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February 1, 1999


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No pain, no gain

Prem Panicker

It's less than 24 hours since India went down to defeat at the hands of Pakistan -- and the common refrain in my mailbox, apart from the umpiring of course, is -- what went wrong? Or, to put it more accurately, did anything go right for India at all?

I think the umpiring question is one that this column needs to leave alone, as being outside the off stump. After all, what is there to say? That the umpiring in this game was atrocious is to state the obvious. That a series of this importance needs importance needs better refereeing is, again, obvious -- or should have been, to the officials of the BCCI at the time of tour planning.

There is, however, one peripheral point that needs making is this: it is about time the ICC instituted a system of monitoring the performance of umpires on its panel. In the Test just ended, I noticed at least six umpiring errors by Steve Dunne, a member of the ICC panel. Which means that, to quote Rohan Chandran of Cricinfo with whom I was chatting shortly after the game, the result was "artificially altered".

I don't think that amount of human error is acceptable -- in this, or indeed in any, series. What needs doing is for the match referees to analyse umpire performance at the end of each international, whether of the one-day or five-day variety.

Umpires doing badly need to be expelled from the ICC panel, and replaced by more competent ones. If this is not done, and done soon, there is going to be a major incident one of these days -- worse, perhaps, than the one in Australia where Arjuna Ranatunga did his 'I-am-the-boss' number, finger-prodding-chest and all.

But to revert to the cricket: what was it, exactly, that India failed to do in the Test just ended?

They bowled well -- check out Srinath's spells with the new ball, Sunil Joshi in the first innings, and Venkatesh Prasad in the second.

Anil Kumble got wickets by the handful in the first innings too -- but I am afraid this is balanced by his inability to turn the ball even an inch on a turning track in the second innings.

This is not the first time it is happening, nor will it be the last -- Kumble doesn't get turn because he doesn't try to turn the ball well. Geoffrey Boycott said it best when he said, "Kumble spins more than the ball he delivers".

This means, in effect, that India at home cannot really exploit a turning track -- in fact, the irony of the situation is that our ace leg-spinner thrives better in conditions that suit pace bowling, to wit, when there is pace and bounce in the track.

But then, Kumble did prove more than a handful in the first innings -- so in sum, you've got to say that the Indians bowled well, all round.

Can we bat? There was the rollicking opening stand in the first innings, by two untested batsmen against the finest pair of opening bowlers in the business. There was the controlled Test innings of Rahul Dravid, the free-flowing one of Saurav Ganguly, in first innings. There was the calm assurance of Sunil Joshi, again in the first innings -- and the thoughtful, well-paced innings of Nayan Mongia in the second.

And then there was Sachin Tendulkar -- who, in the second innings, produced an innings of such immense skill and temperament that comparisons to the innings of 96 by Sunil Gavaskar in Bangalore, the last time these two sides played a Test on Indian soil, is inevitable. (Rather curiously, both Gavaskar then, and Tendulkar now, produced their masterpieces in a losing cause).

But, bottomline, yes we can bat against the pace and swing of of Akram and Younis, and the superb offspin of Saqlain Mushtaq.

So why can't we win?

That's the question I am getting in my mailbox -- and I am afraid the answer is obvious, it has been said before and sadly, it will be said many times more in the future. Because these are flaws endemic to Indian cricket, and in all these years, I've seen no attempt on anyone's part to rectify them.

First up, we can't field for toffee. It ain't that there is something about the physiology of Indians that makes us poor fielders -- after all, though Azhar is perceptibly slowing down, he still remains a world-class performer in the field; Rahul Dravid, shoved into short leg by default, has now developed into a superlative close in fielder. But those are the exceptions.

Why can't the rest field? Attitude, is the answer -- they don't field well, because they can't be bothered to. I've been to a few training camps, and the Indian concept of 'fielding practice' is laughable. For instance, despite Bobby Simpson being at hand in Madras last year for the fortnight-long camp that ostensibly was meant to improve fitness and fielding ability did neither.

Ajit Agarkar was hors de combat by the end of that camp, which speaks volumes for the 'fitness' bit.

But more alarmingly, Sachin has been carrying a hairline fracture of his left index finger for over a month now -- and in this Madras Test, he also developed a painful catch in the hip region, and, given that the next Test starts in Delhi Thursday, he does not have proper recovery time -- which raises, not for the first time, the question of what India's prospects could be, going into the World Cup, if by chance the master batsman is also rendered unfit, and unavailable.

Other, more enlightened, cricket Boards conserve their stars -- our Board prescribes the kind of schedule Superman would balk at.

But that was a digression -- what was even more noticeable, sadly so, during the Madras camp was the lackadaisical attitude towards fielding practice. While the players batted and bowled in the nets with enthusiasm, their attitude when summoned for fielding practice resembled that of schoolboys asked to take special classes in math during games period.

A set of stumps would be set up, players would take a shy at it in turn, the misses being greeted with hoots of laughter. The whole thing was one big joke. As for slip catching, this is what happened in Madras -- just behind the nets, the Tamil Nadu under-16 coach sliced a few, with Venkatesh Prasad, Srinath, and Dravid practising in that position while Simpson stood by and handed out sage advice.

Is that supposed to produce a world class fielding side? Is that what the board is paying Simpson for? Is the 'no pain, no gain' concept entirely alien to the Indian cricketing mindset?

In course of this one Test, as many as six slip catches went down -- and in at least one case, that of Shahid Afridi, the beneficiary went on to play a match-winning knock.

But there is another, even more important factor. Look at it this way -- Pakistan is, if anything, rated a worse fielding side than India, yet throughout this Test they were on their toes. There were no outstanding catches, say like the ones held in the slips by Ganguly in the first innings and Dravid in the second -- but they never, ever, let up. They dived and jumped around and kept busy throughout, their very presence a pressure on the Indian batsmen (remember how Tendulkar tried to hit Saqlain over the top, off just the third ball he was facing, simply in order to dispel the close-set field?).

With India, that attitude is what was lacking. Deep fielders tend to walk towards the ball rather than attack it, permitting rival batsmen to take singles where there were none, convert into twos and often, even run on the throw -- and all this, cumulatively, took the edge off a bowling attack that needed all the support it could get.

After every series, every defeat, we keep juggling our batting and bowling line-ups around. The next Test, the next series, produces another defeat. Why? Because no amount of juggling cures this malady -- the Indians on the field are the most lackadaisical bunch in modern cricket.

There is one other factor -- involvement. Every day, before the start of each session, one saw the Pakistan team, and its coach, huddled together in the playing area, talking, exhorting each other, discussing a game plan for the session just beginning. Throughout the day, there would be constant huddles between Akram and the other senior players, much discussion of field placements and bowling changes.

Contrast that with India on the field. The ball is tossed to the bowler and the fielders amble off to their positions. There is little if any interaction at any point in time.

Akram is a visible presence at all times, consoling a bowler who has been given some tap, exhorting another who has just beaten the bat, making minute field adjustments depending on the way the batsmen are playing at any given time. Azhar believes in the philosophy that his 10 colleagues are all internationals, and that they don't need to be told what to do.

I don't know about you, but I personally prefer the former style of leadership.

As to the other, the question of attitude, these things are drilled into teams, these days, by coaches, by sports psychologists. When, last year, I asked Anshuman Gaekwad if perhaps this team could not benefit from the services of a sports psychologist to instil in them the drive they so obviously lack, the response was, "No, why do we need something like that? That's the job of a coach."

Fair enough. However, between that conversation, and now, there is no sign of change -- does it, then, mean that the coach is not doing the job he himself says is his?

The jury will need to return with an answer to that one -- but till that happens, the bottomline will remain where it is now: that India will field line-ups that include quality batsmen and quality bowlers, without ever producing the kind of results that kind of talent seems to indicate is possible.

Postscript: One heartening feature in my mailbox was feedback from you about the point I was making regarding the stopping of the chat feature. To my surprise, out of over a hundred mails on the subject, 90 per cent welcomed the move.

In any case, chat stays suspended. Live commentary, plus updated match reports on the hour, resumes for the second Test, beginning in Delhi on February 4. See you there.

Prem Panicker

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