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January 6, 2000

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India Down Under



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Down Under and heading downwards

Harsha Bhogle

When India arrived here in the middle of November nobody, not even their most fervent admirers, expected them to win or even to square the series. 3-0 was at the back of everyoneís mind though not all of us chose to say so publicly. We hoped India would show the ability to adapt, to fight their way out of situations and to display their enormous talents.

We were disappointed. But out of that disappointment must come a realistic appraisal. Australia are too far ahead of India, not just on the cricket ground, but in terms of an overall cricket culture. Our cricket is too soft and we are just not competitive enough. In hindsight, it should not have come as a surprise given how poor our domestic cricket set up is. But yes, we expected better.

One of the reasons we were wrong, and it is a critical aspect, is that Indians use talent rather than discipline to progress. In home conditions, the rich talent that we possess is often enough to find solutions to cricketing situations. Along the path that world cricket is taking, talent is only a fifty percent partner to discipline. And Indiaís cricketers, never having faced the need to be disciplined, looked out of this league. You could see a generation gap.

World cricket is getting too scientific and India arenít even on that path yet. The amount of planning that the best teams are undertaking is scary because it is almost a different culture. For years we have been warning that Indian cricket is going the way of Indian hockey, that it is losing out to technology. That moment has come.

And I think we should be ready for darker days ahead. For years, we have won at home because our batsmen have scored tons of runs and because Anil Kumble has taken a lot of wickets. That will not happen too often now because Kumble is getting on. And teams are coming more frequently to the sub-continent. They know what to expect and they will be prepared. I see our home record taking a beating in the next five years and I say that because I do not see anyone opening their blindfolds. There are no spinners in India any more and nobody wants to see that reality. And we do not want to see how the modern game is played.

Let us see where the Australians succeeded because they are at the forefront of the way the game is now played. When they bowled, there were hardly any loose balls. Our bowling statistics on ESPN showed how they adhered to a very strict line and length. Runs had to be earned and that too, against top class fielding. Edges were rarely put down, singles were cut off and fours were reduced to threes with great commitment. To do that you need to be fit and that is an area that the sub-continent has traditionally ignored. Except for Brett Lee, the Australians attacked, not by blasting the opposition, but by laying seige to them. Glenn McGrath was the master here, cutting off scoring opportunities till the batsmen dropped their guard and went in search of them.

By contrast the Indians started brilliantly but tapered off rather too quickly. It is interesting to note that the Australians did not have a single double digit opening partnership which shows how well India bowled with the new ball. But they hung in there, showing the discipline that their bowlers are such masters of, and sure enough India flagged. Our statistics on ESPN on that score were revealing. Excellent first spells, average second spells, poor third and fourth spells. Particularly relevant were the figures for Javagal Srinath who was easily the best new ball bowler on either team. His first spells were fantastic, but by the time he got to mid innings, there were invariably runs on offer. The explanation was that the ball wasnít reversing, as they were used to in India, but in the absence of such movement, there was no plan B. Only once did they show the discipline that matched that of the Australians; in the second innings at Adelaide where Steve Waugh was forced to delay his declaration.

Part of the reason that Australia did so well after the early burst from Srinath was that while Venkatesh Prasad largely bowled a very good line and length, he seems to have lost the extra bit of pace to trouble the batsmen. And so his margin of error became too small; at his pace, if he drifted even a little, he was easy prey. I really do believe, with the skill that he has, that given an extra yard and a half of pace, Prasad would have made a huge difference to the way the series went. Remember, he is very highly rated in the cricket world.

The one bowler who did make strides on this tour was Ajit Agarkar. But like Srinath, he was inconsistent bowling excellent spells and mixing them up with poor ones. The Australian commentators working with me were extremely impressed with his attitude and by his ability to do as much as he did with his small frame. I think he has a far better understanding now of what he can do and what he cannot though he still tends to get a little carried away. But Agarkar, the bowler, was one of the few gains from this tour.

If anything, the tour showed once again that our bowling still rises and falls with Anil Kumble. There is no doubt that Kumble now holds less fear in the opposition than he used to. It was bound to happen with overseas teams analysing him closely. Over the years I have noticed that Kumble is at his best when he gets an early wicket. Then he charges in, believing in himself a little more. If he doesnít, he starts frowning and the world acquires a darker hue. Twice in the series, at crucial moments, he was denied wickets; Shane Warne at Adelaide and Adam Gilchrist at Melbourne. But Kumble is a proud man and he will be disappointed by his returns even though he showed glimpses of his commitment with the bat.

It was with the bat that India really disappointed. No batting side can succeed with the kind of starts that India were getting. The middle order was consistently exposed and the bowling was simply too persistent. It didnít help that Rahul Dravid had the first poor series of his career or that Sourav Ganguly could not convert good starts into longer innings.

All great teams have been built around a good pair of opening batsmen. When India made more than 400 runs in the fourth innings three times in three years, we had the best opening pair we have ever had in Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan. Since Gavaskar retired, we have only produced three century partnerships for the first wicket; two in New Zealand and one in Sri Lanka. And till we produce good wickets, that will continue to happen. For India to win Tendulkar needs to come in at 100 for 2 and that is a luxury he has rarely had in his career. Still, it was a good series for him, especially given that he received three poor decisions out of six.

The best teams in the world are from the progressive cricketing nations. India, sadly, are among the worst run. In the last few years, India has slipped alarmingly and all indicators point to the fact that there is further gloom ahead. The biggest indicator is that our administration is outdated. Unless there is light you cannot read the signals and in the BCCI at the moment there is complete darkness. There have been other clues. We lost to Zimbabwe overseas and did not look like winning in New Zealand. We struggled at home against them as well and twice, could not bowl them out in spite of having enough time. These are very dangerous symptoms.

Make no mistake, we are headed downwards. It is time we learnt to live with that reality.

Harsha Bhogle

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