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February 28, 2000


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Another one bites the dust

Harsha Bhogle

Towards the end of the Australian tour, and I am starting to fear that it will go down as one of the lowest points in our cricket history, there was a fear expressed that India would start losing at home. I was among those who subscribed strongly to that view, but I must confess I didn’t think it would be upon us so quickly.

The reason for my pessimism was that with Anil Kumble in the second half of his career, India would struggle to take 20 wickets at home. As it transpires, on a wicket that wasn’t as bad as the batsmen made it out to be, he was back at his best and yet India lost in 3 days! At the end of the first day, at the Cricket Club of India (at a function to honour Polly Umrigar with the CK Nayudu award -- and it needs mentioning that no member of the Indian team was present!) a lot of old-timers thought that 225 was as bad a total as you could get at the Wankhede Stadium.

Less than 48 hours later, they had managed a mere 113 -- and you could never have seen an Indian team bat as badly as this.

During our analysis on ESPN Star Sports, Sunil Gavaskar thought the batsmen were still “shell-shocked”, and he mentioned Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in particular. I think he is right. India’s leading batsmen are going through an enormous crisis at the moment. Dravid is spending enough time at the wicket without getting runs, and Ganguly has now looked in excellent touch for four Test matches without getting the promised runs.

It is similar to the situation that India faced on their return from South Africa in 1992-'93 when, in Ajit Wadekar’s words “They did not think they could win”. India had been outplayed, but had only lost that series 1-0. Still, Wadekar must have done something right because India won in style at home against England. Admittedly, this South African team is streets ahead of that England team, but it was in the approach that the difference stood out. In each of the three Test matches, India had one big hundred. Here in Mumbai, except for Tendulkar in the first innings (incidentally, when was the last time Tendulkar was tense in the nineties?) no batsman looked good for a half century.

Part of the reason was that Donald and Pollock, easily the best new ball pair in the world, bowled beautifully. But Test cricket is about being able to take refuge in a storm and bask in the sunlight. The ability to withstand seems to have gone out of India’s batting. The other half of that reason is that we continue to have poor starts and from that point of view, Mumbai was disastrous.

VVS Laxman played two great shots, but before and after that he played and missed enough for a whole series. And I am afraid Wasim Jaffer will have to do a lot better than leave a ball stylishly. He has a second chance, as he must, but he doesn’t inspire confidence. He was beaten several times and was dropped in the first innings and yet, he could not score ten.

This is where I think the coach needs to come in. These are good batsmen playing in familiar conditions and yet, are completely unsure of themselves. It means either of two things; that they are not mentally there or that our domestic cricket is a lot poorer than we had thought.

We should have starting seeing some results from Kapil Dev by now. In Australia, the players were very happy with him but I believe he needs to do more. The feel-good factor that he is trying to generate probably works best with disciplined and proud teams. With India, it is probably breeding laxity.

I wonder too, how much the leadership bungle has affected the team. Tendulkar had promised commitment for the Mumbai Test and he seemed to deliver a most animated speech at the start of the South African second innings. And his own performance in the field was outstanding. But once again, his personal dedication didn’t seem to catch on and that is why I think we need to go back to picking players with attitude rather than talent. That is why I thought the selectors should have stuck their neck out and picked Robin Singh for the Bangalore Test.

In fact, even though it would have been a bit hard on Jaffer, my eleven for that Test would have been: Sadagoppan Ramesh, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Robin Singh, Nayan Mongia, Nikhil Chopra, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Murali Kartik with Ajit Agarkar, who has by far the quickest pair of legs in the outfield, as twelfth man.

With the return of Azharuddin and Robin Singh, this team would field well and give their bowlers a lot of support. With Nikhil Chopra at number eight, it would bat solidly rather than flashily down the order and it would have a lot of attitude. I think, from that point of view, Murali Kartik has been a good selection. He stands up to the bowling, has a ready smile and is prepared to do what the captain asks him to. This team would try harder than most recent Indian teams and I am convinced that we need teams that try rather than teams that are brimful of talent.

South Africa are going to be very difficult to stop in the second test. With Darryl Cullinan for Pieter Strydom and Nantie Hayward for either Clive Eksteen or Nicky Boje, they would be free to play Lance Klusener as a batsman at number six, use Jacques Kallis as a change bowler and always have one quick bowler in reserve.

2-0 would be a very bitter pill to swallow but we are getting used to the taste.

Harsha Bhogle

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