss; the end is important, the route increasingly less so.

And so, of all the announcements made in the last couple of weeks, the one that was most widely reported on was the selection of the first team under the new Tendulkar regime. What went into the footnotes, and got miserly little mentions, was that the BCCI now have a five year plan for the `A’ team.

The `A’ team is the stream that fills the lake and at the moment our lake is too shallow. There are very few players at the national level to choose from, and hardly anyone to challenge the established players. Anil Kumble doesn’t have a rival in sight, neither does Javagal Srinath. India cannot dream of playing without Dravid or Ganguly, and all this talk of Mongia needing to be replaced is baffling. If he has a challenger in sight, he must have drunk from the invisible man’s cup.

A team is at its best when its performers are challenged, and the big news from Vadodara, where the team was announced, was that these challengers simply do not exist today. And that is why the earlier announcement in Calcutta about a plan for the `A’ team is so welcome. Sadly, that announcement wasn’t accompanied by any details at all, and so one doesn’t yet know how exactly this plan will be implemented.

We have been very sporadic with our `A’ teams in the past, either playing them at home or using them as a dustbin for favours that need to be done. “Sorry, I can’t put your man in the national team, but will the `A’ team do? Is that acceptable? Yes, then I will give you two more so you can be happy”. The `A’ team needs to be full of hungry young men; restless people waiting to break free and snap at the heels of the stars.

Selection of the `A’ team is a far more difficult task than picking the national team. It is also, in the context of cricket in India today, a more important task. But the selectors need the backing of the BCCI, for it is upto the organisation to draw up a plan that will allow the second string to flower. That is why the announcement of a five year plan is a halfway house, now we need to know where that plan is going to take the best of India’s young cricketers.

There is no point in playing them at home all the time, for the players who will be picked have done enough of that. We need to send them overseas, to give them different conditions to play in, so that we can separate the tough and the ambitious from the weak and the accepting. First stop should be Australia and South Africa, for the pitches there are bouncier and the opposition tougher. In terms of a challenge, the Ranji Trophy is too soft and for some, runs are too easily available. Playing in Australia and South Africa will be a wonderful toughening experience and that is why, as a destination, it should be preferred to England where there is much to learn but where the cricket isn’t demanding any more.

I also believe we should coat home matches with an additional layer of pressure. At the moment, the pressure comes from playing on poor surfaces (the West Indies `A’ match at Hyderabad was an absolute shocker) and in front of poor umpires. That renders a cricketer insecure and that is unfair, for his only challenge should come from the opposition and from the conditions. Let us put our young cricketers under the scrutiny of live television with the same commentators who do the internationals. Let Vijay Bharadwaj catch Sunil Gavaskar’s eye, let Jacob Martin be scrutinised by Ravi Shastri, let Sanjay Manjrekar and Arun Lal pass judgement on Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Virendra Sehwag. With top television, you will get better audiences and that is a huge incentive to perform.

It is factors like these that the BCCI needs to put into television contracts. When they analyse bids, they need to look at factors like commitment and reliability; they need television stations that will be willing to invest at the second level of cricket, who won’t only concentrate on Tendulkar and Dravid and Jadeja. The size of a television bid is important, but its value extends far beyond and as they sit down to choose a television partner, I hope they keep these things in mind.

A tough `A’ season will also help our selectors to concentrate on gaps that need to be filled at the senior level. A solid opener for Test matches, a left arm spinner and a fast bowler who in two or three years can start taking over from Srinath. Now if only we had set up an academy instead of merely talking about one, we would have had something to choose from!

I often wonder if someone in our cricket system thinks of assigning the right roles to the right people. Since we are talking about feeder systems, I can’t think of anyone better than Bishan Bedi to coach a generation of under 19s. Bedi loves cricket, loves young people and he has a very big heart. He is also very tough on them and in your formative years, you need the uncompromising kinds for in later years, these cricketers need to be tough on themselves. Someone like Bedi may not be the right choice for the national team because the very qualities that would work in his favour at the Under 19 level may work against him at the senior level but with youngsters he will be brilliant.

Similarly, Bob Simpson did a sterling job with the national team. He first had to overcome the early rejection system that is such an integral part of our culture. If we don’t understand something, or if something new is presented to us, we start marshalling forces against it much like our bodies do against an unknown virus. But Simpson is an old and wise man and he must have understood the fact that he had much to contribute if he could break these barriers to learning. He did, and he broke them by showing his commitment to improving someone else’s cricket. Suddenly, discussions seemed to acquire a new meaning and Simpson spoke bluntly. That was a huge bonus because he did not need to show his allegiance to groups or zones within the board.

The players soon came to respect him and at the World Cup, I could see them reacting differently. Players who had initially felt insecure by his presence readily acknowledged his contribution and, in private, they spoke glowingly about his skills. As a lover of Indian cricket, that was pleasing and yet, painful; pleasing because it showed that our team was capable of accepting something new, painful because they had to speak about it in private. It brought home the point once again that the atmosphere in our cricket system, like in medieval courts, is one of fear and suspicion.

Is that why everyone is hesitating to speak out over the fact that he is no longer associated with the Indian team? A couple of players have asked me in private if he will be back (Shouldn’t they know? Do we gain anything by keeping these things secret even from the national team?) and expressed the hope that he would. But the fact is that he will not accompany the Indian team to Colombo or Singapore and that is a dreadful loss, because the changes he was bringing about cannot be achieved in one tournament.

Simpson was a tonic not a drug. We need him to build strength, not to fight infections. And we need him back because we need to recognise a good thing when we see it.

Harsha Bhogle

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