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January 18, 2000


India Down Under

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Surgical strike

Anantha Nageswaran

In the summer of 1996, India toured England to play a three test matches and One-Day Internationals. We lost the one-day series easily and the first Test too, despite a brilliant century by Sachin Tendulkar in the second innings. The second and third Tests were drawn. India had discovered Dravid and Ganguly. Both Prasad and Srinath bowled their hearts out and yet were rewarded with little success. English batsmen were amply aided by their umpires. English umpires came to the rescue of their team in the last Test match at the Oval in 1979, too, when at least two Indian batsmen (G. R. Viswanath and Venkatraghavan) were meted out rough justice. However, the myth that it is umpires in the sub-continent who are sub-standard somehow persists.

Nevertheless, one felt hopeful at the end of that tour. We appeared to have three quality batsmen and two excellent seam bowlers. That within a space of 3 years, Prasad and Srinath appear like old horses that need to be rested in the stable rather than put on the course is a sad commentary on the extent of mindlessly arranged cricket itineraries that the Indian team has encountered in the last three years.

If one looks back at the recently concluded Test series against Australia, it is the failure of these three-four players -- Dravid, Ganguly, Srinath and Prasad -- that stands out as the difference between the two teams, not to mention Kumble. Of course, Kumble did not do well on that tour of England either. Much as one admires Kumble the team-man, his overseas record (or the lack of it) and his failure to run through New Zealand in the recent home series cannot be ignored.

It is difficult to be harsh on Dravid. In fact, it is somewhat sad to see some seasoned commentators of the game immediately ridicule these two class batsmen. Objectivity is only a rare hallmark of journalists (and sportsmen) covering Indian cricket. In recent tours of New Zealand and Zimbabwe, he stood tall among all the Indian batsmen -- Sachin included. Without him, India could not have progressed as much as it did in the World Cup. It is our (and his) bad luck that his lean trot should occur at the same as Saurav's -- about whom much the same things can be said.

The Karnataka bowling trio is more worrisome. Srinath seems to be intelligent enough to understand his faults but does not appear to be able to do much about them. Inconsistency appears to be his predominant weakness. Indeed, even Prasad appears afflicted by that disease. Except for brief patches, our frontline bowlers failed to maintain pressure against Australia.

Strike bowlers in other countries are rarely guilty of this limitation. One has to recall how resolutely McGrath shouldered the bowling responsibility in the Caribbean early in 1999. Shane Warne was far below his best, and single-handedly, McGrath stopped the West Indies, aided by an inspired Lara, from walking away with the series.

The problem with our team during the recent series was that while luck and umpires denied us some opportunities, we were equally to blame for missing out on others. Our opponents kept creating opportunities, and grabbed most of them -- we did not. It is difficult to argue that but, for some umpiring decisions, the series would either have been drawn or gone in India's favour. Had Sachin not been declared out to Warne on the third morning in the first Test, the series might have taken a different turn. But to harp on that one dismissal misses the point about how the team failed to create more openings for success, or how available opportunities were wasted. More on that later. Bowling worries first.

Agarkar's bowling has been touted as the biggest gain of the tour. I must confess to being a sceptic. It is true that this lad took the fastest first fifty wickets in One-day Internationals. But he had taken as many matches to collect his next 20-odd wickets and that too at a vastly inferior economy rate. His role in the defeats that the team suffered at the hands of South Africa and Zimbabwe in the World Cup 1999 campaign cannot be understated. At the start of the series against Australia, on sheer bowling form alone, Mohanty and Kumaran deserved to be picked ahead of him. If Agarkar was picked for his additional batting skills -- presumed batting skills, that is -- then the team management has gone into the series with three and a half bowlers. Can any team hope to win a Test match in an away-series with such limited bowling resources?

Had either Srinath or Prasad been sent back home and Kumaran retained for the triangular one-day series, it would have been consistent with the logic of encouraging young talent while serving as a warning for the two senior cricketers that performance alone counts. Presumably, inconsistent abilities at the team level are matched by inconsistent logic at other levels. And the upshot is that Kumaran could well go the way of T A Shekhar, Vivek Razdan, Subroto Bannerjee, Dodda Ganesh and a few others.

Ever since Sunil Gavaskar retired, we had been unable to settle on a reliable opening pair. Domestic stars have failed to pass the quality test at the international level. Even Ramesh is yet to prove himself. In the face of persistent failures from all the alternatives that have been tried, one fails to understand the reluctance to opt for Sachin and Saurav to open the innings. This will open the middle order for more batsmen where, one understands, there is more choice available in the country. Did not Gavaskar and Srikanth open for the country both in Test matches and ODIs? It was the same story with Greenidge and Fredericks, and later with Greenidge and Haynes.

That brings us to the question of Robin Singh. It is hard to find another cricketer in the Indian team who is as committed and as fit as he is. Yet, he has been branded as only a one-day specialist. One fails to fathom why, since we have not been able to find any other Tests-only all-rounder. This logic flies in the face of the fact that Kapil Dev distinguished himself in both forms of cricket. Robin Singh appears to have been either pre-judged or harshly judged or both. His fielding alone can be inspirational. In any case, this team seems to need both good fielding and inspiration in tonnes.

Based on the available talent, form and fitness, my touring party would consist of: Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Robin Singh, Kanitkar, Jadeja, MSK Prasad, Mongia, Sunil Joshi, Nilesh Chopra, Harbhajan Singh, Srinath, Kumaran, Mohanty, Agarkar. The chosen sixteen should be good for both Tests and ODIs.

Who would be the captain? It is well known that a team's best player does not necessarily make a good captain. Botham was a perfect example in the eighties. It needed a specialist captain like Brearley to bring out the best of Botham. In India, captaincy has not been accorded the importance that it deserves. Like most things, it has always been a political choice. In recent times, Sunil Gavaskar used his cerebral talents mostly for defensive purposes. Kapil Dev tried to lead by personal example but with little else. Srikanth who did such a good job in the tour of Pakistan in 1989 was not allowed to stay on -- and just the same fate that was meted out to S. Venkatraghavan in 1979 after the England tour where the team's performance in Test matches exceeded expectations. The names of Ashok Mankad and Pataudi come to mind as intelligent leaders. It used to be said that, under Mankad, the Mumbai Ranji team had wriggled out of many an impossible situation. Tiger commanded loyalty, respect and some of his moves could be inspirational.

In all fairness to Sachin, he declined the job when it was offered to him the second time. The Board should have left it at that and gone on to discuss Jadeja and Ganguly. Instead, they thrust the job on Sachin. That was and remains a mistake. From one what has seen on television, it appears that Saurav and Ajay have a flair for the job. Leadership sits heavily on some people's heads and it brings out the best in others.

Indian cricket has the talent, the money and the support of millions to be a world force. Yet, individual brilliance has been lost in collective mediocrity. In that respect, our cricket is but a microcosm of the nation itself.

What moved the national leadership to action early in the last decade? An economic crisis provided the platform for hope and regeneration and now the country awaits the next spark for another round of economic reforms. There was no shortage of wisdom on what needed to be done. A catalyst was required, and the crisis provided that.

In the case of our cricket, that "crisis" would be the desertion of fans and all the money that comes with their blind adulation and loyalty. Should fans declare that enough is enough and stop sponsoring mediocrity at the stadiums and in front of their TV sets at home, our cricket team will find the necessary motivation and skill to perform. Talent in other sports and elsewhere can do with some support from cricket lovers. By turning towards them, fans and corporate sponsors decide would not only be doing a service to them but also to their first love -- Indian cricket.

Tailpiece: For those researchers who are trying to understand how South Asia was colonised for several centuries, the decisions of match referee Ranjan Madugalle in the just concluded India-Australia series provides the answers.

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