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With a view to a change

Harsha Bhogle

Just over two months ago, I was talking to Aravinda d'Silva as part of a fairly long interview for ESPN. have always loved talking to genuine achievers, because they invariably have a different perspective towards most things. They cause you to say `oops, never thought of that', and then you realise why only one of the two people in the room is a star!

I was fascinated by the way Aravinda spoke, his words leaving his lips in such gentle tones and in such stark contrast to the way cricket balls leave his bat. He was rarely provoked, a smile was never too far away, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say. He didn't hold back his views even when I asked him whether it was true that he wanted to quit Sri Lanka in disgust and migrate to New Zealand. There, he was forthright like his shots - as he was when I asked him why Sri Lanka tends to favour foreign coaches.

He said his experience was that foreign coaches were very professional, did their job and left it at that and, in a very honest admission, he said that they stayed away from local politics.

I have thought of what Aravinda said many times; while watching the dramatic change that has overcome Sri Lanka's fielders and while watching our cricketers put in terribly mixed performances in the field. I have thought of it while talking informally to our cricketers and hearing tales of frustration and lack of respect. And I have asked myself several times: do we need a qualified overseas coach?

My first reaction, like that of virtually every Indian cricket lover and administrator, was to say no. We have a very strong and deep rooted cricket culture, we have produced some outstanding cricketers and surely, I thought, that pool is large enough to throw up a caring and proud human being?

I wondered if a foreign coach would have, or be seen to have, the same national feeling that is so vital to an emotionally charged, overly melodramatic and terribly irrational cricket audience. If we lose, his will be the first neck in the noose and people will say, 'He is here for the money, he doesn't care for national pride'.

More important, I wondered if he would understand the psyche of young cricketers who come from completely different backgrounds and follow a totally alien diet. I remembered the story of a young Indian fast bowler in the early sixties who was asked to train with a West Indian fast bowler. (India had invited four West Indian pacemen to play and coach in India). The young man was rebuked for not being strong enough and consquently, for having an insufficient diet. It was only later that he came to know that the poor man didn't earn enough to eat all that he was being asked to and that therefore, there was no way he was going to be able to stand the physical workout that was being demanded of him.

Today's affluent climate is unlikely to generate a similar situation, but the cultural polarity, I thought, would be too much to bridge.

I now hold a different point of view because I feel the demands of modern cricket are crying out for modern thought. In the last eight years, India have had Chandu Borde, Bishan Bedi, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar, Sandeep Patil and Madan Lal. And even as Madan Lal comes to the end of his term, there are a couple of opening batsmen padded up in the pavilion. If reports are to be believed, a new coach will join the team on the 1st of October and almost as if in confirmation, there is a newspaper report saying that Madan Lal wants to become a selector because the amount of travel involved as coach is affecting his family and business commitments. Between you and me, I am not convinced that this was a factor that he could not have anticipated.

He has now told Vijay Lokapally of the Hindu what he thinks of each of the players under him, and it reads like a jail warden's opinion of each of his prisoners. In effect, what Madan Lal is telling his players is 'I don't really think any one of you is any good, but will the lot of you go out and win a cricket match for me against the world champions?'

Meanwhile, our fielding continues to show an intense commitment to mediocrity. That is sad, because there are some outstanding fielders there and some that are pretty good. On a day on which they are charged up, they can be international class. But that day follows the lunar cycle of cricketing days. Madan Lal says it is upto 'the boys' to be committed, that 'unless they want to improve, there is only so much that I can do'. Dear me, if the boys 'want to improve', the coach can sip tea all day.

I think India's fielding is the strongest statement on the need for a man with a very very contemporary attitude, with a very strong awareness of contemporary training methods. The best fielders in the world are excellent because stopping and catching a ball becomes an addiction, a stimulant. It gives them a high. The others look upon it as a job, as a necessary evil.

It is like the attitude of little boys towards eggs. They know eggs (read fielding) are good for them, but they always have a frown on their face when presented with them. The success (as a great Indian ad campaign showed) lies in making eggs interesting. It is up to the coach, similarly, to make fielding interesting and this is where Australia and South Africa have the best recipes. That is also why their kids (fielders) devour eggs (catches) like they are eating popcorn.

That is why, I believe, we need a South African or an Aussie, with a track record of producing fit and eager cricket teams. Remember, India's best days in one-day cricket came in the period from 1983-'85 (that is so far back it must sound like I am talking of Indian hockey), when we had an incredible fielding side. Just two examples to show how much it contributed to unforgettable moments. If Kapil Dev had failed to reach Viv Richards' skier at Lord's (I can already see a more contemporary Indian hand lunging out one handed after seeming to run halfway round the world to get there!), the history of Indian cricket (and for that matter of Indian television and cricket finances) would have been vastly different.

And then again at Sharjah in 1985, after India had made only 125, Mudassar Nazar and Mohsin Khan had got Pakistan off to a decent start when Mohinder Amarnath brilliantly ran Mohsin out from mid-off. Again, the rest is history - for it led to a moment as magical in Indian cricket as the winning of the World Cup itself. Now, Amarnath was never a Carl Lewis, but with the likes of Kapil Dev, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Azharuddin, Srikkanth and Sadanand Vishwanath around, even the 'safe' fielders got charged up. Today, there is an air of somnolence to the fielding, and that is dragging everyone down.

I am afraid that has got to be the responsibility of the coach who has seen, at first hand, how the Aussies and the South Africans (I can never call them the Proteas - the name of a flower to describe that side?) practice in a competitive situation. Watching them at their fielding sessions is a great experience; as thrilling, as it is depressing to watch our boys having to do the same routines that their coaches did when they were young. It is called the mother-daughter syndrome ('I will use the same cooking oil and the same brand of non-stick cookware that my mother did!' Not being sexist, please, merely making an observation!) and I am afraid it is as dated as your grandfather's old valve radio where you could eat a packet of biscuits while it wamed up.

No, it simply won't do. We need modern coaches and modern trainers and a modern mindset that says `If I can't get it in my country, let me go out and get it from somewhere else'.

I believe there is a second reason for looking at an overseas coach and that is as strong as the first. It goes back to what Aravinda said about team politics and staying away from them. A former selector as coach, for example, is going to carry his selectorial prejudices into his new job ('So this is the guy Shuklaji wanted!'). We desperately need someone who will do his job and stay away from everything else. And I don't think that man lives in India - unless his name is Ravi Shastri.

I spoke to Shastri about this on one of our long journeys together, and he believed it was premature. I don't think so. Shastri was very good at knowing what he could do and more important, what he couldn't. He will ask for a trainer (I suspect he has thought of it already) and a physio who are respected and qualified; he will tell them what he expects and ask them to deliver. And he will look at the cricketing aspects. The tragedy with Shastri, though, is that he earns too much now to be able to give it up.

Shastri would also be a better communicator, like all good coaches are, and he would be very cerebral. It is difficult to see someone else better qualified than him in the country today, but till such time as he remains unavailable, let's cast our net wider.

This is an era where boundaries are disappearing. Let's blur them a little bit; let us leave nationalities aside and look for the best, wherever he may currently be living or whatever nationality he mentions on his passport.

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