Cricket Find/Feedback/Site Index
February 12, 2000


send this story to a friend

Notes from a cricket-lover's diary

Prem Panicker

THERE is, in case any of you guys are intereste (about 500 people watched India Seniors, led by Dravid, beat India A, led by Mohammad Azharuddin, on day one, so I guess not too many people are interested, huh?), a Challenger series happening in Ahmedabad. It features India Seniors, India A and India B. Which means, theoretically, that the top 33 players in the country are participating.

Errr, not exactly. Sachin Tendulkar is resting. As is Saurav Ganguly. As is Javagal Srinath.

Now that raises a question. What is the point in talking about improving domestic cricket, if senior players don't show an iota of interest in it?

Yesterday, for instance, I watched Mohammad Kaif, who is being talked of as one of the hot prospects for the senior side, make 90 runs against India seniors. And at the end of it all, I don't have any opinion about whether this lad can make the grade, and fit into the Indian XI.

For why? Because what I saw was Kaif, on perhaps the flattest, deadest track I've seen in recent memory, come onto the front foot before the India Seniors new ball bowlers had even delivered the ball. Then wait for it. And play it on the up. There were times when both opening bowlers pitched short. Kaif stayed on the front foot, and the ball rose about waist high.

How do we know, watching that display, if the lad has what it takes to take on Pollock and Donald? Or face McGrath on an Australian pitch? To play on the kind of tracks where rarely, if ever, do you get the luxury of coming onto the front foot to even the medium pacers?

If this tournament is meant to spot fresh talent, then it fails on two counts. For one, given the nature of the pitch, pretty much any batsman will look good. I'd back Devang Gandhi, for instance, to make a century on this track, each time he goes out to bat. On these tracks, the Gandhis of this world can, and do, play everything off the front foot. In Australia, he was forced onto the back foot -- and realised that the back foot defensive stroke was not a part of his cricketing vocabulary.

At the very least, wouldn't we have got a better idea of Kaif's quality had he been facing Srinath?

Three senior players said they want rest. Obviously, all three are aware that they have done enough, on the Australian tour just over, to at least ensure that they don't lose their places in the team. The others, such as Dravid, Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad et al, are not so sure -- so they opt to play the Challengers. Had Kumble produced a couple of five wicket hauls, or Dravid weighed in with a century or two, you can bet your bottom dollar they too would have 'rested' from this one.

This demonstrates, very clearly, that the senior players couldn't give a damn for this tournament. Prior to this, there was a Ranji game between Karnataka and Bombay -- and what happens? Barring Sunil Joshi, no international player from either team takes the field. Why, then, all this talk, from the players themselves, about the importance of domestic cricket?

Will they ever put their money where their mouth is?

The short, and obvious, answer is -- no.

There is another aspect that merits consideration. Just what was the point in scheduling this tournament at this point in time? We are told it is to help select the team to face the South Africans. Oh really? India is scheduled to play two Tests against the Proteas -- and an ODI tournament is seen as the ideal selection exercise for that?

Does the BCCI have the slightest clue what they are doing?

Again, the short answer is -- no.

Okay, so a tournament was scheduled. Flying in the face of wisdom, it is decided to play a one day tournament in order to help select a team to play Tests. Was it too much to have expected the Indian cricket establishment to have the wisdom, the foresight, to prepare challenging, testing tracks for this tournament, in order to provide a fairer test of a batsman's skills? Krishnamachari Srikkanth, for instance, has been blowing hot about how he is going to prepare quick tracks for the forthcoming series against South Africa -- does it occur to him that the place to start is on the domestic circuit? That he, and the committee he heads, would have served our cause better had he taken the trouble to instruct the ground staff in Ahmedabad to lay a scorcher of a track, for this tournament?

The nature of the track is one part of the problem. The quality of bowling Kaif and company were facing is the other. Venkatesh Prasad was very plainly going through the motions, not stretching himself. And Harvinder Sodhi, his partner with the new ball, was... well... now there's a story.

Every time an Indian bowler is called for chucking, we -- the media, the fans -- react with outrage (the BCCI never does, but that is a different story). Maybe it is time we took a hard look at the real problem -- and that is lack of focus at the domestic level.

Last evening, a 14-year-old lad in our colony had dropped in at my place, to return a cricket video he had borrowed. At the time, I was watching the Challenger game, and he joined me. In the middle of a casual chat, he suddenly goes, 'Prem, isn't that man chucking?'

He was referring to Harvinder Sodhi, who was bowling at the time. And yes, Sodhi's action was suspect, to put it mildly. There is a distinct bend in the bowling arm as it raises above waist level into the delivery stride, and then an abrupt straightening.

There were two qualified umpires officiating. Neither of them called him. There were selectors (one of whom, interestingly enough, is the chief bowling coach of the MRF Pace Academy), and other bigwigs, watching. They have been watching him -- as they watch most cricketers -- for over a year now. No one has bothered to point out the problem, and ensure that it is remedied by a qualified coach.

No one, quite simply, can be bothered to sweat the details.

So what happens? If Sodhi makes it to the senior team -- which, on the basis of what I saw of his bowling, is a big reach -- some international umpire will call him, or match referee will report him to the ICC committee. And we will get into a huge tizzy, alleging bias, racism and everything else under the sun.

Maybe it is time to put the blame where it belongs -- on the lackadaisical way our domestic structure is run.

That the Indian team needs fresh blood is a given. I, like many fans around the country, was looking to this series to get a good look at some of the young lads who recently won the Junior World Cup, in order to get a clue about their abilities and prospects.

After watching two games, I realise it is a wasted exercise. On this track, against bowlers who have obviously given up and are merely going through the motions, you could back Ajit Agarkar to hit centuries. One thing for sure, performances in the ongoing Challenger are indicative of nothing -- except, maybe, the farce that is Indian domestic cricket.

THE mailbox here is probably the best thing that happened to me during my entire career in journalism. Not only does it provide instant, and detailed, feedback on every line you write (which in turn helps you fine-tune your act, work on perceived flaws and, hopefully, improve), it also regularly provides food for thought.

Check this one out:

"I heard this on the BBC today. A Canadian ice hockey star, named Alexei something, is being sued by a fan for not delivering the goods. It seems the star never showed up for a match, more on a whim than anything else.

Well, the fan, (and he has some support) thinks it's high time these highly paid sport stars showed a responsibility to the public by A)showing up for games and B)striving to give a good performance. After all, any one who is paid to do a job elsewhere in society understands that the payment is for services rendered. So why not hockey players?

In our case, why not cricketers? Too bad they can't be put on the stand. It would be interesting to see what happens to the Canadian though."

Thank you, Sujata Prakash, for that one.

So what do you guys think? Is that fan justified, in suing a star for not turning up and thus, depriving him of the entertainment he had paid for? And arising from that, would you sue our cricketers?

Or do you see in this an ugly precedent, that could prompt all kinds of frivolous law suits (I paid to see Sachin Tendulkar score a century, took leave from work to go to the ground and he got out for 80, I demend 10 crore compensation!) and, in the process, see our cricketers spending more time in courtrooms than in the nets, and on the field of play?

Tell me what you think.

DOES our cricket establishment read the newspapers?

I'd hope so. I'd hope that the board president, and the secretary, and the ICC chairman who despite his protestions has more of a say in Indian cricket affairs than either the secretary or the president, read this news item, to the effect that the ICC has okayed the use of portable pitches for Tests.

In case you missed it, here is, the story.

Why is it important for the likes of Lele, Muthaiah and Dalmiya to have read this story?

For answer, think back to when astro-turf was first introduced, and received the official blessings of the IHF. Most hockey nations around the world promptly acquired the new surface, and began practising on it.

We in India could not, however, be bothered. Why should we be? After all, we are the country that produced Dhyan Chand, the country that won Olympic medals like they were going out of style. The ultimate stylemeisters. Wizards of the hockey stick. We didn't need all these newfangled gimmicks.

Or so we thought.

And we stayed stuck in our little rut, having neither the will nor the inclination to wake up to what the rest of the world was up to. And pretty soon, every major tournament was being played on astroturf. And our hockey players, reared on whatever grass was left on the field after the cows had done with it, found themselves hopelessly out of their depth. They realised that to run on astroturf was a different thing altogether to running on soft, springy grass. They found that it was not as easy to trap and control the ball on the artificial surface, as it was in their own backyards.

And we began to lose. Every competition we entered in, we lost.

And after six, seven years of defeats, one bright spark finally said, 'The rest of the world is playing on astroturf, we don't have those surfaces here, we don't have enough practise playing on that kind of turf, our domestic game is played on grass, that is why our boys are losing.'

We did not anticipate the scenario and prepare ourselves for it while we could. Oh no. We slept through it all, and woke up when it was far too late.

Indian cricket is going the identical route. The other nations are harnessing technology. For instance, when New Zealand was here last, there were snide remarks in the Indian media aimed at their backup team -- coach, batting analyst, bowling analyst, fielding analyst, psychologist, fitness expert, sports medicine expert, and a couple of other experts, each armed with laptops and state of the art software to provide the team all the input it required.

A former manager-cum-coach of the side in fact rubbished it in an interview, arguing that all this was just a waste of time, money and energy. That it is what you do on the field that matters, not what a bunch of computer geeks did off it.

Today, New Zealand is being spoken of as one of the top two or three teams in the world. And India? We need to ask that former manager where he rates India today.

Other teams have been using videographic analysis as a matter of routine, to fine tune their batsmen and bowlers, for years now. We are still squabbling about a videocam -- the board says it sees no reason to pay for one, Kapil Dev says he will buy one with his own money.

When India toured Australia recently, there was a furore over the fact that the Indian team refused to play Test cricket under lights. The Indian team was labelled a bunch of cowards. Admittedly, the fuss was kicked up by the Australian media without a thought to the fact that the playing conditions had been mutually (And last time I checked a dictionary, 'mutual' indicates that both parties agreed to something) agreed upon before the start of the tour.

But that is not the real issue. The ICC has officially permitted that Test cricket can be played under lights. For now, the ICC has left it to each host country, and the concerned guest, to incorporate that clause into the conditions, on a case to case basis.

But the time is coming when this will be made an official rule, no exceptions. Because the ICC is aware that increasingly, the spectators are demanding value for money -- and value for money doesn't mean sitting under umbrellas watching umpires do mysterious things with light meters, it means watching a full day's play, 90 overs worth, under artificial light if natural light does not suffice.

And when the rule is made official, the forward-thinking nations will be prepared for it. Because they are preparing for it now.

India will, come the day, go on a tour. And play under lights for the first time. And lose badly. 'We are not used to playing with the red ball under lights,' we will say at the end of the tour.

But why? India has more grounds under lights than any of the other cricketing countries. A forward-thinking board would have, by now, mandated that a part at least of all domestic cricket be played under lights, in order to prepare the players for the day they will have to go out at night to play a Test.

We haven't done that. Because our cricket administration apparently doesn't realise the need to think, to plan, for the future.

And that is why Indian cricket is, increasingly, going the way of Indian hockey. In hockey, we talk of former glories, of Olympic medals won, of Dhyan Chand's artistry -- and we are forced to play relegation tournaments because we are not thought good enough to play with the big boys, any more.

In cricket, we talk of the era of the Gavaskars and Vishwanaths and how we won the World Cup under Kapil Dev. While the rest of the cricketing world treats us as easy meat.

See the parallel?

Prem Panicker

Mail Prem Panicker