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September 16, 1999


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One day mataram!

Prem Panicker

Board president Raj Singh Dungarpur, in course of a casual chat, recently waxed eloquent about Test cricket being the real thing, and about how he was all in favour of scheduling more Tests for the Indian team.

ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya, the uncrowned but very hands-on king of Indian cricket, talked in an earlier interview to Rediff of the sanctity of Test cricket, and how he would make every effort to ensure that India played a lot more of the five-day game.

Board secretary Jaywant Lele, whom I met in Baroda recently, said the board was seeking a balance between the Test and ODI -- and that if India wasn't playing as many Tests as it should be, the fault lay with boards of opposing nations, who preferred (his argument) to have India play ODIs in order that they could make money.

If you ever get down to making a collection of the most hypocritical statements of the century, those three would probably find place at the top of your list.

Check out the board's latest 'initiative' -- having first scheduled a three-Test series at home against South Africa, the board has decided now to scrap one of those Tests, in favour of five one day games.

Giving the lie to Lele's statement that it is opposing boards who prefer to play India in ODIs rather than Tests, the South African board has agreed to the changed itinerary under protest. In other words, it is the Indian board that prefers ODIs to Tests.

The reason is so obvious we won't explain it in any detail -- each ODI nets the board, from the host venue and the sponsors, more money than five days of Test cricket. Thus, five ODIs further swell the board's coffers -- and that, for this board, is the only consideration that counts. The lips talk 'Test cricket', but come time to sit down with the calendar, it is the calculator that calls the tune.

There is another and equally important reason. You can allot a Test to only one venue. Five ODIs can however be allotted to five different regions. And that spells "disbursement of patronage" -- and results in five regional associations that are suitably grateful, and willing in return to vote to keep the Dalmiyas and Leles in office.

If this were the general election, the Election Commission would blow the whistle on "unfair electoral practise". The board however is a law into itself -- and therefore, announcing five ODIs to five venues one week before the annual general body meeting is, of course, the done thing, nothing wrong with that.

The harm this is causing Indian cricket is incalculable. Of late, the board policy has been to fill the calendar with as many ODIs as it possibly can get -- irrespective of the opposition. Thus, if the choice is between leaving time for Test cricket, or even for the players to rest and to take part in domestic tournaments, and playing yet another ODI series even against opponents like Kenya and the like, the latter option is the one the board prefers -- as is only too evident to anyone who gives the Indian team's schedule even the most casual onceover.

So why is this a bad thing? Let us, in the words of the romantic poet, count the ways...

First: Ajit Agarkar. Sachin Tendulkar. Mohammad Azharuddin. Javagal Srinath. Nayan Mongia. Ajay Jadeja.

Does that sound like a honour roll of Indian stars? It is actually a hospital roll call -- all players named above are on the injured list. (Srinath alone has an officially undeclared injury -- the official word being that he is resting). Three instances suffice to underline the seriousness of the problem: Tendulkar was injured during the Test series in Chennai. Since then, he went on to play a plethora of one day games, up to and including the World Cup and then the tournament in Sri Lanka. Today, his injury is even more serious, and there is a lurking suspicion that his career may not be as long as it was once hoped.

Azharuddin was injured prior to the World Cup, carried it through the Cup, and finally required an operation to recover. At the time of writing this, it is not yet known if he will be back to any kind of form and match-fitness after that operation. Nayan Mongia was injured during the World Cup -- and played through it, with the result that he has been taken off the active list since, and there is no telling just how well he will be able to come back.

To cut a long story short, Indian players are dropping like flies. And the main reason is that there is no rest period, there is no time in between tours for players to treat their niggling aches and pains. And as anyone who has had anything to do with active sport will tell you, playing with a muscular ache today will almost certainly guarantee a more serious injury tomorrow.

The board, focussed as it is only on the dollar signs, appears to neither know, nor care, about the attritive impact of such an enormous workload on the Indian team. What is the betting that by the end of this season (at which point India would have played over 50 ODIs, as against the ICC-prescribed norm of 25), there will be more players on that injured list?

The trouble with the board is, it assumes that "looking after the players" means paying their medical and surgical bills -- not in ensuring that they won't need surgery in the first place.

Before moving on to aspect number two, there is an interesting sub-plot to this whole fitness thing, that merits mention. For some strange reason, the board ordered that during his tenure, Andrew Kokinos, the team physio, would keep in the background, and that as and when any player was injured in the field, only the doctor, Ravindra Chaddha, would be permitted to come out onto the field to attend the injury. This flies in the face of all logic and established practise -- every other team has its physio upfront to deal with on-field injury.

Kokinos during his tenure did not have a voice in the treatment of injury, or in recommending that injured players be rested and treated. Chaddha was the one who called the shots -- and Chaddha, unlike Kokinos, is no professional, merely a time-server who owes his position to board patronage and thus will not take a decision that affects the team's saleability. Thus, he made the usual polite noises, did the mandatory MRI test, and let the player play on. Till first Mongia, then Azharuddin, now Tendulkar, broke down completely under the strain.

Further, while the board is alacrity personified when it comes to making money out of the players, it is not as quick off the blocks when it comes to spending money on the needs of those players. Thus, Kokinos' contract expired at the end of the World Cup. It would have been a simple matter to renew it immediately, so that Kokinos continued with the team. Or if it was felt that Kokinos was not good enough, to have enlisted someone else, and ensured continuity. But no, the board saw no reason to pay out money during the one month break in schedule, so it allowed the contract to lapse. And now says it will appoint a physio sometime in October -- after the annual general body meeting takes a decision on the same.

Meanwhile, cricket continues, injuries accumulate (remember Jadeja? and the resting Srinath?).

This is not a journalist's diatribe, mind you -- Sachin Tendulkar's first act on being named captain for a second term was to write to the board and request that Kokinos, who in his estimation had done a world of good for the players, be immediately reinstated. That was over a month ago. Last heard from, the board is waiting for its famous meeting to respond to that urgent plea. You notice, of course, that it does not need AGMs to add further ODI tournaments to its calendar -- but when it comes to stuff like appointing a physio, the board finds itself powerless to act till the AGM.

Does it strike you, as it does me, that the board merely uses AGMs and stuff as an excuse to put off doing something it does not want to do? Or are we naive enough to assume that the general body meeting is more than a glorified rubber stamp for decisions taken behind the scenes?

Still sticking to the sub-plot for a para longer, it is equally interesting to note that politics within the team continues. Thus, no sooner had Tendulkar asked for the reappointment of Kokinos, than his deputy, Ajay Jadeja, goes public in an interview to a news-magazine with a statement that Kokinos is just a "kid" and absolutely useless.

But that is by way of being an aside. To return to the main theme...

Second: Even the most ardent fan of Indian cricket will agree that when it comes to Test cricket, India is in danger of pipping England to the wooden spoon, as the worst of the bunch.

When we look for reasons, do we ever think of this -- that we are bad at Test cricket because we don't play enough? Because our Tests are scheduled haphazardly, with the focus remaining on the one day game? Because we would rather play a one off Test followed by an ODI tournament, rather than a full Test series?

We keep asking why we can't play like Australia and South Africa. Both those countries play a good bit of ODIs as well -- but if you look at their scheduling, you will see how carefully they balance the two forms, how they make sure they play different opponents in the longer game, both at home and away, to keep their Test team in trim.

While on the subject, a thought. Even when we do play Tests, the scheduling leaves a lot to be desired. The last South African tour was a classic example -- we land there in the third week of December. One day later, we play one three day game. One more day's break, and we head into the first Test. Any wonder that the team is caught totally unprepared?

By way of contrast, check South Africa's and Australia's tour schedules -- both nations insist on a tour itinerary that gives them at least three warm up games and plenty of net time before the first Test. They send advance parties to scout the venues of the warm up games, and insist on getting proper pitches and opposition. And thus, when they get to the first Test, they are nicely acclimatised, match fit, and ready to go.

Do we ever take such factors into account when we wonder why the Indian team consistently underperforms in Tests? (Incidentally, and to underline the point, check out India's recent forays into the Test arena. Pretty much always, you notice that the team does badly in the first Test, somewhat better in the second and in the third, if there is a third, it is taking on the opposition on more than equal terms. Which tells you that once the team does acclimatise, it is capable of good performances, doesn't it?).

Third: In the recent ODI series in Toronto, Jacob Martin finally got an outing. His name (like that of Vijay Bharadwaj) has been on the lips of fans for quite a while, as a possible India player -- based entirely on his domestic record.

Tried out at the international level, he has, frankly, been found wanting. With his rather high bottom hand and predetermined front foot play, he comes across as a patsy for quick men operating on a good wicket -- whether it is the Windies quicks in Toronto, or the Aussie quicks on the wickets of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

Bharadwaj, who showed up as equally tentative to the short-pitched quick stuff when he took on Reon King during the recent Windies A team tour of these parts, is a bird of the Martin feather. As were the likes of Sujith Somasundar and Vikram Rathore. As is Amol Majumdar, another player the media -- particularly the Bombay-based segment thereof -- keeps touting as a possible India player.

This is another question that keeps coming up -- how come players who look so very good at the domestic level are found so wanting when they take the step up to the next grade? Unlike say Australia and South Africa (since they are easily the best of the Test playing nations, it makes sense to use them as basis for comparison), where the young player picked for domestic form immediately comes good at the highest level?

The reason is very simple -- India's domestic competition is completely pointless. Leave aside for a bit the old chestnut about docile pitches (though such tracks are the reason the Martins of this world develop into front foot players -- on the tracks we have here, a batsman mints runs going front foot before the new ball bowler delivers, simply because he is sure there is no pace or bounce in the track), the bigger reason is that India's cricket schedule does not permit the Test stars to take part in the domestic circuit.

When last did the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Srinath, Ganguly et al turn out for their state teams?

Take this year as an exemplar. India's domestic season is coming up. But both the senior team and the A team will be on tour then. In other words, the top thirty players in the country will not be taking part in the domestic circuit.

Meaning what? Take Karnataka, for example. Between the senior team and the A team, at least 8 players will be missing when the selectors get down to picking the squad. In other words, of the first 11, 8 are out of contention. So the players who do get in are obviously below the state level to start with. In other words, Karnataka, one of the premier sides, fields a sub-par team. You can imagine the impact this will have on the quality of their performance, and in turn on the quality of domestic cricket itself.

Look at it from another angle. How did Jacob Martin make all those runs that propelled him to the national reckoning? By taking on the likes of Abey Kuruvilla and Robin Singh Junior and other national discards. Never once did he have to face a Srinath, a Prasad, an Agarkar, a Mohanty. In other words, Martin never had to make his bones against an international standard attack.

Or take a bowler aspiring to break into the big time. On pitches that crumble by the afternoon of the first day, he takes wickets by the dozen. But never once does he get to test himself against a Tendulkar, a Dravid, a Ganguly, an Azharuddin. In other words, never is he tested against international class batsmen.

And that is precisely why the results in domestic competition are completely irrelevant when it comes time to judge a player's fitness for the highest level.

Contrast this with the situation in Australia and South Africa. Where it is made mandatory for national players to turn out for their state squads (in fact, players consider playing for their state a matter of pride -- vide Warne, who spoke recently of his disappointment at being stood down as captain of his state team in the Sheffield Shield). And the international schedule is so structured that there are no commitments on the calendar during the period of the domestic tournament.

Therefore, a player who does well in say the Sheffield Sheild gets his runs and his wickets against quality opposition. And thereby finds it easier to make the transition. After all, if you made your bones bowling to Ponting, Langer, the Waugh twins, Blewett, Slater and the like in a highly organised, fiercely fought domestic competition, it is no great qualitative leap when bowling to bowl to the Dravids, Gangulys and Tendulkars.

So in sum, what is the upshot of the board's insane scheduling? The players are unfit, one. They are injured and given lack of recovery time, their injuries get increasingly serious, two. And finally, when it comes to looking at the pool of domestic talent to replace the injured player, we find that the domestic circuit is not geared to produce that talent -- I mean, Martin for Azharuddin?! Kanitkar for Jadeja, for god's sake?

Does the above sound like a prescription for disaster?

It probably does -- to everyone but the board. But you can't blame them -- the money is coming in so fast, and in such huge amounts, that counting it takes all their time, leaving none left over for thinking of, and developing, the product they are so busy hard-selling.

I am sometimes asked why we in the media don't bring these facts to the attention of the board. We try. But the board has no time to listen -- they've just discovered a six day hole in the calendar where the Indian team is neither playing, nor travelling. And are busy trying to find out if a team of esquimaux from the North Pole will be interested in a quick ODI tournament. Pepsi has promised to sponsor said tournament on the grounds that ice and cola go well together. And Dalmiya has decided to give the project his full backing on the grounds that spreading cricket to the far corners of the globe is a goal worth his while.

Errata, and an apology: In my match report of the third one dayer between the West Indies and India in Toronto, I made a couple of blunders.

While talking of the Singapore tournament, I wrote Dravid where I meant Azharuddin. And while writing about Powell, I wrote Afridi, when I meant Akthar.

I could offer the fact that it was 4 in the morning when I wrote that report, as explanation for why my mind was not fully on what I was doing, but that does not excuse it.

My apologies, and thanks to all those who wrote in to point it out.

Prem Panicker

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