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May 28, 1997


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A time for change

Prem Panicker

A day after the curtain officially came down on India's 1996-1997 cricket season, what do we have?

Why, simply that the dropped curtain was a false alarm - cricket continues, with a triangular one day tournament involving Pakistan, India and New Zealand to be played at Sharjah between June 12 and June 16. And then, of course, there is the Asia Cup. And the six Test series against Sri Lanka. Then there is Australia. And then...

Heck, to cut a long story short, this time next year our statisticians will be doing their numbers crunching and telling us all that if we thought the 1996-1997 season had been hectic, then it was a picnic compared to the 1997-1998 cricket calendar.

And at one level, this is a frightening thought. Where are we heading to, here? A situation where cricket is played year-round, with the practitioners of the game getting downtime only on Sundays and national holidays?

Why not?, will come the counter question, don't we all work that way? So what makes these cricketers such a pampered bunch that they cannot work for the enormous sums of money they earn?

To ask that, however, is to blur the distinction between work, and play. Granting that professionalism has taken over cricket, that sponsors and global television networks have transformed it into big business, it is still, at heart, a game.

And games, by definition, are what you do when you are not working - pastimes indulged in to help you kick back, relax, forget the workaday worries and thrill to the spectacle of man pitting himself against man, team against team, in friendly contest.

Today, however, it is all just another day in the office. For the cricketers. For the fans. For people like me who watch and write about the game.

I'll underline this with an example. A personal example. I remember the first cricket reports I ever wrote - it was back in February 1996. At the time, my mailbox was flooded with letters - some complimenting the pieces, some criticising some of my conclusions - but almost all telling me that they liked the passion I brought to my reports.

Fifteen months later, I have written my last match report for the season. That was yesterday. Today, I open the mailbox and what do I find? Much less mail than there used to be - and most of these either telling me that they wished I had discussed this aspect or that of the game, or pointing out a mistake.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, if that can happen to a guy who just sits here in an airconditioned office, watching the game and analysing it, what then of the cricketers who are either travelling from venue to venue, or practising at the nets, or playing, day in and out?

There is a counter to this. Look at the South Africans, you will say. The Australians. The English, even more than these. Don't they do it? Don't they play cricket round the year, and still keep winning?

Mmmm, yes, sure they do. So let me, in my turn, ask you how your average day is, in comparison to say that of a Japanese citizen - do you work as long, and as commitedly, as he does? Do you, at the end of the day and during weekends, spend part of your leisure time doing community service in your neighbourhood?

Point here is, different nationalities behave, act, differently - on the cricket field as in the rest of life's arena. A Graham Gooch can play with the same wooden expression and the same metronomic style in the Sunday League, the county championship and the deciding Ashes Test. Their forte is professionalism - ours (and by this I mean not just India's, but that of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and even the West Indies) is passion.

This is not pop psychology - merely the crystallisation of an observation. Look, for instance, at England's wins and losses, and you will find that the difference in the performance of the players hasn't been much, the swing is marginal. In other words, an English cricketer has a certain envelope of performance - and he stays within it.

Take, by contrast, an Indian cricketer. One day, he is chasing the impossible target and, against all odds and in defiance of all expectations, pulling it off. A day later, he is faced with a target that looks ridiculously simple - and he makes an almighty hash of it.

The fluctuations, the swing between best form and worst form, are little short of incredible.

The answer? Passion.

Hey, you can't get as excited over a cabbage as you do over a rose, can you? Again, a rose with the morning dew on it could well move you to tears today - but isn't it true, too, that the same rose can make you sneeze a day later?

Same difference, really.

Which brings us to where all this is heading. The professional can, and will, cope with the most strenuous of schedules. I suspect, though, that the Indian team, in this coming year, is going to go from bad to worse - their mindsets are not geared to intense, sustained effort, and it is precisely that kind of effort that is going to be demanded of them in the coming season.

So how does one make the best of a bad job? How does Indian cricket cope - just a fortnight after the most arduous season in its history - with the beginning of one that is even more arduous?

Having had the dubious privilege of watching the masterminds in the BCCI and, even more importantly, the national selection committee, in action, I'll first tell you what we are going to do. We are going to sit on our hands till June 8 or 9, and then pick a team for Sharjah. The team will be picked on the basis of which players meet the twin needs of having a valid doctor's certificate and a godfather in the selection committee. Then we will sit back, till a week before the next series, or the next tour - and go through the entire exercise all over again.

Along the way, tired, jaded cricketers will fall by the wayside - a Srinath through injury, a Sidhu through whatever, an Azharuddin through ennui. And when that happens, the national selectors will get together - thank god for telephone and video conference facilities, viva progress, technology ki jai - and hastily scroll through names culled from the scoreboards of domestic tournaments and pick a replacement. How? On what basis? I am not quite clear how these guys do it - but I suspect, from recent evidence, that they each take a pin and jab it down on a sheet of paper with names scribbled on it, and if two or more selectors happen to bring their pins down on the same name, then that player is in.

And yet we wonder why our team does so badly.

Take, by way of contrast, Sri Lanka. Before the Wills World Cup, they started a nationwide fund for the purpose of developing cricket in the country and for elevating their national side to the status of the best Test-playing nation in the world by the year 2000 AD. Their coach is not only thorough with the players doing duty for the national side, but with every single player of promise in the different age groups in the country (a startling contrast to our own well-meaning Madan Lal, who had to admit off the record, in the Caribbean, that he didn't know who in heck Noel David was).

This - more than "talent", or "killer instinct", or any other of our favourite buzzwords - is why Sri Lanka, in the season to come, will win more matches than it loses. And why India will lose more matches than it wins. Because the former country sets itself a long term goal and, en masse, works towards it - while India lives from match to match, not even tournament to tournament.

A friend, after reading an article of mine, once wrote back telling me, fair enough, logically argued and all that - but while you ask questions, how come you are so reluctant to provide answers? Why is there so much criticism, but not the same amount of constructive suggestion?

Simple. And this is an answer you will get from most cricket reporters who really care - who listens?

Regulars of Rediff know of, have participated in, two exercises designed to help the BCCI, and the selectors, by analysing the existing situation and making suggestions for change. The result? Deafening silence. And the same old story, repeated ad nauseum.

Still, cogito, ergo sum still works as a guiding rule - we, and I don't mean just the reporters like myself but also every committed cricket fan around the world who takes the trouble to follow the game, think about it, and air his opinions whether on newsgroups or via email or chat site - think because what else is there?

So - from me - a suggestion. And mind, this is a purely personal one - I could have missed things, could have got other things wrong. The good thing though is that you guys out there have never been shy to point out the errors and omissions - hopefully, you will again.

Okay, here goes. First up, the BCCI could convene a committee comprising the captain, the coach, the national selectors and a five-member expert panel comprising exclusively of former Test cricketers of proven experience.

This committee could then go into exhaustive session and emerge from it with a shortlist of 22 (the minimum number, though another six would be even more optimal) players who, in their opinion, could and probably would do duty for India sometime during the course of the coming season.

The picked players would be given to understand that they are, to all intents and purposes, the Indian team. That they could be on call at any moment, and that they are expected to hold themselves in readiness (and I don't mean packing socks and a toothbrush and making sure their passport is current) at any given point.

Why? Simple - this obviates a situation where a Noel David, say, is one morning going through the routine of day to day life and, that very afternoon, is expected to be geared up and ready, mentally and physically, to go on a demanding tour of the Caribbean. More even than making the transition to foreign pitches and conditions, it is making the mental transition from domestic performer to national team member that is hardest on the nerves.

Having got this bank of potential national players, it should then be used. How? An example suffices - at the end of the four one day internationals in the Caribbean, skipper Sachin Tendulkar made a telling comment. He said that India lacks a wrist spinner who can turn the ball on any surface.

What was that comment if not a damning indictment of his own deputy, Anil Kumble? Obviously, the Indian captain had begun to feel that he was not getting the penetration he needed from his principal "strike bowler".

So where the national selectors listening? Did they, have they, put their minds to finding a standby for Anil Kumble? Obviously not. Worse, if Tendulkar could name Kumble's lack of penetration as one of the main weaknesses, what then was Kumble doing in the Indian side two days later, for the Independence Cup?

I am not arguing for or against Kumble's continued retention in the national side - merely making the point that if such analyses as given by Tendulkar is not listened to and acted upon, then it no longer merits the term "analysis" - it becomes, merely, yet another excuse. Simply put, you cannot damn a player one day, then pick him again two days later, and expect people to take you, or the team, seriously.

Another example. During the Caribbean tour, every single international commentator from Sir Garfield Sobers to Ian Chappell to Michael Holding made the point that Venkatesh Prasad looked totally jaded, that he had lost yards of pace, that his mental edge was gone and that he would not be able to strike as often as his captain would like. Why then was Prasad not rested, and a replacement sought?

Because foresight is not one of our virtues. We will look ignore all symptoms of an imminent breakdown, and seek a replacement only after the darned thing (or player) goes totally kaput. Classic instance in point, Javagal Srinath. Injured shoulder and all, he did a gallant job in the Tests in South Africa. Why, given that everyone including the team physio knew he was having shoulder problems, was he not rested for the one day series that followed? At the time, it was suggested that there was no replacement to fill his shoes. But hey, the man did break down. And we did replace him - with an Abey Kuruvilla. And Kuruvilla didn't do too badly, did he?

So, if the selectors and team management had the foresight, they could have had Srinath step down in South Africa itself, and have his shoulder seen to before it collapsed completely - and not made all that great a difference to the team's performance, given that there was a competent enough bowler available as replacement. What was lacking, here, was foresight, thought, planning. And a bank of players waiting, ready picked, in the wings.

And that - foresight - brings me to the second item on the To Do list. The national selection committee, the team management comprising skipper and coach, and the panel of experts I suggested, need to be in constant touch, to interact on at the least a weekly basis.

Too often in the recent past have we had instances of one or the other selector - including the chairman - unable or unwilling to make it to the selection committee meeting, and merely providing his input via telephone. And hey, that's one heck of a way to run this man's army!

What we need is for the selectors - and the panel of past Test stars - to meet constantly. Each meeting to review the team's performance during the week gone by (and given that in the coming year the Indian team will be playing pretty much all the year round, the committee certainly will have no problems finding items on the agenda). To review each individual player's performance, form and mental fitness. And at any point, to make whatever changes are thought necessary to the team's composition.

Hey, it's trite, perhaps, but it's also true that prevention beats curing, any day.

The committee, too, would borrow from the Sri Lankan model and set itself a definite agenda, and a definite time span to achieve it. We've heard much talk about how this is the team of the future. Sounds nice - the kind of catchphrase ad whizkids pat themselves on the back for. But what precisely is this team we are building? 11 players, but no openers? No settled pace attack? No penetrative spinner? And which "future" are we talking about here? At what date are the selectors supposed to be able to sit back and say, okay, it's all done, we have the team of the future now, all that remains is to let the guys go out there and strut their stuff? Or, has happened during Raj Singh Dungarpur's days as chairman of the national selectors - the "team of the future" phrase was trotted out by him, too, to justify Azharuddin's elevation to the captaincy - will this selection committee, too, come to the end of its tenure still parroting that tired phrase?

Fine, let's build a team - and it's okay to take a few losses while we are at it, too. But at the least, let us define this team we are building, set ourselves a deadline to complete this process and equally importantly, a deadline for the team to begin being held accountable for results. And that is where this panel, meeting regularly, comes in - to monitor progress, to make alterations, to ensure that goals are set and met. In short, to guard against stagnation and ensure that there is progress.

These two would be the biggies, in any gameplan I suggest. There are other suggestions, too - not quite as crucial, but still important.

First, will the Indian team's travel agent please stop trying to make his fortune this way? The team does not need to accept every single invitation to every single ODI tournament. The BCCI planners need to understand that today, ODI results have lost all relevance - there are far too many such tournaments being played, these days, to even remember all their names and venues, leave alone the win-loss figures. The focus needs to shift back to one on one contests - Tests and one dayers. To touring, or hosting, the other nations over full tours. Let's face it, not one of us is really going to lose any sleep over who wins the upcoming jamboree in Sharjah, or the Asia Cup. But the six Tests India is slated to play, beginning August, against Sri Lanka does matter - so it is time we got our priorities right, and stopped frittering away the energies of the team in this asinine fashion.

Two, this team very badly needs a sports physio, and a sports psychologist. Qualified ones, I mean - not amateurs like Ali Irani and Madan Lal filling those respective briefs. It is, frankly, rather ridiculous to watch the Indian manager, at the end of a tournament, saying, "What to do, you know, I tell the boys that they must perform but, you know, they don't do their best, you know, so what can one do, you know?" I mean, modern sports psychology goes way beyond getting the boys together and telling them you are playing a match tomorrow, you know, and you should do well, you know, after all it is an honour to play for the country, you know...

Sorry, but we need guys who know what they are doing, you know? A physio who can spot a fitness problem early, and be sufficiently firm in prescribing, and ensuring, whatever action is required. I mean, can you imagine anything more ridiculous than Irani's statement that he knew, as early as during the South African tour of India, that Srinath was not fully fit? What the heck was he doing with that knowledge? And what kind of physio permits a player to go back on the field, knowing he has a major problem that could even, if unchecked, terminate his promising career?

There is lots more that can be done. Lots more that needs doing. But given how short time is between the end of this season and the beginning of the next, I would think that the gameplan suggested above - or rather, some gameplan , irrespective who suggests it, providing it addresses the problems and provides answers - has to be thought of, and implemented, yesterday. If not even sooner.