With a view to a change
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
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
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
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
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.