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February 1, 2000


India Down Under

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An ode to someone -- I forget who!

Armchair Expert

Ah yes, Robin Singh. That's the guy I was thinking about.

Robin Singh A man who made his debut in the late '80s tour to the West Indies. And then again in the early '90s! (Thanks to being treated most unfairly by Vishwananth's selection committee.) The tour to the West Indies was when Robin first got a chance to show his skills. Unfortunately, he failed to create much of an impression. But, like most of India's tours abroad, there weren't too many great performances from anyone in the Indian side. Strangely enough, most of the non-performers on that tour did get more chances to show their skills.

But not Robin.

Robin didn't get another look-in in for the next eight years. This despite, chipping in with consistent performances for Tamil Nadu. Every season. Every time he went out on the field. And every time the selectors were watching.

Evidently, they weren't watching.

Because they eventually gave him a call only after most of his best years in cricket were behind him. His performances thereafter, only underline some of the things that are so wrong with the way we select players for the Indian team. (Further emphasized by our continued refusal to consider Robin Singh for the Test side? The response to which has always been a stubborn Robin who?)

We don't know what to do with percentage players. We don't know the importance of percentage players. We don't have a clue on how to nurture, spot nor encourage more players like Robin Singh. (Heck, for a very long time, we didn't know of Robin Singh.) All we seem to be good at is pampering our superstars. Looking for more superstars. Focussing our selectorial energies on flat track bullies masquerading as star batsmen and alleged 'spinners' showing off their laughable 10-wicket hauls on square turners. While honest performers like Robin Singh were either ignored, or their importance grossly underestimated.

Few realize how important Robin Singh is to India's one-day fortunes. He's one of the few guys who genuinely pulls his weight in the side. If it's not with a quick-fire 20 or 30, it's with a couple of good overs during crunch time. And in the unlikely event of him failing with the bat and the ball (which is very, very rarely), he'll make it a point to come up with yet another 'straight-from-the-gut' fielding display that will make you curse, cuss and abuse the absolute preposterousness of the oldest member in the team also being the fittest. And still, we don't care much about Robin Singh. Or people like him.

Why should we? All he does is come up with little contributions every time. After all, isn't that his job? He's supposed to do that. Without him doing his two bits, how can the rest of the superstars concentrate on their games? We can't have everyone not performing, can we? We need somebody to do the job. Day in and day out. (While the others do it once in a while. Or sometimes, never.)

Yes, we need somebody to do the job. Somebody who knows his job. Somebody who does it because he knows how much it means to represent the country. Knows what it's like to be kept out of the side. Somebody who knows how important it is to keep performing consistently. Who realizes that without physical fitness you are nothing in modern cricket. Has the guts, gumption, spirit and passion to compete all the time. And most of all knows that every opportunity you get has to be made the most of.

These are the kind of qualities good percentage players bring to the side. And we never give them enough credit for it. We never realize how much pressure these quiet performers take off the big guns in the side. A problem more typical to India than to any other side in world cricket. It's not for nothing that this team depends so much on one or two players. It is in our nature to piggy-pack, most of the time, on the skills and achievements of others. We feel happy in the knowledge that there are a couple of superhuman performers who can be safely counted upon to carry the day. Because they are 'expected' to do so. The hard truth is, under-achieving doesn't hurt us as much as it hurts players in some of the other sides.

And nothing proves this more than the way so many of our players perform only when they are on the verge of being dropped. Or when they feel the 'unbearable-any-longer' pressure to perform. Not necessarily because the 'game situation' calls for it but because it's that time of the series when one has to do one's bit to book one's place for the next series. As a result, we have players in the team who we keep expecting great things from only to have them failing time and again. And staying in the team because somebody thinks they have it in them to come up with that one great performance. (Which is always just round the corner. But rarely seen.)

It's time to realize that the amount of cricket played nowadays (and that's not necessarily a bad thing), means we need more players willing to put in an honest days work at the office. Every day. Not 'once-every-four-matches-glory-seekers.' We need more team players and less 'wannabe-superstars.' Players who are humble enough (and intelligent enough) to keep learning. Who enjoy nothing more than to compete. Who value their place in the side. Who know how to fit themselves into the overall scheme of things. And who know that the easiest way to keep doing what you enjoy most (presumably playing cricket) is to do everything within your power to be in a winning team. In other words, players like Mark Waugh. Not performing with the bat, but still in the team for his great fielding and slip catching. He knows how much of a difference great catching and fielding can make to the team fortunes and, chances are, he works twice at hard at it nowadays, to make up for his non-performance with the bat. And in the end, the team benefits. The team wins. He stays in the side. Australia is happy. Steve Waugh is happy.

You've got to fill your team up with people who believe it's possible to make contributions beyond their immediate area of expertise. So, if a bowler's having a bad day, he's got to still keep willing himself on to make up for it by getting that crucial direct hit. Or constantly looking for ways to make up for the boundaries he may have conceded in his previous over with dives, slides, tackles, anything to save anything coming his way. Unfortunately, specialists tend be a little more insular than others. And inward looking individuals don't think that way. They tend to agonize over why their 'exquisite skills' are letting them down. They let it affect their overall attitude toward the game. Which, in turn, has a kind of multiplier effect on the team.

Thus, a team whose fortunes revolve around those of a handful of star players, more often than not, tends to be an inconsistent one. And if there's one thing that's the bane of Indian cricket, it's inconsistency. The second being, our dependence on a few stars. Not surprisingly, the two are connected.

Michael Bevan An oft ignored aspect of 'bits and pieces player is the fact that he has learnt the value of consistency. Because he knows that without consistency, someone with the relatively limited skills that he is endowed with cannot hold his place in the side. He knows that the only way he can remind people of his existence is by constantly contributing in one way or the other. Thus you won't find the bits and pieces players at the top of the individual averages. But you will find them in teams at the top of the standings' table. Case in point, Damien Martyn, Micheal Bevan, Shane Lee in Australia.

It is this continuous need to be consistent that the Indian team could do with more of. Read, players like Damien Marytn, Shane Lee, Abdul Razzaq and Robin Singh. Not the world's greatest at anything. (Except at being team-men.) Yet every time it comes to picking an Indian team, we studiously focus our energies on unearthing only skills. Nothing wrong with that, except that then, you are not paying enough homage, and thereby not encouraging, a crucial mindset these 'percentage warriors' bring to the team.

Abdur Razzaq Players like Abdul Razzaq, Azhar Mahmood, Shane Lee and Shaun Pollock bring with them a hunger to perform in every way possible. They like to be in the thick of things. They don't let a bad display with the ball affect their attitude on the field. On second thoughts, they do let it affect them. They become more aggressive on the field. They try to make their presence felt by throwing themselves at the ball while fielding. But geeing on their fellow players. By giving the batsman a mouthful to shake him up a bit. By letting people know that just because one has had a bad day with the bat doesn't mean one can't make up for it by contributing in the hundreds of little ways that one can help the overall team cause. By chipping in with useful little performances in all aspects of the game. And that includes keeping spirits up and preventing shoulders from sagging when the going's not too good. That's what these bits and pieces players bring to a team. Because they know every little help counts.

You take a simple man to man comparison of the Australian and Indian team. On paper, Kumble is not that much worse than Shane Warne. Prasad matches off fine with Damien Fleming. Srinath goes head to head okay with Glenn Mcgrath. Sachin, Saurav and Rahul are better than all the Aussie batsman put together. But, we don't have the bits and pieces' guys to collectively take a bit of the pressure off the stars. Okay, we came in with enough specialists. Just one problem, the specialists were not ready for the next level. And two teams that, at least on paper, looked quite evenly matched ended up being hugely mismatched on the field. We ended up depending too much on our stars. And with a team that believed in them, in the stars, a lot more than in themselves. The concept of pulling one's weight got lost somewhere during their travails around Australia.

It is my contention that it takes a unique kind of mindset to be a player like Robin Singh or Madan Lal. Or Roger Binny or Daniel Vettori. Or Ajit Agarkar (when he stops injuring himself and rediscovers how to use a bat) or the under-rated Nikhil Chopra (if and when he's given a chance to play). These are players who knew/know how important it is to put in an honest days work. Who realize that all it takes is one good throw to exert a huge influence in the game. All it takes is one stunning catch plucked out of nowhere to change the momentum. These are the kind of players who will themselves into making a difference. Who don't feel right unless they have something to show for their existence in the team. We need more players like this. Players who believe the whole comes before the individual. And who know the amount of positivity that can emerge from a collective mindset.

We don't need just batsman. Or just bowlers. We need players who don't care whether they get to bat first or bowl first or field in the boondocks or at fine-leg or have to belt the first ball they face from Mcgrath and the five that follow at extreme anger+velocity. We need guys who won't accept not being in the thick of things. Who's only ambition on the field is to push the team as close as possible towards victory. Sure, not all of them will perform at all times. But what they will bring is a sea change in the way the team thinks.

Our team needs to think more consistently about being competitive in more sessions than less during the course of a day's play. They've got to understand that playing brilliantly in one session is not enough to win a match. They've got to believe that every minute on the field must be spent making some kind of positive contribution to the team cause. And only when they begin to internalize this will the team begin to perform more consistently. Because consistency comes with continuous improvement. And with continuous improvement comes the process of winning more often than losing. A consequence of a consistently attacking mindset that's always looking to compete.

Robin Singh did it in his own small way by continuing to perform whenever he got an opportunity to do so. Consistency is what got him back into the Indian team. Consistency is what's keeping him in the Indian team. Imagine what more Robin Singh-like attitudes could do for the whole Indian side. One way to do that would be to pick players as much for positive attitude as for ability. (Perhaps, it wasn't such a bad idea to drop Azhar. The question is, have his replacements brought in anything worthwhile to the Indian side? Not yet.)

The good thing is there is reason for hope. But only if we choose to learn our lessons from the way Australia has structured its cricket. The emphasis in Australian cricket is on the basics. Their academies talk physical fitness. Tough mental attitude. Sound cricketing skills. Pride in their colours. Team spirit. And the ability to consistently chip in at all times. In effect, they don't expect too much from their cricketers. Just a bit all the time. Which is a lot less than what we expect from our cricketers.

We want our heroes to take five wickets every time they go out to bowl. Score hundred runs every time they bat. Make great saves, throw down the stumps, in short, do everything right. all the time. Which is simply impossible. And so, when they don't measure up, we are merciless with our criticism. Fact of the matter is, we treat our heroes either too well or too harshly. Perhaps it's time we expected a little less from our heroes.

Okay , say it with me, "All we expect in the next series is little contributions from everyone. Repeat. everyone. Not just one or two guys at a time." Just do a bit guys. The geniuses among you will emerge. Genius doesn't need to be nurtured. Genius emerges. It's time we concentrated back on the basics. Things like off-stump line five out of six balls. No 'no balls.' Practice the yorkers. Bowl at one stump. Spend time in the gym. Read books on tactics. And do lots and lots of simple things that make you a better cricketer. More importantly, do things that can help make you a thinking cricketer. (A cricketer who knows how to think smart.) It's time we nurtured the little contributions. Simply because, they are the ones that can come easier and keep the team going during the hardest of times. Something we haven't had the good fortune of having on this Australian tour down under. All it needs is a little refocus. And discipline.

The good thing about discipline is it can be taught. And internalized. (If the Australians can do it, so can we.) Sure, it will make us a less exciting team. But you can be sure it'll make us a team that's a hell of a lot harder to beat. So who needs a kick up their backsides? Everyone. And we can start by getting Robin Singh to give Ganguly lessons on running between the wickets. (Robin, who Robin?)

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