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December 1, 1999


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Readying for battle at the SCG

Kaushal Patel in Sydney

Watching the Indian team at practise, this morning at the SCG, was a memorable experience. If you, like me, have been following the team's exploits through the media, you tend to form a perception of their abilities, their commitment. Then you see them, up close and in action, and it gives you -- as it did me -- a different perspective.

My cousin Harit and I got to the SCG at around 10, about an hour after the Indians had started their practise session. When we got there, coach Kapil Dev was overseeing Ganguly, Harbajan, Kumble and Prasad bowling in the nets, with Ramesh facing. At one end of the ground, Tendulkar was bossing the fielding drill, giving catching practise to the players not actively engaged in the nets.

The most noticeable aspect was Sachin's enthusiasm. There is an aggressive bustle about everything he does, a palpable energy, and he seemed to be trying to transmit that energy, that enthusiasm, to his mates. Sorry to say, though, not all his mates appeared to share that enthusiasm -- I noticed a few of them hanging around, waiting to be told what to do next -- and when they were not specifically ordered to bowl, bat or practise fielding, they were content to just hang around and watch. Which is what we expect from schoolboys -- but not from top flight international stars.

A funny moment for me was when I asked team physio Andrew Leipus whether he thought the guys were fit enough. What I got by way of reply was a giggle -- now what was I supposed to make of that?

How's the preparations going, I asked Sachin. "Good," was the smiling reply. The Indian captain comes across as very down to earth, readily obliging all requests for autographs and photographs.

After a while, Sachin padded up and went to take his turn at bat, and I found a vantage point behind the net, from where I could see the star up close -- and that was exciting as hell, watching him go after the bowling of Srinath, Prasad, Mohanty and Agarkar. Srinath did beat him a few times, but from my 'wicket-keeper's' vantage point, I must say he didn't let too many balls through -- I can imagine, based on this, what the opposition keepers must be feeling, watching Sachin in full flow.

Kapil was in complete charge, constantly exhorting his wards to work hard. I eavesdropped for a bit as he advised Sachin, Laxman and a couple of others on their strokeplay -- and the players addressed appeared to be listening to him with due attention and respect. Noticeably, he was quick to applaud a good ball, a good shot, a good catch -- and when someone messed up, he was right there, exhorting, encouraging. He in fact seemed to have a knack for being everywhere at once -- when a batsman played a bad shot, he was there, talking earnestly, next minute he was beside the bowler, talking to him, making a correction in his action....

I managed to chat up most of the players. Vijay Bharadwaj told me he didn't know yet whether he would be in the playing eleven against the New South Wales Blues -- in fact, barring the big three of our batting, no one seemed to know whether he would figure in the starting lineup. Which I thought was a good thing, keeping them all eager.

I asked Bharadwaj for an autograph on my hat, and he smiled and told me that Kapil had asked the players not to do autograph sessions in the middle of practise, and to get back to him after the day's session. We talked a bit about Pakistan, about the Akthar controversy, and it turned out that Bharadwaj was not yet aware of the storm surrounding the Pakistan paceman. "I don't have to worry about these things, my job is to face him if and when he bowls to us," Bharadwaj smiled.

I also asked if the Indians were looking at videotapes of the Aussie players, and was told that they were doing that, plus a lot of other things by way of preparation which they were not supposed to discuss openly, after the net sessions.

Asked if he was enjoying his trip, Harbajan -- who was one of the hardest workers on view -- said he would enjoy it a lot more if he was picked for a game.

I asked Srinath for his autograph, just when Sachin was strolling by, and Srinath promptly said, Captain ko pucho. Sachin overheard this and said Haan, haan, de do, and Srinath quickly obliged, then posed for a pic as well.

"I'm enjoying the trip, but I'd like to get a few more runs out in the middle," said Ramesh who, like Harbajan and Kumaran, seemed to be putting in a lot of hard work.

The session ended around 1.30 in the afternoon, and the players retired to the dressing room for lunch. Sachin requested the assembled fans not to take pictures while the players were eating -- some of them kept clicking away, though.

They all were having sandwiches and fruits, and I asked Venkatesh Prasad if during the tour, this was going to be their regular diet. No, we are allowed to eat all normal food, he told me.

Kapil finally came off the ground and when he got to the dining room, he had the doors shut to give his team some privacy. Lunch over, the team piled into the bus and headed off to the hotel.

Somehow, I felt a whole lot more buoyant and optimistic about the team's prospects as I walked away -- there is a difference between reading about players and trying to form an opinion, and actually seeing them up close, as they practise. You get a taste of the latter, and you find that suddenly, you are able to support them with a lot more passion.

Mail Prem Panicker