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September 15, 1997


Hit or miss

Harsha Bhogle in Toronto

The big topic of discussion in the cricket world and, therefore, in Toronto as well is whether you should have different teams for Test matches and for one day internationals.

It's an old debate really, a bit like an old suit that comes back into fashion if you hang it up long enough. After Australia announced that they are likely to field different teams for each form of the game, England have joined in the debate by picking a very unusual team, a radical one by their standards, for the tournament in Sharjah this December.

Test cricket accords sanctity to specific cricketing skills: to batting positions, for example. Or to the ability to bowl long spells. Like an irreverent youngster, one day cricket sometimes mocks at them. And it definitely makes them irrelevant.

If you can maintain your skill over 20 overs instead of 90 overs, for example, you've done your job. And selectors, and coaches, are realising that they would much rather have the 20-over man in one-day cricket.

If this trend continues, we could well have a situation in the next few years where teams play with four batsmen, three bowlers, a wicket-keeper and three football-style 'liberos' who can bat or bowl anywhere. The 10-over batsmen and 5-over bowlers -- no use in Test cricket, but indispensable in the shorter form.

The key behind being able to set up two separate teams lies in a country having enough people to choose from; and requires that there should be enough cricket of both forms to throw up sufficient talent. England can do that because they play an unbelievable amount of one-day cricket. Australia doesn't play as much, but there is such a huge bank of talented cricketers that, as a result of a very competitive structure, they could field a team for every kind of cricket.

South Africa could do that too, because they have been playing very high pressure one day cricket for years now. India, I'm afraid, cannot even think of two different teams (it' another issue whether they need to) because we do not have a single really competitive one-day event. As a result, we are constantly asking cricketers who qualiify through the Ranji Trophy to give the shorter version "a go" - which is one major reason why they take as long as they do to become 'ready.'

We saw that last year when Rahul Dravid, a proper Test match prospect, was asked to prove himself in Singapore and then in Sharjah. And we are seeing that now in the selection of Hrishikesh Kanitkar, who will be asked to become the one-day all rounder (10-over batsman 10-over bowler!) from a background of building innings at the number three slot and being a change off-spin bowler. And, more vitally, having played very little serious, combative one day cricket till the point when he found himself inducted into the Indian team for the Sahara Cup tournament.

This is one of those curious aberrations to our cricket structure. We play a phenomenal amount of international one-day cricket and hardly any domestic 50-overs cricket. The introduction of the Challenge, three years ago, might have been a step in the right direction had there been a competitive element attached to it. With no real team affiliations, however, it has ended up becoming another event of the kind all of us used to play at school - where captains clasped hands and chose players one by one.

Of the other tournaments, the Wills Trophy has the most potential but it has, to my mind, been diluted by the selection of a Wills XI and a President's XI. If only because these two teams have the pick of the best talent in the nation -- and that makes the other teams in the competition pretty irrelevant.

Funnily, I believe the solution is not a cricketing one but a media-driven one.The BCCI needs to conceive a really high-pressure one-day event, played under lights, with every team having regional affiliations and a complete ban on invitation elevens. If such an event could be televised live, exactly the way one-day internationals are, (complete with top commentators, interviews, pitch reports and all the rest of the razzamatazz), then players just below international level will experience the pressures of playing before a national audience.

From being forgotten men playing on forgettable grounds, they will turn suddenly find themselves in the limelight. And there has never been a stronger motivator than that.

And the event becomes even more valid only if, and when, our top cricketers play in such events and the government stops invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 to scuttle a live telecast. While on that, I wonder if our distinguished Parliamentarians, who complain of our declining sporting standards, realise that this single Act has caused more harm to Indian sport than anything else!)

I am fairly confident that such a tournament will highlight previously unknown skills, that fielding standards will improve (no one likes to misfield before a live audience -- it's okay to do that in Bilaspur, but not when the whole country is watching you) and we could put together a one-day side with a very handy bench strength.

And we could even rest some of our Test cricketers from time to time, then!

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