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November 23, 1999


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Up to it, Down Under

Faisal Shariff

It is around noon and, at the Hotel Orchid in Mumbai, the Indian squad picked to tour Australia is trickling in from their respective hometowns.

Indian team to Australia And what is most noticeable, as you speak to them, is the fact that they seem to be absolutely free of tension. Which could, on the surface, come as a surprise. After all, India in its 70-odd years of international cricket has won just six series overseas. It has never won in Australia -- in fact, the last time they went Down Under, under Mohammad Azharuddin in 1991-'92, the result was a 4-0 whitewash.

But that is precisely what is behind the relaxed air of the Indian players -- they are clearly relishing their underdog status. Not even the most ardent of Indian fans gives them much of a hope of pulling off a win, or even escaping with an honourable draw -- so as far as the players are concerned, the pressure is right off.

"After this victory," said one of the players, referring to the miraculous, come from behind triumph Australia pulled off at the Bellerieve Oval at Hobart against Pakistan, "those guys will be 200 per cent more confident than they already were. When I was leaving home last evening," he went on, "one of my neighbours asked me if our flight was landing in Perth. I gave him one look and told him to stop scaring me -- time enough to think of Perth in the last week of December," this player said, laughing.

Javagal Srinath and Rahul Dravid share a great rapport. Here, they were also sharing a room -- and while interviewing Dravid, I got to see the lighter side of the Karnataka fast bowler. That he admires Dravid is obvious; that he will lose no chance to pull Dravid's leg, equally so.

Thus, when asked in a serious vein to describe the finest batting performance he had witnessed, Srinath picked Dravid's hundred at Ahmedabad as one of the best he had seen in recent times. And Dravid, for his part, picked Srinath for his all-time best India XI.

A moment later, though, both were bickering. Srinath was complaining of the fast bowler's plight, having to bowl his heart out and then being let down by "lazy fielders like Dravid". To which the latter promptly responded, "Just wait till I am fielding close and you really need me..."

Tamil Nadu mates Sadagopan Ramesh and T Kumaran meanwhile returned from one of the Nike showrooms in the city with a rich haul. The shop had invited them to pick out whatever they wanted, for free, and both players appeared to have taken full advantage of the generosity.

Indian players The official photo sessions were scheduled for 5.30 in the evening -- but it was past 7 before the shutters could click, thanks to the late appearance of Saurav Ganguly and the team manager. Meanwhile, Kapil Dev -- who seems to take his elder brother role to heart -- was fussing over his wards in a manner that was hugely amusing. The players for their part looked like schoolboys -- of the truant variety -- as they stood to attention while Kapil fussed with the set of their ties or the fit of their blazers. Next minute, Kapil was asking Harbajan where his pagdi was (the offie was wearing a patka); an instant later he was heard calling up Ganguly on his mobile and going, "Oi, dada, where are you, the boys are ready for the shoot and the media is waiting..."

With an eye to the niceties of protocol, the Indian coach was also seen waving Laxman out of the back row and to a seat in the front row -- recognition, perhaps, that Laxman is a 'veteran' of 16 Tests, and therefore senior to the rawer players like Gandhi, Ramesh, Kumaran et al.

Laxman gets a helping hand from Kapil Besides the regulation suits and blazers, the Indians this time around have also been issued bandhgalas, for formal occasions. Kachin's, outfitters to the film-stars, tailored the costumes - and the fabrics came from S Kumar's. Recently, S Kumar's had hired Kapil Dev as brand ambassador. This, of course, is not to imply any connection...

Maharashtra Cricket Association officials, and former chairman of selectors Ajit Wadekar, had apparently committed the team to attending some kind of private function -- only, Kapil wasn't having any. Striding to where the MCA officials and assorted factotums were seated, the Indian coach was heard -- in a voice loud enough to carry to the assembled media -- telling them that the board had no business making committments of that kind without even consulting the players. 'Ajit Wadekar should not have promised the party concerned about the team's participation,' Kapil loudly averred. 'The time is short, the boys have to pack and attend to so many other things, they don't have the time for this sort of thing.'

The announcement is greeted in silence. Kapil strides off. And after he is out of earshot, an MCA official is heard saying, "Let's just ignore it, we don't want any friction, any trouble when the team is about to leave."

Discretion -- where Kapil Dev is involved -- is definitely the better part of official valour. J Y Lele discovered that a while ago, when he had to hastily backtrack on his 'I will ask Kapil for an explanation' gaffe. MCA officials learnt that lesson last night. And the way the high profile Indian coach is going, the lessons will continue.

Once the bandhgala photo shoot was over, Kapil chased the players back to their rooms, to change into the team blazers. Meanwhile, Kapil and Tendulkar faced the media for a brief Q&A. Excerpts:

India has visited Australia just 5 times in the last fifty years. Is that one reason why the team's performance has not been good?

Kapil: Honestly, if you ask me I have not gone into deep detail. I think however that one should play more cricket with these top sides which have organized their cricket so well.

Why is it that we have lost 16 Test matches in Australia and won only three?

Kapil: The thing is, we have not played enough cricket against Australia in Australia, and most of the times we have played only three-Test series. It should have been five Test-series. That is my personal view. (That response made you think that Kapil was right when he said he hadn't gone into things in any detail -- India thus far has toured Australia 5 times, and only one of those has been a three-Test series)

You have visited Australia thrice, you know the conditions, do you think this side is well equipped to cope?

I think this is the best of what we have. The captain and the selectors have given thought to that and have picked the best team for the conditions. I think there is no comparison at all. This is the best of the lot, and we picked that.

Sachin, would you say that the itinerary for this tour could have been improved upon?

Sachin: As far as I am concerned, we are playing in Australia and those two side games we are playing before the first Test will surely help, because its always a great feeling to practice in a match than to just hit the ball in the nets for two-three days. Yes, I think the board has chalked out a good itinerary.

Kapil: I don't mind the itinerary at all. I think we have the material, the ammunition to play at any place in Australia and play good. We have enough fast bowlers who can give a run for their money to anybody. We have the batsmen who have a tremendous reputation, and they just have to put their heads together and play. We are as a team happy to play anywhere in Australia.

Sachin with Kapil and Ganguly Sachin, you have been to Australia before, what are the lessons that you have learnt?

I would just want to tell everybody in the team, and remind myself as well, that it is going to be tough cricket and I don't need to tell anybody how we should be playing. If we stick to our style of cricket we will do well. I would just say that we should play tough cricket and not give it up easily, as we have been doing in the past.

What is it about playing in Australia, why does everyone call it a tough tour?

Sachin:Well, the only difference I find are the boundaries, they are very long.

Kapil, you think only two spinners will sufficie? The emphasis seems to be on fast bowlers...

When so many heads have got together and picked a team, then they must be pretty sure of what they are doing. Sometimes even 20 players look less and sometimes, 11 players can do the job. It all depends on the commitment of the players.

Has the team picked up any pointers from the two Tests between Pakistan and Australia?

Sachin: I have been watching the games closely and we have picked up a few points. We would like to discuss that within the team and implement it there.

Does our poor overseas record have a bearing on your mind?

Sachin: Just because we have not had a good overseas record does not mean that it will carry on. At some stage we have to stop that and this might just be the tour.

The last time the two teams met, the Indians destroyed Shane Warne. You think that is going to have a bearing on the contest?

See, its between India and Australia. Its not between Rahul Dravid and Warne or myself and Warne. It's between Indians and Australians, let's treat it like that. Shane Warne is no doubt a wicket-taking bowler and the whole world has seen his performance. We are not scared. He is a great bowler, but we will treat Shane Warne as another bowler and look to take on Australia as our opponent, and not Shane Warne.

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