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February 2, 2000


India Down Under

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Time to wake up

Harsha Bhogle

In what must be seen as a cruel irony, and a reflection on how irrelevant our domestic cricket is, three scores of 300-plus were recorded in the Deodhar Trophy even as the national team was struggling to get half that number in Australia.

So, here we go again. Featherbeds, low bounce, free hits. Come on, let us wake up. Otherwise, we might as well go back to spiked gloves, riding hats and heavy boots; play on matting wickets, bring out the drinks in buckets and mugs and pull our tummies in while we strap a black belt around our trousers. And while we are at it, why don't we start playing an annual match between the Parsis and the Europeans?

Come on, for heaven's sake. Everyone has moved on. Nobody uses log tables for calculations; nobody sends match reports on telegrams; nobody shoots gorgeous, coloured clothes in black and white (unless of course you are a fashion photographer in which case you are as cut off from reality as our cricket administration).

It is precisely this kind of cricket, and the attitude of those that make these kind of pitches, that is sending our cricket hurtling backwards. If one team makes 300 and the other gets them in 40 overs, we might as well go and watch WWF wrestling. That has about as much in common with modern international cricket as these meaningless games. And the crowd is going to get the same kind of thrills anyway.

And so we will continue to produce cricketers with averages like lifeboats; inflated and full of air. We will continue to make them as tough as the polythene film we wrap our toys in. We will continue to believe that plonking our front foot down the wicket in the first over of a match is as much a matter of routine as taking guard before facing the first ball. The world has changed. The earth is no longer considered the centre of the universe.

Watching India play cricket in Australia this year has been a huge shock. But out of disaster must come rebuilding. There must be an understanding of why this happened. Or let me go one step back. There must arise a desire to understand why this happened. And out of that desire must come another; the desire to improve, to become relevant.

And this desire must come through the entire system. State associations, instead of cowering in the background when called out, must take the lead and prepare good wickets. Let five of them stand up and say "we will show the way". People like Brijesh Patel in Bangalore, Ratnakar Shetty in Mumbai, IS Bindra in Chandigarh; organisations like the TNCA or the CAB. But it must go deeper and the lessons from here must permeate coaches and cricketers as well.

In some ways, I think our coaches are our worst offenders. These are the people who are meant to see things that others don't; they are supposed to pick up trends and get their wards ready. And over the last ten years, this has been our biggest let down. Coaches have seen cricket on television and remember that is something we haven't given the networks enough credit for. Nobody sees as much cricket as we do and that should be one reason for our youngsters to be among the most progressive in the world. But they aren't and neither are the coaches who have age and wisdom behind them.

Cricketers are more athletic today and they are tougher than ever before. The skills may not have changed greatly since the time of Merchant and Hazare or Prasanna and Bedi but the packaging of those skills has changed entirely. Bedi and Prasanna were among the greatest spinners the game has seen but they didn't need to go sliding round the bend at midwicket to cut off a single; they didn't have batsmen analysing them in super slow-motion. That was another era and they were champions of the times. You need to do more in today's cricket but our coaches aren't looking.

All we do in our camps is a gentle limbering up, a couple of laps and off they go into the nets. We are still teaching our young boys to bat and bowl. But they need to learn to take catches, to hit the stumps, to sprint thirty yards to cut off a mere single; they need to be intelligent, to be able to talk about the game, to be tough and aggressive. These are not add-ons, they are essentials and we cannot get by saying that there isn't enough space or that there are too many boys. We have to find ways of doing what is necessary. Otherwise it is like getting them to learn the tables by rote and believing they have been taught mathematics.

The younger coaches have to show the way because they, more than anyone else, will understand the huge generation gap that exists between the way we play our cricket and the way the world is playing it. We are not short of information in this era and as far as I know, organisations around the world are quite happy to share their knowledge. But we must ask and I fear not enough people are doing that at the moment.

For too long we have convinced ourselves that diving is impossible on our outfields. In fact Saeed Anwar was telling me that the grounds in Pakistan are, if anything, harder than those in India. But good fielding isn't only about diving. It is about developing strong shoulders, being alive to the possibility of a run out and acquiring pride in picking up the impossible catch. These are things that coaches teach their wards very early in life but for some reason we don't.

It was revealing, in Sydney, to talk to a little girl of about 12 or 13 about playing cricket. She looked very Indian, sounded very Aussie and in that curious hybrid, told me what her first coach had told her. "It's like, you know, all about being aggressive. He told us everyday to believe that we are better than the others, just be aggressive, like, you know...."

The point of this little anecdote is not to believe that everything we hear in Australia is the perfect way of doing things; it is to highlight the increasingly important role that coaches play. No longer are they mere custodians of a young man's technique, they are catalysts of the mind. The earlier cricketers learn that, the more aware they become of the world around them and the faster they learn to pick up newer trends. Learning cricket is about reading and listening as much as it is about playing.

While this is something coaches can do at individual levels, the real thrust has to come from the state associations for it is in their camps that the best young cricketers gather. Maybe the time has come for the BCCI's technical committee to put together a manual for coaching in India. It can borrow freely from similar manuals around the world but it can Indianise it to suit our conditions. State associations can then print copies to circulate among their coaches and indeed, even among the best young cricketers. It will lead to a uniformity in coaching methods but more than anything else, it will bring young Indian cricketers in tune with what is happening around the world.

They may still not get the best wickets to play on but maybe, they will be able to carry out fitness routines on their own; maybe they will understand how the mind gets tougher. It could be a starting point and the time to write that manual is now.

And then maybe Krishnamachari Srikkanth will want to ask a few questions about these 300-plus pitches. For the truth is that the more our young cricketers play on them, the more unprepared they become for international cricket. is a word we use pretty often in our cricket, don't we !

Harsha Bhogle

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