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August 19, 1999


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Back to the future

Prem Panicker

THE more things change, the more they remain the same -- an axiom reinforced by a quick trip to Chennai, to check out the Indian cricket team's preparatory camp at the M A Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk.

It's been close on to four years since I started covering cricket on a regular basis. In this time, I've been to something like 8, 10 coaching camps.

Of that number, I remember being impressed only by one -- again at Chennai, this one masterminded by Bobby Simpson and physio Andrew Kokinos. There was a definite structure to that one; a definite plan, an agenda. You never caught players loitering around -- if they were not in the nets, batting or bowling, they were either with the physio, using the medicine ball and various other items of equipment to work on their fitness, or with Simpson, practising fielding drills.

Simpson's gone, as is Kokinos. And things are back to normal again. And 'normal', in case you didn't know it, means this: A sophomoric exercise routine first up, then nets -- with batsmen, in order of position in the lineup, padding up, taking the bowling for half an hour each, then wandering off to do their own stuff. And by the time the batsmen had got their stints in and it was the turn of the wicket-keeper and the bowlers to try and hone their batting skills, the nets are pretty deserted, and even the reserve bowlers, brought in from the MRF Academy, have lost their steam and are merely ambling in, going through the motions.

All of which raises a thought. We -- and by we, I mean the establishment, the selectors, the coach, the captain, as much as the media -- pontificate on the need for the wicketkeeper and the bowlers to contribute adequately with the bat, in order for the team to do well. We do post-mortems of opportunities lost, games thrown away, simply because the latter order didn't come up with just a few runs more.

But that is after the event. And before? The answer, in a word is -- we do zip. There is never a conscious effort to have the lower order bat, in the nets, in supervised fashion. Never an attempt to impress on them that their contributions with the bat are not merely welcome, but vital to the team effort. You would expect to see captain, coach, senior players all gathered at the nets when the likes of M S K Prasad and Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad are batting; you would expect to see the bowlers being offered advice, encouragement.

You would be disappointed.

MEANWHILE, a day after Sachin Tendulkar rued the injury to Ajit Agarkar -- the team thinking as of now is that Agarkar is a likely candidate to hone for the all-rounder slot, since he is a clean-striking batsman and technically quite sound -- the captain himself gets on the injured list.

On Wednesday, Tendulkar was not on the field. Word from the camp was that he began feeling a stiffness in his back at the start of nets, and promptly went off to consult a doctor and have some tests done.

Sachin himself seemed sure of leading his team out, when the AIWA Cup triangular series kicks off in Sri Lanka this weekend. However, the latest we hear is that a doctor's report, due later this evening, will help decide whether he is actually fit to play.

Meanwhile, check back in here tomorrow, for an audio-taped interview with the Indian captain.

CHATTING with the national selectors -- one of whom was present at the ground on Wednesday -- is always interesting. Case in point being Shivlal Yadav, who talked eloquently and well of how one day cricket had ruined the traditional spinner. His theory is that given the amount of one-day cricket that is being played these days, the spinner learns, early on, not to give the ball air; tending instead to keep it flat and fast and on a tight length. Case in point being Nikhil Chopra. Trouble with that, though, is that the skills of flight and loop, of deception, all of which go into the making of a top-class Test bowler, are lost in the bargain.

"Ideally, you have to pick a fast bowler young, while he is still full of steam and ready to run in and bowl fast as he can, and let him learn on the job. On the other hand, you have to pick the spinner late -- give him three, four seasons in domestic, let him get a caning from our own batsmen, let him learn the skills he needs and practise them at this level, then give them the India cap."

Which is good thinking -- if a spinner can be among the top wicket-takers in say two, three seasons at the domestic level, then it's good odds he is ready for the big time, given that Indian batsmen play spin better than pretty much everybody else.

Shivlal in fact came up with a lot of interesting insights about various players -- members of the side and players in the wings both. But the question that pops into your mind as you listen is -- how come the selectors, who are so rational when you talk to them one on one, tend to lose it completely when they assemble as a body?

AFTER watching the side go through one session of practise, the validity of Harsha Bhogle's point, made in a recent column, strikes you with renewed force.

Making Sachin Tendulkar the captain is not going to remedy anything; it is not going to produce results overnight. What this team needs is a support structure. What it has for now is Anshuman Gaekwad, a nice, well-meaning guy in his way, but not the kind of coach who can come up with a planned, structured camp schedule and see that it is adhered to. Besides, Gaekwad himself grew up in this system, remember -- nets in his day was identical to the way it is now, so it is rather iffy to expect dramatic changes from him. As to Dr Ravindra Chaddha, who now combines the duties of doctor and physio, there was no evidence of the gentleman in question on the ground yesterday, which is about all that needs saying about that.

What India needs, really -- as Harsha said -- is a Bob Simpson. A man up in the latest coaching methods, a man capable of analysing, then fine-tuning, each individual player and, perhaps most importantly, a man completely averse to players just hanging around after their stint with the bat. Simpson's coaching technique centers around setting goals, then working towards them -- thus, a batsman whose big drawback is running between the wickets is given a schedule that has him improve his footspeed, and simultaneously, get into the mindset of actively looking for the quick single, convert the easy single into a hard-run two, and so on.

And in alliance with a Simpson, we need a physio who goes beyond the one-two-three-hup style of physical conditioning which we all went through at school, and which is all the Indian team still uses unless there is someone with the required knowhow wielding the whip.

So will we get that wish list? My guess would be, come September when the general body meeting is expected to decide on these and other matters, we will get an official announcement naming the new coach -- and it won't be Simpson. We will also be told that the board has decided there is no need for a specialised physio (remember, these are the guys who, even during Kokinos' tenure, put out a rule that when a player faced problems during matchplay, only the doctor -- never the physio -- should go out on the field to attend to the problem), and that whoever is team doctor will double as physio.

The next time we get to wondering why our team doesn't produce consistent results, maybe we need to think of these factors as well.

Prem Panicker

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