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October 21, 1999


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Make or break for Tendulkar

Prem Panicker

Mohandas Menon, official statistician for the BCCI and slated, shortly, to join Rediff's cricket-coverage team, tosses off figures like a corn-popper pops corn.

Ask him for a quick fill-in on Kanpur as a Test venue, and the numbers come faster than you can key them in: International cricket began in Kanpur in 1952, when Nigel Howard led his MCC team to a win. This was also the venue where, in December 1959, Jasu Patel wove his web of spin against Richie Benaud's Australians, taking out 14 wickets in a mesmerising performance. But then, between December 1960, when the Pakistanis came here, and February 1979, when Alvin Kallicharan led the Windies on a tour of India, the venue witnessed 7 successive draws, and acquired a reputation of being a flat, high-scoring venue where batsmen revelled and bowlers came to the verge of striking work.

Interestingly, though, Kanpur has also produced one of the fastest pitches seen in India -- which must have been an aberration for which the concerned curator would have been summarily sacked, I would imagine. This was in October 1983, when Clive Lloyd led the West Indies on the revenge tour of India and Sunil Gavaskar, rated the best opening batsman in the world, suffered the indignity of having his bat knocked out of his hand by a Malcolm Marshall special.

In January 1985, the venue witnessed a very special record when Mohammad Azharuddin, playing his debut series against David Gower's Englishmen, scored his third successive Test hundred and entered the books in a big way.

Trivia buffs -- and fans used to now up, now down performances from the Indians -- will also recall 1986 as a vintage year. In December of that year, against Arjuna Ranatunga's Sri Lankans, the Indians piled up a massive 676/7 -- the highest ever for the country in a Test match, powered by Gavaskar's 176, Azharuddin's 199 and Kapil Dev's blistering 163 after the Lankans, batting rirst, had made 420. That Test ended -- in a draw, of course -- on December 22. After a break of one day, the same Indian team took on Sri Lanka, at the same venue, in a one-dayer -- and responding to the tourists' 195/8, were shot out for 78 thanks to a career best of 4/14 by Ranatunga himself. Talk of the sublime and the ridiculous, all within the space of 48 hours.

A more pertinent fact is that in 1986, Kanpur reverted to its earlier character, producing an underprepared track on which Hansie Cronje's South Africans went down to a 280-run defeat. This was, ironically, the last time Sachin Tendulkar was to lead the Indians to a Test win -- with the draw in the first Test against the Kiwis last week, Tendulkar has now equalled Nari Contractor's rather dubious record of drawing his last 9 Tests as captain.

And that is the real statistic the team will need to keep an eye on. Teams get into a rut as easily as individuals do, and the Indian team, in the Test arena, is trapped in a seemingly endless rut. Tendulkar started off with a bang, producing an aggressive display of captaincy, shrugging off a low second innings score and leading his team to a win in the one-off Test for the Border-Gavaskar trophy at the Firozeshah Kotla, and then continued in that vein for the first two Tests against the Proteas. At that period, he looked aggressive, focussed on the result, and prepared to try whatever it took to produce the win. Then came the defeat at the hands of the Proteas, in Calcutta, and since then, the steam appears to have gone out of both the captain, and the team.

Given the imminence of modern cricket's most challenging assignment -- to wit, taking on Australia on their own soil -- the team badly needs to shake its inertia, to start winning again, and Kanpur probably gives them their best possible chance to change things around. More so as the Kiwis, after hanging on to force a draw in the Mohali Test, have had their cage badly rattled by the second innings collapse against Karnataka in the warm-up game prior to this second Test. Fleming and his men will be aware that Joshi, Kumble and Bharadwaj, the bowlers who did for them at the KSCA the other day, have to be negotiated yet again here, on a track that should give them a lot of assistance.

The team composition, when we get to know it first thing tomorrow morning, should give us an idea of how badly India wants to win this one. One thing was clear at Mohali -- a four-pronged attack with Bharadwaj as support spinner is going to be hard-pressed to bowl the Kiwis out twice on this or any track. The trouble at Mohali was that only Srinath and Joshi looked capable of breaking through, while Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad turned in pretty ordinary performances.

This would seem to indicate an urgent need to rethink India's bowling lineup going into the second Test. And to do that, the team management will need to make a few hard decisions.

The first relates to the openers -- ideally, to allow the side the luxury of five regular bowlers, one of the openers will have to sit this one out, while MSK Prasad goes out at the top of the order. And if India does opt to drop one opener -- which from the point of view of winning this Test seems the most sensible option -- then Devang Gandhi will need to be the one to sit out, Ramesh getting the preference on the basis of being the more experienced. (No, before you dash off those emails -- I am not anti-Bengal or pro-TN or whatever -- merely, pro-the Indian team).

That lineup -- Ramesh, MSK Prasad, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Bharadwaj -- has sufficient firepower to put runs on the board against the Kiwi attack (speaking of which, incidentally, it would be very strange if Paul Wiseman doesn't get a look in; equally strange of Shayne O'Connor, for whose left arm medium pace the Kiwi skipper didn't seem to have much use at Mohali, retains his place). And it leaves space for 5 regular bowlers, the question being, who?

The options are three seam, two spin -- or vice versa. And my choice would be for three regular spinners to go in. The Kanpur track, last seen, wasn't exactly friendly to seam bowlers -- ask Cronje. So three seamers seems an unaffordable extravagance right there -- Srinath leading the attack, with Mohanty (who scores with his ability to move the ball both ways, in the air and off the deck) coming in for Venkatesh Prasad, should do quite nicely for the new ball, with Saurav Ganguly around to bowl a few tight overs as required.

This means the Indians can play Nikhil Chopra, Anil Kumble and Sunil Joshi as the three spinners. One attacking off-spinner (Chopra should be especially effective against Craig McMillan, who has this very obvious problem with the ball curling back into him and cramping him around line of off, and Stephen Fleming, who will find the ball leaving him around that same line), one left arm spinner on a confidence high, and one Kumble who -- well, I guess only he knows what kind of form he has at this point in time.

If you go in with that bowling attack -- three regular spinners and a fourth option in Bharadwaj, one quick bowler, one good seam bowler, and one support act in Ganguly -- and still fail to force a win against this New Zealand side, then chances are the Indian team won't win Tests in the foreseeable future.

For New Zealand, the key players with the bat would need to be Fleming, Spearman (who, in the second innings at Mohali, looked by far the most competent player of spin in the Kiwi side) and Adam Parore who, if he can get over a slump in form and confidence, is the player I would back to really take the game to the Indian spinners.

With the ball, Cairns will need to fire -- he is their sharpest bowler, but looked off colour in the second innings at Mohali. Nash looks ordinary once the batsmen stop flirting wide of off, and Vettori is not likely to have much joy if the team's gameplan is to bowl him over the wicket, pitching the ball about a foot and a half outside leg stump.

One worry that doesn't exist is the weather -- which should stay fine for the duration of the Test. Interestingly, Martin Crowe's preview of the game talks of forecast of rain -- prompting me to check with a local. Her response, on ICQ: "If it rains, Kanpur will kill him ... Everyone's got painting going on everywhere, not to mention all the parties being held outdoors..."

That to my mind is more reliable than a weather report -- the locals would hardly be painting their homes ahead of Diwali, if rain was in the air. So stand by for a pitch baked hard and flat, which should suit the batsmen on days one and two, and begin cracking up and affording increasing turn by day three.

And talking of parties -- this morning, the Indians are slated to spend the time in the nets, with coach Kapil and their new physio. This evening is a different story -- there's the heck of a party planned in their honour, with DJs brought in from Djinns, Delhi, and all the fixings. So if the Indians have to bowl first on day one, and tend to look a bit sluggish in the field, you'll know why.

Prem Panicker

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