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October 6, 1997


Past forward

Harsha Bhogle

When the Indian cricket team returned home from Lahore, it was a relief to see that as far as the players went, the disappointment of being annihiliated in the last match was not being allowed to overcome the fact that India effectively went 5-3 up in an eight match series.

As a nation that so loves to look at failures and to remind its cricketers about them, it is perhaps vital that every cricket lover here looks at the result in that way.

I mention this because over the last three, four days, I've been asked more questions about the game at Lahore than about anything that went before it. My reply -- and it is something that readers might want to consider in a rational state of mind -- is this: before the Indian team went to Toronto, how many fans would have been willing to bet on a 5-3 result? Given all that had gone before, given that each time the Indian team took the field the Sri Lankans thought the party had begun, most people would have been satisfied to go down 3-5 and would have thought 4-4 an honourable result.

That is why India's performance in the last three weeks should have the pessimists erasing all their gloom. And while it may be too early for the optimists to proclaim a new dawn, they can permit themselves a few pats on the back.

Exciting as Toronto was, and sensational as the results were, the victory at Karachi was even more significant for Indian cricket. For a side that choked out of habit and seemed to do nothing to change it, this was a staggering result. India's problem has been its inability to convert 50-50 situations into winning ones. Vishwanathan Anand might say we have poor end-game strategy. One result doesn't change that, but it allows victory to enter the mind as a strong possibility.

In cricket, as in most sport, performance follows a mental direction. I remember Michel Platini saying on a football show some years back that a side that knows how to win ends up winning more often. Simple? Makes you think your son at kindergarten could have told you that, doesn't it? The truth is that what Platini said makes an enormous amount of sense. Till Karachi, India were unsure of how to win in situations like those. Now, they know how to win. And I think we will see the results of this knowledge as the season unfolds.

It was significant too that the end result was fashioned by two cricketers who have rarely been in the spotlight; who have never played to the gallery and who have quietly gone about their job. Neither Robin Singh nor Saba Karim have ever gone out looking for glory, and that is what made it all the more pleasing when glory sought them out. Collars stayed down the next morning, journalists were not sought out, there was not even the hint of an extra swagger. I wonder, sometimes, if in our obsession with youth we forget that age brings with it a calmness of mind that allows people to tackle tense situations better?

But the fact that India got 266 in less than 47 overs cannot hide the fact that the opposition too was allowed to get as many runs. That is a situation that should be worrying Sachin Tendulkar. India's bowling is inherently limited. On flat tracks, it is a liability because there isn't the variety that is needed to counter the pitch. On helpful tracks, ironically, this limitation becomes a strength. The bowlers don't try to do too much because, frequently, they cannot -- and, therefore, they allow the pitch to do everything. That is why India's bowlers got more out of helpful conditions in Toronto and that is why they looked so ordinary at Karachi and Lahore.

There is an implication here, for all who are willing to lead it. Our best chance lies on seaming tracks, because we also have the batsmen with skill enough to bat on those. We are at our best in situations were 220 or 230 is a good score. On flat tracks, we do not have the bowling to defend even 300. What is worse, we do not have the batting to get 300 consistently. You need a Jayasuriya, an Afridi at the top to give you the momentum to attain such totals, or you need a clinical side like South Africa. We lack the unpredictability that throws bowlers out of gear. For all their skill, our batsmen are unpredictable, and that makes it easier to develop a gameplan against them.

That is also perhaps why we seem to be tactically a poor side. Why we are more likely to get 220 on a difficult pitch, than 330 on a good one.It is something we need to think about for the immediate future, because we are more likely to come up with the latter surface at home, at Sharjah and in Bangladesh, which are where we play most of our cricket in the coming months.

But the World Cup in early May, 1999, will be different in terms of pitches. And if that is our perspective, then this team is on a very good wicket. In that sense, the 4-1 result in Toronto is more significant than the 1-2 in Pakistan.

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