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August 27, 1997


Up the down staircase

Harsha Bhogle

When people shut their eyes, you need a bang to get them open. Indian cricket, sailing blissfully on a boat to nowhere, has just heard the first explosion.

We've ignored the symptoms for too long, and we now have an epidemic facing us. Indian cricket simply isn't good enough for this era, and I think it was terribly humiliating for a talented bunch of cricketers to be taught that lesson every day for five weeks.

After returning from Sri Lanka, the manager and the coach have admitted that we are behind the times, and we should take that to mean that India's cricket administration knows it too.

Maybe, just maybe, something positive can still emerge from this traumatic tour; though the fact that you need to have a drought before you can agree to open a tap is pretty depressing.

To my mind, what was just as depressing was that this was pretty much the best set of sixteen players the selectors could have picked. There was no genius left behind, no great matchwinner whiling away his time watching movies on television. This side was representative of the talent in India - and if this side wasn't good enough, then Indian cricket simply isn't good enough.

Lightning has now struck - but I don't mind if we put up lightning rods even now. It will prevent it from striking again. People have been talking of the horse having bolted. I'd much rather one horse bolted, than several others.

Five weeks with one success, in a rain-affected game over Bangladesh, is a pretty dismal record - yet if you look closer you'll find that there were several positive indicators that a smart coach could easily build on. I don't think those indicators point towards victory consistently enough, but they could dilute the disaster theory just a bit.

Let's look at the one-day game first, because that is where India need to be concentrating in the immediate present. I think it is now obvious, more than it ever was before, that Ajay Jadeja is being lost at number six. To be honest, I was a very strong supporter of him batting there - but he is just too good a one-day cricketer to be reduced to repairing the damage that others have caused.

He needs a long run in the middle, and I think he has done enough to merit number five. With Azharuddin being the perfect number four (another major reconfirmation on this tour), it will also allow them to play together. They are very similar in temperament, both handle pressure a lot more coolly than the others in the team, run pretty well between wickets and rarely dawdle around.

I think we have a very competent opening pair. Saurav Ganguly has looked perfectly at home in that position, and it helps enormously that he is left handed. He has added shots on the leg side and really, all he needs to become another brilliant left-handed opener is the ability to pick singles when his timing momentarily deserts him. At the moment, he goes for the big one too early because he sees the number against his name static for too long. If he could dart around the wickets a little better, convert twos to threes (or rather, make regulation threes into threes), it would take the pressure off, and obviate the necessity of having to play a big shot.

The big scoring overs these days are 5 to 15, and if Ganguly can run with Tendulkar and score 25 in the first five, they could get a lot more in the next ten. But for that, he needs to be fitter. Too often, young boys in India think that if they hit the ball with a divine touch, and you don't really get a more divine touch than Ganguly's, you have done enough. But Saurav Ganguly is a prime example of how a fitter man can score more runs.

It will also help to take the pressure off Tendulkar who, like Ganguly, seems to press the panic button too early these days. The bottom line is that India concentrates too much on hitting boundaries, when a couple of twos can do the job just as well.

I just wonder too if Tendulkar won't score more runs, and maybe even score them quicker, if he just plays the cricket shots he has been blessed with? Bishan Bedi, in his characteristic style, had once told me that he thinks Tendulkar's problem is that he is trying to bat more quickly than himself; that by playing a normal game, he would score faster than anyone else anyway. I think there is great merit in that observation. In the first fifteen overs, Tendulkar could quite easily score a boundary an over with his mix of cuts, drives and flicks. And then if he ran well, and found a partner who ran well, eight runs an over would not be too difficult.

But (the most popular word in Indian sports journalism is 'but'), that seems easier said than done. If Tendulkar has his reasons for going hammer and tongs (a personal battle against Jayasuriya?), they are not immediately apparent.

The batting is really the only functioning arm of this side, and India don't really need to do too much with it except to take a firm decision on Rahul Dravid's role. If Dravid does not bat at number three, he slows things down too much. He is probably doing that at number three too, but you get that impression only because India are always chasing too many. He just reminded me briefly of Manjrekar on this tour; possessing all the shots but simply too reluctant to use them. I only hope he isn't becoming a prisoner of technique, like Manjrekar did.

But then, there is nothing wrong in leaving him out for a game or two. We don't need to create sacred cows in our cricket. One-day cricket is a situation-specific game, and if an outstanding player like Dravid cannot fit in on a particular day, there is no harm in asking him to sit out.

If India are going to persevere with Robin Singh at number three, we need someone to bat at number six. Vinod Kambli might be a good bet - but he is far too overweight just now. If he can carry it nimbly enough, that's fine, but I think he would struggle to do that and, in a team of sluggish fielders, we could do with some less weight.

Ideally, number six should be able to bowl five overs per game at the least, but I don't see too many people on the horizon capable of doing that. The other problem that needs to be solved immediately is number seven. Nayan Mongia's batting seems to have evaporated along with that lovely attitude that he once had. In a limited overs game, where the wicket keeper invariably bats at number seven, you should expect twenty quick runs from him and, on the odd day, even a matchwinning innings with the bat. Ian Healy does that very well, and so does Moin Khan.

Numbers eight, nine, ten and eleven, simply have to bowl forty overs, otherwise they shouldn't be in. If one of those four struggles to do it three games in a row, he should be learning how to balance glasses on a tray. Now, where are those four men going to come from? I believe that on tracks that have even a little more life than the one at the Premadasa Stadium (and a corpse would be livelier than that one!), our bowlers would cope a little better. The tragedy is that in the absence of Srinath, Prasad, Kuruvila, Kumble, Kulkarni and Chauhan (or maybe David) are about the best in the country.

And while Kumble might occasionally get a few runs, the others cannot. A number eight has to be able to bat, and maybe the return of Srinath would achieve that.

We must take into account too the fact that our bowlers do not receive any support in the field, and that dents their figures considerably. But it is tough to be sypathetic, given that none of the bowlers are themselves much support to the others!

We also seem to have a depressingly large number of runouts, and I wonder if that gets discussed often enough. A couple of them in the death is par for the course, but that is like trying to slip in the last consonant in a game of scrabble and getting the word wrong. You can't have runouts with seven or eight overs to go and invariably, a run-out has changed the course of the match.

At school, our cricket master used to say that if you got run-out you headed back the other way because he didn't want to see us. Maybe the team should have a system of internal fines for run-outs. You never know what could help.

A final note: A lot of people I met seem to think that losing the second one-day international by two runs was the lowest point of the tour. I am not so sure. I think the batting performance on the fifth day of the second Test was it. We couldn't get 324 because we did not try. To my mind, not making an attempt to score those runs simply summed up this tour of Sri Lanka.

The selectors meet in a couple of days to pick the team for the Sahara Cup and the short tour to Pakistan. I think they need to make up their minds on Navjot Sidhu (you can't keep a player like him in the reserves all the time), on Nayan Mongia, and on Vinod Kambli. I wouldn't press the panic button on Kumble just yet, in fact it would be a good idea for the selectors to ask him how he feels. He has done such a fantastic job over the last five years that he deserves it. If he says he needs a break, then give him one.

That is the kind of nicety that a cricketer feels beholden to.

But I forgot. We need to add a few niceties to the way we conduct our cricket. That was another lesson from Sri Lanka 1997.

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