Rediff Logo Cricket Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 17, 2000


India Down Under

send this story to a friend

And a heart for any fate...

Raju Bharatan

The pressure of being India’s reluctant captain, on this stature-diminishing tour of Australia, is clearly getting to Sachin Tendulkar. This is manifest from the persistence with which Sachin is dwelling upon the tour-itinerary theme.

Sachin, on this tour, has been like the recalcitrant boy denied his latest toy. That toy could now be Mannava Prasad, now Sameer Dighe. By the same token, when it is not on the Indian captaincy, it is on the tour itinerary that Sachin gets stuck -- even stuck in. As if any tour of Australia -- with its peculiarly tight mix and fix of one-day and five-day cricket -- has, in recent times, been different for any team visiting that country.

Dilip Vengsarkar, upon retiring at least two years ahead of his time, noted: "Raju, it’s not the cricket but the travel that kills you." But isn’t Sachin Tendulkar, even considering the extent of international cricket he has seen in terms of span, too young ,still, so keenly to feel such external pressures? So maybe a single smash one-day innings, here and now, is all that Sachin needs to get the galvanising motivation back. One certainly hopes this is how it is, for the sake of India and Sachin alike, keeping in mind the calamitous pass in which we find ourselves placed in the Carlton & United.

When the Kerry Packer ‘Supertest’ experiment first got under way, 20 years ago, West Indies wicket-keeper Deryck Murray did say of the punishing itinerary drawn up for the rebels from traditional cricket: "You know, now I just don’t know when night follows day! You play a day-and-nighter, then realise immediately after that (as you can’t just will yourself to sleep) that you have to get up early -- on the morning that it already is! -- to play a day-match next! No respite, no recoup margin, you just go on playing, like a robot, and hope for the best!"

Tendulkar’s team’s schedule, demanding as it is, is surely not as exacting as Packer’s was. And the man who came to the cricketing fore at the height of the Packer controversy, Kapil Dev, was never once, in his touring-playing life, heard to gripe about the itinerary -- an itinerary that, in this instance, was known to him and Sachin long before the C & U dovetailed into the Ansett. In such a context, I can but commend to Sachin what Karl Nunes, as the then President of the West Indies Board of Control, said when Caribbean captain John Goddard blamed, squarely, the tour itinerary for the West Indies’ 1-4 defeat in Australia during 1951-52, when superpowered by "The Three W’s": Worrell, Weekes and Walcott. "If we," tellingly observed President Karl Nunes then, "have not the wisdom, temperament and ability to adapt ourselves to conditions of other countries, as we expect them to adapt themselves to ours, if we cannot take what we give, we do not measure up to the calibre of international cricket."

Tendulkar and his Kapil-guided team need to read this Nunes’ aphorism time and again to get to the gut of what it precisely is that troubles our itinerant tourists right now. It is the life and the lift in Australian pitches that have found us out. First Kapil Dev -- given the Indian Cricket Board’s ‘no-ground-rules’ style of functioning -- made the painful discovery that there was nothing he had been able to do about infusing more life and lift into pitches in India. Now Krish Srikkanth (taking over from Kapil Dev as National Curator of Pitches) is in the process of finding out how our cricket mentors don’t want to get to the nub of the problem at all.

Both Srikkanth and Kapil are creatures of impulse. They lack the hard-nosed professional pragmatism of a Sunil Gavaskar to get to the root of what ails Indian cricket in 2000 AD as in 1950 AD. For, at the end of the 1952 series in which Len Hutton (as the first professional to captain England) whipped Vijay Hazare’s India 3-0 (only technically was it not a 4-0 whitewash), ‘Cricket on TV' pioneer Peter West perceptively pointed out, in The Playfair Annual he then edited , that "to play fast bowling on a green wicket when the ball flies about alarmingly calls for a flexible and resilient spirit, but I doubt if the Indians, as a whole, could ever quite convince themselves that batting in such conditions was a feasible proposition. Thus it was easy for a mood of resignation to fate, which pervaded the mind of the victim, to lead to one of retreat when he reached the firing-line."

The challenge in Australia, at this moment, is the same as was the test of nerves in England then. The one Indian who pre-eminently came to grips with "batting in such conditions" (as Peter West put it) was Vijay Merchant -- with a first-class average, to this day (71.64), next only to that of Sir Donald Bradman (95.14). Merchant was forced out of international cricket after his score in the last match he played for India had been 154 -- vs England in the November 1951 Ferozeshah Kotla Test. The 1936 tour of England that Merchant made under the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy) saw this master opener hailed by Wisden as one of the Five Cricketers of The Year upon Vijay’s scoring 1745 runs during that English summer to stand fourth in the English season’s averages -- at 51.32.

The 1946 tour (among the wettest in English history till then) had Vijay Merchant going one better -- as the deputy of the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) -- with a tour aggregate of 2385 runs that placed him (at 74.53) second only to Walter Hammond in the season’s averages. And it is something Vijay Merchant wrote, just before lndia’s maiden rubber-wins abroad over two of the then Big Three powers in the game, that is amazingly germane to the tour-batting problems with which we are confronted just now. The reference is to India’s maiden (1-0) rubber-win abroad over (Sobers’) West Indies and to our first-ever series-win (1-0) abroad over (Illingworth’s) England -- both happenings coming in the same year, between mid-February 1971 and end-August 1971.It was under Ajit Wadekar that India won those two momentous Test series after 40 years of near ignominy on foreign soil, so what Vijay Merchant wrote (in a December 1970 article, just before those two 1971 tours) graphically sums up, I find, the plight of Tendukar’s men, as a team, in Australia right now. Wrote Vijay Merchant, prophetically as it turns out, nearly 30 years ago:

"We are the champion nation in making excuses for failure. Whenever we do badly, we are ready to put forward all kinds of reasons. Believe me, more often than not, these are excuses. 'The wickets were different! The weather did not suit us! We had a big casualty list!' But does all this not apply to teams visiting India as well? Surely it is not suggested that, when we go overseas, we carry our own wickets, our own weather and guaranteed protection from injuries and ill health?!

"My own study of Indian teams going abroad (I have been on two tours of England: 1936 and 1946) is that we carry three sets of cricketers in our teams. Out of 16, there are 5 to 6 to whom the tour is not merely a visit to a foreign country, but a very serious mission abroad. These cricketers concentrate 100 per cent on the job in hand, make personal sacrifices to remain physically and mentally fit, take every opportunity to practise hard and look after themselves in a manner that is exemplary. They play more for the team than for themselves, and are on the lookout to give a helping hand to those who are not doing well. At least 3 or 4 , of this lot of 5-6, are unqualified tour successes.

"Taking the other extreme, there are a few in the side who feel that they have achieved their ultimate ambition in life when they wear India’s touring colours. To them, the India Blazer is the be-all and end-all of their career. They treat their cricket most casually -- not so casually the other aspects of the tour. Off the field, they are in their element. People are extremely friendly, the hospitality is lavish, the entertainment is of a nature they have not enjoyed in their own country. All this plus their mental outlook on the game prevents them from giving of their best. Four or five such players we see in every touring Indian team. Usually they are total failures.

"The ‘middle order’ of about 7 cricketers," concludes Vijay Merchant, "start the tour most seriously but, after a few setbacks, lose interest and concentration. Without intending to be so, they are disheartened -- and are either unwilling, or just unable, to learn from their mistakes. It is at this stage that they need guidance from the top, guidance which is just not available -- at times because the top men are unwilling to guide, more often because those at the top are unable to make out what exactly is going wrong with the player in question. Such players therefore go on playing mechanically, without quite being able to get out of the bad patch. They are part successes. I sympathise very much with such cricketers on tour, but it needs ‘character’ to be able to redeem oneself at such a time. And ‘character’ in a cricketer is displayed, not when the conditions are all favourable, but when the odds are against him and his side," winds up Vijay.

The above extract from Vijay Merchant’s December 1970 article should make riveting reading for Tendulkar and his whole team today. Tomorrow (with another match lost) might be too late. And let us, along with Sachin and his men (who refuse to be men), remember that the performer speaking above, Vijay Merchant, was the original one appointed as captain of India (on August 15, 1947) -- as the opener technically best equipped, as Don Bradman’s skipper-counterpart, to face up to the challenge of Lindwall and Miller. That a groin strain ruled Merchant out of that 1947-48 tour of Australia was viewed by Vijay as a personal tragedy. "Because," as Merchant put it to me in Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium commentary-box, "that groin problem halted me from coming face to face with the greatest batsman in the world, Don Bradman, and testing myself against the greatest pair of fast bowlers in the game then -- Lindwall and Miller! Keith Miller I had already faced in India. Now I wanted to face Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, together, on their own Australian wickets, to prove myself in front of Don Bradman."

There is a point in what Merchant said. More, there is this -- an attitude today's cricketers would do well to emulate. That attitude is best summed up as a desire to challenge the odds, and a determination to overcome, or bust, trying.

Raju Bharatan

Mail Sports Editor