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October 28, 1999


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Ask and you shall receive

Harsha Bhogle

I don't know if this can be construed as a trend but a definite pattern seems to be emerging in the cricket world. For years, ships, and then planes, took young cricketers westwards, to England, to the home of cricket. Their parents, and before them their grandparents, had told them that a cricketer's education wasn't complete until he played in England; until he learn't to handle the swing, to hold himself in a pub and until he was indoctrinated enough to spread the message to another generation. The sahibs of the east actually became more English then the Englishmen themselves and so, while the British armies and the viceroys may have left, England continued to dominate their former colonies culturally.

And so, good cricketers wore flannels and buckskin shoes, used English bats, even dipped their biscuits into the tea like the English did.

A lot of cricketers still go to England though they now do so as much to emerge better cricketers as richer cricketers. But increasingly, young men are being told to go east, to the land of spin and turn and dusty wickets; to learn how to bowl there and how to bat against spin. The England Cricket Board have decided that the major thrust of their 'A' tours is now going to be towards the sub-continent; last year, Australia's spinners, including Shane Warne, sought out an audience with Prasanna and Bedi; their batsmen were sent to Chennai to play against Indian spinners and this year, the New Zealand coach has said that he hopes Daniel Vettori and his young batsmen further their cricket education here.

And so, as the sub-continent, and particularly India, becomes a modern finishing school for cricketers of the world, what are the young men from the country they visit doing? Are they adding to their education by batting and bowling on bouncy tracks? Or, more fundamentally, are they doing in their own country what visitors are travelling all the way to learn?

My benchmark for such an exercise would be to see if India is utilising its best resources. The appointment of Kapil Dev as coach is a step in that direction and while it is something we are all delighted about, I often wonder if Kapil couldn't be persuaded to talk to the country's best young fast bowlers. Two of them, Kumaran and Zahir Khan, are being sent to Australia which is exactly what I am talking about, but if on their return, they could get an audience with the man who grew up on dusty pitches and took more wickets than anyone else, their education would be far more worthwhile.

But there are others, one step ahead of Kumaran and Zahir, who are languishing in one sense or the other. Ajit Agarkar has fitness problems that were widely predicted. Kapil Dev never had any. Does it suggest there are little tips there that might be handy? Harvinder Singh had a wonderful outswinger, so did Kapil Dev. But Harvinder bowled so short that he often negated his own strengths, something Kapil never did. A little lesson there might have helped an impressive young cricketer.

Mohanty is in the team now and will benefit but so could Laxmi Ratan Shukla who has but a handful of wickets in domestic cricket but has impressed people with his spirit.

We have two other people in India that young cricketers would do anything to learn under. In slightly different ways, Sunil Gavaskar and Bishan Bedi have hearts that feel deeply for Indian cricket. Bedi is the romantic, he wears his emotion on his sleeve and speaks his heart often aware that it could, in a bureaucratic system, go against him. Gavaskar had the ambition, and the manner, of an industrialist; his love runs deep but it picks its words carefully.

From the best of friends, they turned adversaries in a bitter battle of words that had fans like us cringing. When they played against each other for SBI and ACC in the Moin-ud-daulah, we learnt that opponents could have a lot of fun as well; sauntering in with his bat tucked under his elbow, Bedi invariably seemed to find time to share a word with Gavaskar. But in recent times, the great men seem to have relented and their words carry appreciation of each other's abilities; not that the mutual admiration had ever left them, it had only been overshadowed by a big and angry cloud that had to pass.

I remember Bedi speaking to me with great passion after India lost at Barbados in a close match. "Sunny would never have let that happen," he said. "He had the skill, but he had the pride as well." And in Nairobi recently, Gavaskar spoke warmly of Bedi's contribution in helping Sunil Joshi. No country could have finer role-models for its young men. And yet, as India struggles to find opening batsmen and left arm spinners, their knowledge remains untapped. It is a peculiar and completely inexplicable phenomenon. We are poor and yet, we spurn with passion riches that are legitimately available to us. In two weeks, Joshi becomes a better, more confident bowler. What effect then can Bedi have on 18 and 19 year olds?

"I don't understand it," Bedi says. "We are still able and willing. We can still get onto our feet and show people how to do it. I enjoyed working with Joshi, working with his follow-through which is such a critical aspect of spin bowling.....we talked about the mind of a spin bowler and how the heart has to be big enough to understand that on some days, you will be clobbered but that if you work on the arrogance of a batsman, you will overcome him... . I can still show them a few things and I say so not because I want to brag but because I learnt them and these boys may not have....I took them out onto the ground and said, 'look there is this lovely breeze coming in from third man, you can use it to drift the ball into the righthander', but they had never worked on it. In a couple of overs I was able to show them how to do it.

That is what I meant when I said we are still able and willing. For half an hour we can still match skills, then my legs won't listen to me anymore, but in that period they can learn so much."

I really do believe that just before a season starts, we can actually have a few gurukuls where young shishyas live with the guru for two weeks. They have their meals together, they practice together and, as important, they sit down and chat together. The best five off spinners in the country with Erapalli Prasanna, the best five slow left-armers with Bishan Bedi and the best young opening batsmen with Sunil Gavaskar.

There was a whisper doing the rounds sometime back that Gavaskar will not go and speak to young cricketers; he expects them to seek him out.

Whispers like those should never be allowed to fly around unchecked. I cannot claim to have a window to Gavaskar's heart but I am willing to bet that if the president of the BCCI or the new coach asked him if he would be willing to spend some time with Ramesh, Gandhi, Laxman, Haldipur and Jaffer, a 'no' wouldn't even enter the conversation.

Now consider what effect it would have on those five to have breakfast, lunch and dinner and two net sessions a day with Gavaskar. Remember, Gavaskar's strength lay as much in the manner in which he used the bat as in the thought that went into his cricket.

I saw a tiny little sample of that in our commentary box in Toronto recently. Rameez Raja, a fine opening batsman, asked Gavaskar, probably the best there has ever been, about the adjustments he used to make while facing different fast bowlers. Without a bat in hand, with just feet and closed palms, he talked about facing fast bowlers. It was captivating, we lost track of time and overs until our producer, who was as enthralled as I was, was awakened to the fact that the earlier commentary team had overshot and it was time for a change.

I remember thinking that day, as I did after speaking to Bedi, about the effect these masters can have on emerging cricketers. Then, as now, I am depressed, not as much at the fact that Indian cricket is losing out as at the fact that Indian cricket hasn't even bothered to ask.

The world is turning its attention this way. But in our own backyard, we are fast asleep.

Harsha Bhogle

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