Rediff Logo Cricket Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
October 8, 1997


A knot in your hanky

Prem Panicker

Nothing -- not even Lilliput's resident dwarf -- is shorter than a sports correspondent's memory.

This fact was borne home to me in a rather striking fasion when, a short time ago, I went browsing through the cricket file, looking for an item of information I needed. I didn't get what I was looking for, unfortunately. But food for thought? I got enough of that for an army that has spent a month on starvation rations.

Generally, at the end of each tour, we make a practise of doing a gains-and-losses type balance sheet. However, having done one such exercise at the end of the Sahara Cup, a repeat after the Pakistan leg of the tour seems rather iffy. However, there are a couple of factors that need thinking about -- and here, what I figure on doing is present these things that puzzle me... figuring, as I always do, that maybe you have the answers I do not.

Number one on the list is obviously Sachin Tendulkar, in his avtaar as captain of India. While browsing through the files just now, I came across tonnes of stories either entirely, or partly, devoted to the question of whether Tendulkar was the right person to lead the country's cricket side. You are probably as familiar with the pieces as I am -- and here, I must add that at various times, I too have asked this question in course of my match reports.

So that brings up one of the things worrying me now. If the hammering of the team at the hands of Sri Lanka was blamed on the Indian skipper, if it was argued that the captain is responsible for defeat, why then is it that after a 5-3 scoreline in eight outings against Pakistan on all types of surfaces, that same captain has not, once, been given the credit -- even in part -- for that result?

After all, if you look back at it, Tendulkar got a lot of things right through the Sahara Cup and the Wills Challenge. Time and again, for instance, the Pakistan openers got off to fliers -- and as regularly, the scoring rate was drastically checked in the middle and towards the end of the innings with some good bowling changes.

Again, if Tendulkar took flak for not bowling Ganguly earlier, in South Africa, West Indies and then Sri Lanka, how come the fact that he not only used him but used him well in Toronto and Pakistan appears unworthy of mention?

Think back over the last eight games, and you will see several such instances. All of which cumulatively amount to this -- Tendulkar has been damned when he didn't, even by this correspondent. It puzzles me why he is now being damned -- this time by silence -- even when he did.

It also leads to one further conundrum -- why is it that in cricket, especially in Indian cricket, defeats are the millstones around a captain's neck, while victories are credited solely to the man of the match? I mean, India lost in Sri Lanka because of Sachin Tendulkar. India won in Toronto and in one game in Pakistan because of Saurav Ganguly. Or Robin Singh. Or whoever.

That seems to be the consensus. And to my mind, something seems skewed, here -- surely the other ten players are as responsible for a defeat as the captain is? Equally, the captain surely deserves a portion at least of the credit when things go well?

Number two on my list of 'forgotten laments of the past' is this one, which we again heard last in Colombo -- 'oh, woe is me, India doesn't have an all-rounder', went the dirge. What was being bemoaned was the fact that the team did not have a player who could contribute some good runs with the bat, and then go out there and bowl anywhere between six to ten overs and thus permit the team management to play around with the lineup, providing it a greater flexibility.

For the purposes of that lament, Robin Singh was never considered an all-rounder, don't ask me why. But hey, post Toronto, post Pakistan, how come we don't have that dirge turning into a celebratory hosannah? For surely the performance of Saurav Ganguly, on both seaming and flat tracks, with both bat and ball, suffices to plug that particular gap? Surely Saurav, in tandem with Robin Singh -- both good line and length bowlers who are rarely if ever guilty of being over ambitious, of trying to outreach themselves - have proven good enough to bowl up to 15 overs, maybe more, and thus allow the team management the flexibility of playing the extra batsman or bowler as conditons demand? Add to it the fact that both of them have proved their credentials as competent and, when required, match-winning batsmen, and it is surely time to tick "all rounder" off the Christmas shopping list?

Item three pertains not to an individual, but to a myth. Which runs: India can never win chasing a target over 200. Well, well, what do you know -- India seems capable, these days, of doing just that. And the fact of having pulled off fine wins chasing will, I suspect, do more for the team's performance in the coming months than if Santa were to stuff two all-rounders into its Xmas stocking. It is the been there, done that syndrome all over again -- your first time in water, you panic if you fall into a family sized bathtub. Once you learn how to swim, you don't blow it unless you happen to find yourself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at its most un-pacific. Having known what it is to chase and win, this team will in coming months not immediately roll over and die just because it has to bat second, being the point I am making here.

But that Pacific Ocean thing reminds me of perhaps the biggest problem now facing the side, at least in the limited overs version of the game -- while I see this team being capable of going after a 250, 260-run target, I do not see it successfully chasing 301 or additions (in Sri Lanka's case, you could even say multiples) thereof.

For why? Because while a score of 250, 260 can be chased by application of classical cricketing theory (a steady start, consolidation, steady step up in tempo through the 30-40 over phase and a hell for leather bash at the end), an ask of 300 and above cannot be realised without a major dose of unorthodoxy at the beginning of the innings.

Yeah, right, we are talking pinch-hitter, here. Though speaking for myself, that is not the term I would want to use for gentlemen of the calibre of say Saeed Anwar or Sanath Jayasuriya or even Ijaz Ahmed. They are batsmen pure and simple, blokes well versed in pretty much every stroke in the cricketing manual, supplemented by a good eye and a healthy ability to extend the bounds of the possible. Cricket's answers, if you will, to John Patrick McEnroe.

What these guys -- and, if in slightly more coronary-inducing fashion, the Shahid Afridis and Romesh Kaluwitharanas -- do is launch a predetermined blitz against the bowlers at the start, knocking anywhere up to a third off the target before the field can be spread and someone other than a ball boy deployed on the boundaries to cut off strokes. And once this is done, getting the remaining two-thirds in the 35 overs takes you back to the realm of the classic one day chase.

The prime example is Sri Lanka -- an initial explosion, followed by a calm, controlled demolition of whatever remains of the target.

That is what India lacks right now -- a batsman sponsored by Semtex, taking charge at the beginning of the innings. And this lack is going to be felt very badly in the months to follow -- because India will be playing a lot of its cricket at home (and a part in Sharjah) and more often than not, are liable to find themselves on flat batting tracks against rocket-fuelled opponents.

So what is the solution? One version is to mimic an earlier lament -- 'India cannot produce fast bowlers' and do the fatalistic number. Which is obviously stupid.

The other is to look for reasons behind the lack -- and remedy them. And as far as I can see, the main reason is the uncertainity of tenure that haunts every single Indian cricketer up to and including Sachin Tendulkar and our latest icon, Saurav Ganguly. I mean, Tendulkar at 24 has 25 international 100s and an average above 35 in both versions of the game -- and we have already destroyed whole rain forests arguing that his batting has slipped badly, that he is highly over-rated and (this according to the most hawklike of critics) that he is overdue a 'rest', Azharuddin-style.

A Jayasuriya, we forget, became what he is because his talent was invested in for five long years of perseverance before he really got the confidence, and started spreading devastation in all directions. Today, he goes out there -- as does an Anwar, an Ijaz, an Afridi -- confident that if he falls for sub-10 scores in his next six outings, say, he won't have to hear a murmur suggesting he be dropped.

Flat out aggression is high risk territory -- and to succeed at it, your focus needs to be purely on the next ball. Not, as Harsha Bhogle pointed out in a recent column, on the next meeting of the selection committee.

So again, what is the solution? Why, in three words -- Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.

Remember his early days? When he was first promoted to open, and promptly became the opening bowler's favourite nightmare? And today? He is the point fielder's dream.

What changed in the interim? Again, simple -- when he first was sent out to open, they told him look, you have the shots, go for them. So he went for them, thinking of nothing other than where to hit the next boundary -- and more often than not, got off to blistering starts.

Then the pundits got into the act. 'Oh Sachin,' they sighed, 'it is wonderful to see you bat, but you tend to get out in ten overs. Just imagine, if you could bat five more overs, you could take full advantage of the field restrictions'.

The first drop of caution diluted, at that stage, the earlier spirit of carefree, unbridled exuberance. And, I suspect, the first step in the decline of Tendulkar was taken.

He began batting with one eye on the boundary, the other on the place on the scoreboard where the overs are indicated. And again, the pundits upped the ante: 'Arre yaar, you get so many runs in just 15 overs -- imagine what you could do if you could bat through to 40, 45... or... *drool* right through the full fifty!!!'.

So Tendulkar increasingly tempered aggression with caution. And just around then, he became captain -- so add 'captain's responsibility' to an already overstuffed mental baggage.

With that background, watch any recent innings of his. The bowler bowls. Tendulkar -- whose mental makeup is, as always, aggressive -- is quickly onto the front foot, bat swinging down to despatch it with that trademark punch through covers or mid off. And it is almost like you can see little sound balloons popping over his head at this stage. Balloons saying 'Bat till 50 overs' ... 'Captain's responsibility'.. and suchlike.

Today, Tendulkar is attempting to serve too many masters. And in the process, that firm push off the front foot is arrested, the ball takes the edge and there goes Tendulkar yet again -- having neither got off to an explosive start, nor yet batted out the full 50.

The answer? I would have the Indian team, at its next meeting, forcefully telling their captain that they need him doing what he does best -- which is going out there without a care in the world and becoming, once more, the scourge of the bowlers he used to be. And for this, the team needs to assure him -- and Tendulkar needs to bring himself to believe -- that if he does get out in the very first over (as has, rumour tells me, happened often enough to batsmen like Jayasuriya, Anwar and Afridi) playing a shot of pure aggression, it is okay, the remaining team members will play their hearts out and try their best to make up. Simply because if Tendulkar clicks in the initial overs -- and if you look at his first outings, when he really batted without fetters, you will realise that he clicked more often than he failed -- his brilliance makes the task of the remaining batsmen childishly simple.

In this team, I can see one other batsman who can do this -- though not quite to Tendulkar-esque proportions. And that is Ajay Jadeja. Thus, if for any reason the Indian captain finds himself unable to recapture the careless rapture of his earlier days, an alternate ploy would be to drop himself down the order, send his vice captain up in the number one slot and before doing that, give him the confidence of knowing that if chance is against him and his first three outings end in failures, he will not be shunted right back down the order, perhaps all the way down to drinks-purveyor, in match number four.

Either way, the problem has to be addressed, and solved, now. Because later this month, the Lankans will be here again. And again -- Srinath, Prasad and Kumble or no -- the Indians will more often than not confront scores in excess of 275, 300. And if we fail to inject that explosive power into the top order one way or the other, then by the time the Sri Lankans go back home, we will be dusting off some of our favourite conversation openers:

'Indian bowlers can't restrict teams to under 275'.... 'Indian batsmen can't chase big scores'... 'India has no answer to Jayasuriya'....

Mail to Sports Editor