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September 24, 1997


Quo vadis?

Prem Panicker

Sitting down to do the regular end-of-series analysis, my thoughts keep flashing back to the various mails I have received in the last two, three days from cricket fans worldwide.

The predominant feeling - if one judges by the mails I got here - appears to be one of all pervasive optimism. The thinking seems to be - India went in to a tournament with a second string attack and despite the presence of virtually the entire Pakistan batting lineup, humbled them 4-1. So, goes the feeling, when Srinath, Prasad and Kumble return to the fold, the Indian team will be right on song again.

I read these mails and I think uh oh, here we go again. I remember a similar feeling of optimism reflected in the readers late last year - after India under Tendulkar won the one-off Test versus Australia, the Titan Cup triangular against Australia and South Africa, and then the three-Test series at home against South Africa.

We are on top of the cricketing world with a rainbow around our shoulders, appeared to be the feeling then. And that is pretty much the feeling now, as well - more is the pity.

I use the word 'pity' advisedly - because I've also noticed that the same fans who get their hopes too high after one win, without any pause to analyse the whys and wherefores of that result, are the ones who get most bitterly disappointed at subsequent losses, and call for the trashing of the entire team.

So am I saying that the Sahara Cup result was an aberration? That come October 28 and the three-game Wills Challenge ODIs against Pakistan on the latter's soil, we will see the team revert to its Sri Lanka avtaar?

Two readers have in fact suggested just that - arguing that the Afridi-Ijaz blitz in the last game of the Sahara Cup, on a more batsmen-friendly track than the other four games, is indicative of the fact that this Indian attack will be tamed when we get down to the flat tracks in Pakistan.

And just as I think the optimism of the first lot of readers is wildly unrealistic, I think too that the pessimism of this latter point of view is a shade overdone.

Take a look at the Sahara Cup, in perspective. First up, the conditions - admittedly tailormade to aid swing and seam bowling. Having said that, it needs keeping in mind that the conditions were the same for both sides and only one really took advantage - I mean, it is no use having a pitch where the ball seams around, you have to bowl the right length and line, set the right field, and hold your catches if you want to take advantage. And it is undeniable that India, going in with a lineup in which the most successful bowler was, surprise, surprise, Sachin Tendulkar, utilised the conditions with a professionalism that belied pre-tournament punditry that this inexperienced attack would get tanned.

So what really have the gains been, in the bowling department, and how does that translate in terms of the immediate future? The first, and most obvious, gain has been Saurav Ganguly. He bowls at a gentle medium pace, moves the ball off the seam both ways - and, most interestingly, he is perhaps the one bowler who can produce movement even in less helpful conditions because he relies more on cutting his fingers down the seam, rather than on the pitch.

Does this mean we have found a match-winner? Again, not really. A more likely scenario is that Ganguly could, properly used, develop into a bowler in the mould of Steve Waugh and Hansie Cronje. The guy who comes on second change, with a predominantly offside field - a luxury afforded by virtue of the fact that he is unerringly accurate - slows the rate of run getting down and, yes, takes the odd wicket or two capitalising on the fact that class batsmen tend to relax just a shade against that kind of innocuous-appearing bowling. What this also means is that if Ganguly bowls his full quota or a sizeable quantity thereof, then India can afford to fiddle around a bit more with its bowling lineup. Use three seamers and a spinner if the conditions warrant. Or two seamers and two spinners. Or, on a dusty track, go in with just one regular seamer and have Robin and Ganguly help fill the seamers' quota.

Such flexibility is a huge bonus for any side - and it is this flexibility, more than anything else, that Ganguly's success in Toronto has given this Indian side.

Meanwhile, what of Mohanty and Harvinder Singh? On available evidence, the former is more aggressive in outlook - and, for that very reason, more likely to come to grief on Pakistani soil, where the tracks are hardly likely to provide him the conditions he needs. Thus, what he will need to concentrate on is throttling back a bit, bowling a predominantly offside line, and using his natural away-swinger as his main strike weapon. One thing he will not have in Pakistan is the margin for error he got in Toronto - loose deliveries, either of length or line, will just sit up and beg for harsh treatment, so this could be where he learns the value of discipline in the one-day format.

Interestingly Harvinder - who in actual fact is faster than Mohanty - learnt that lesson faster than the latter, and in his last three games, did very well indeed by bowling below top pace, keeping the ball wicket to wicket and using the leg cutter as his main weapon. And it is for this reason that I suspect that it will be Harvinder, more even than Mohanty, that India will rely on in Pakistan.

India achieved tremendous success with an all-seam lineup in Toronto - Nilesh Kulkarni, in the games he was played in, got to bowl just five overs in one game, and not at all in the next. Hopefully, the think tank will realise that this is an aberration more than a norm - the only other place in the world I could see that lineup being remotely as successful is in England, in the early half of what the Brits rather euphemistically term their "summer". Conditions at that time are very akin to what obtained in Toronto - but I suspect we won't find them anywhere else in the cricketing world.

So going in to Pakistan, India is going to have to rely at least partially on spin - the ideal lineup would be two quicks and two spinners. And in this context, the fact that neither Nilesh, nor Rajesh Chauhan, nor Hrishikesh Kanitkar got much match practise on the Canada leg of the tour is a definite minus. Those three - or two of the three - will have a major role to play in Pakistan, and now they will have to do it cold, without any kind of match preparation. The sensible thing to have done, with a longer-range gameplan in mind, is to have played both Nilesh and Kanitkar in the final game, after the series had been won and lost, in order to give them a good look at the Pakistan batsmen - and that will go down in the books as an opportunity missed.

When it comes to batting, the gains and losses are rather more clearcut - effectively, all the Indian batsmen played themselves into form which, given that the Wills Challenge unlike Toronto is going to be decided more with bat than ball, is a good thing. Both Ganguly and Tendulkar should find Pakistan wickets better for their style of play than the seaming tracks of Toronto, while Azharuddin is back in sublime touch and Jadeja and Robin Singh are both producing their hard-hitting cameos with regularity.

The two problem areas, as seen in Toronto, could be Rahul Dravid and Saba Karim. To take the former first, it appears that the Indian think tank is not quite clear what to do with him - if Robin Singh goes up the order at the fall of an early wicket, then the tendency seems to be to push Rahul below Azharuddin and Jadeja. And that, any way you look at it, is an awful waste of a slot because if you are looking at number six or number seven, then you don't want a Rahul Dravid - what you want is more a slogger-type. The answer to this would be to anchor Dravid in the number three slot - and I suspect that on Pakistan wickets, where the ball won't be doing as much as in Toronto, Dravid would be the perfect man for that crucial slot, holding one end together in case of an early wicket and freeing the strokeplayers, Azhar, Jadeja and Robin, to do their thing at the other end.

Karim's case is rather more complicated - having been taken into the side ostensibly for his batting skills, he really didn't come good despite having opportunities. And for that, I would think, the think tank is more at fault than Karim is - I mean, what was the sense of sending him out to open the innings, anyway? If Tendulkar wasn't up to doing the job for any reason, the sensible thing to have done was opened with Dravid - Karim, by no stretch of the imagination, qualifies for the opener's slot and neither is he an innovative enough strokeplayer to play the Afridi-style pinch hitter at the top of the lineup. His best slot is number 7, coming in at the death when it is pretty much do or die - and it is here he should, I suspect, remain.

All told, I would think the biggest gain from Toronto is something that cannot be quantified, reduced to runs or wickets - and that is morale. For a team successively battered in South Africa, the West Indies and, famously, Sri Lanka, an emphatic win - never mind the conditions or even the opposition - does as much good as an iron tonic to an anaemiac. The results, in fact, had begun showing in games four and five, especially the latter - a month earlier, and the bowlers and fielders would have wilted under the kind of blitz Ijaz and Afridi launched against them. Here, they held their nerve, kept the field up (Tendulkar appeared to have rediscovered at least some of the aggression that saw him, in his early outings as skipper, attack with everything he had got irrespective of the total he had to play with) and kept cheering each other on.

To my mind, it is this gain - the boost in morale - which more than the performances of the Gangulys, Mohantys, Harvinders and others, will prove the key to India's performances in Pakistan, and later, against Sri Lanka.

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