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February 27, 1999

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The Rediff Interview /Arun Lal

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'I'll pick Sachin to lead in the World Cup!'

Azhar bowling at Arun Lal's Academy Arun Lal made his Test debut in India's first ever Test against Sri Lanka, in 1982-'83. He then went on to open, with Sunil Gavaskar, in India's tour of Pakistan later the same year. The right-handed opener went on to play for India against the West Indies (1987 and 1988 series) and New Zealand (1988), his career spanning a total of 16 Tests in which he averaged 26.03. And when he quit, the general feeling was that given his talent and innate ability, he was unlucky to have such a short shelf life.

In more recent times, he has been in the limelight as a television commentator and, more importantly, as Saurav Ganguly's mentor. Lal, in this latter capacity, was responsible for helping the left-hander get over the trauma of his debut series against Australia, and make a strong return to the Indian team in course of the 1996 tour of England.

Arup Chanda caught up with Bengal's coach recently, for an exhaustive interview. Excerpts:

Eden Gardens recently witnessed both a birth, and a death of sorts. To take them in their order, Arun, what are your views on the Asian Test Championship as an idea? Does the experience, thus far, indicate that the larger version, a World Championship of Tests, is viable? And if yes, how would you do it -- as a one-shot tournament over a period of three, four months, or as a planned home and away type, three-Test matchups spread over four years? Could you explain your reasons, please?

It is a good idea. If a World Cup for one-dayers can be held, then why not one for Test cricket? Asian Test Championship is a good precursor, and if it succeeds, then there is no reason not to try for the larger version. Ideally, it should comprise home and away Tests, to negate any unfair advantage to any side. You cannot have a tournament spread over three, four years, though -- it is difficult to keep track of things over such an extended period, to maintain enthusiasm among the public. People will lose all interest. Ideally, assuming the logistics work out, the tournament should be finished with, inside three, four months.

The points system has come in for some discussion -- especially the rationale for not awarding any points for the second innings performances. What are your views on this? Do you think the system works fine as it is, or does it need fine tuning?

I feel that there is something to be said for awarding points for the second innings, because that gives a team an opportunity to come back. It also means that even if the two sides are evenly balanced, and the Test is heading for a draw, both teams have plenty to play for out there. It is good to have a lot of options. Obviously, some rethinking, some fine tuning, is still necessary.

To get to the crowd trouble the other day -- could you give us your views on the dismissal that sparked the trouble? Given the clause that once the bat is grounded, if it is then lifted to avoid injury the batsman is not out, was that a good decision? Further, in Akram's shoes, would you have recalled the batsman? If yes, why? If not, why not?

It was unfortunate, no question about that. I am not sure whether the bat was grounded or not. Even if it was grounded ,it was lifted up not to avoid injury. By the laws, he was out. I do not think the infringement was deliberate. The onus is on the batsman to avoid the fielder, who was there legitimately, to collect the throw. Tendulkar crashed into the fielder, and it was his fault.

And no, I would not have recalled the batsman. It was unfortunate, the way the dismissal happened, but rules are rules, and that is how the game is played. Every day, in every match, batsmen who are not out are given out by the umpire -- would you recall all of them? Frankly, had I been Sachin, I would not have returned to the crease even if they had called me back. When you are not out and the umpire gives you out, tough -- but that is cricket.

The last time there was trouble at the Gardens, an official government report had suggested that capacity be reduced, and certain other preventive measures be put in place. None of which appears to have been done. Would you say that what we saw at the Gardens was a systemic failure, on the part of the police and the administration?

I am not competent enough to answer this question. I have no idea what measures need to be taken. But it would be a pity to have the capacity of Eden Gardens reduced. This is unique to Calcutta. Nowhere in the world do you have so many people watching cricket. Such an environment does not exist anywhere else in the world, and it would be a pity to dilute that uniqueness.

Given the volatile nature of the crowd at the Gardens, what steps would you suggest to prevent a recurrence? And would you be in favour of a ban, for whatever period, on the venue as punishment?

I am not in a position to answer this question too, beyond saying that the incident was truly unfortunate. Something like that should never have happened. Before thinking of a ban, however, many aspects need to be examined -- like lack of security, provocation by Pakistani players, etc. A ban is a last resort, and the incident should be judged in its entirety before any decision is taken. Yes, I am also embarrassed by the incident because I consider myself a diehard Calcuttan. However, that does not mean that we suggest a ban as a knee jerk response.

'The Indian team does not play to potential' is something we hear after every defeat. What precisely does that mean? Why does a team that has a Srinath, a Kumble, a Saurav, Dravid, Sachin, Azhar, all players who can walk into any team in the world, get such bad results time and again? How would you analyse the phenomenon, and what corrective measures would you prescribe?

Every team plays according to its potential. Who decides what is a team's true potential? Success and runs decide it. If you don't get runs, if you haven't won games, then you don't have potential, it is as simple as that. If you are lacking in team spirit, killer instinct, talent these are all part of what we call 'potential'. If you lose, it means the other team is better, that it played better. It could be that the other team had that little bit extra, in terms of team spirit, self belief, and the lust to win.

Look for instance at the first Test in Chennai. Sachin Tendulkar's performance was phenomenal, but in the team as a whole, the spark was missing. Pakistan had a desire to win, India did not. India did not have that fire in its belly, and that made the difference.

How do you read the morale of the team, at this point? Time and again, the body language of the Indians in the field seems to indicate a strange defeatism. Is the side aggressive enough to win with any consistency? What seems to be the problem?

I agree about the body language theory. Indians need to be more aggressive. The Pakistanis are good at that, they are aggressive and show it, we seem to be far tamer, going through the motions, so yes, I would say the Indian team lacks that aggressive edge.

When the entire media had written him off, you had consistently been making a case for Saurav Ganguly. It is now over three years since he made his re-entry into international cricket. How do you assess his cricketing development during this period? What has he gained, and lost, in this time, how has he grown as a cricketer and as a person? What aspects would you think he still needs to work on?

I have always been a fan of Saurav, even before he played Test cricket. To me, his talent was always apparent. During the last couple of years, what has changed is that he has matured as an individual. He is a lot more relaxed as a person and as a player, he has been handling the pressure in a better way, he says the right thing at the right time -- he has surpassed my expectations. From a good cricketer he has become a big cricketer. He is among the top seven in world cricket, today. He is not as easily shaken up, he is a lot more balanced, he has found his place in international cricket and is sure of himself now. I would say that since his comeback, he has matured beyond his age.

Ganguly is now being mentioned as a potential vice captain of the side -- and a future captain.How do you assess his captaincy skills -- what are his strengths, and weaknesses? How do you rate his strategic skills, and how does he rate as a leader of men?

He is a potential vice-captain, he is also a potential captain. To me, though, Sachin will always be the number one choice. His enthusiasm, his zest, his obvious lust for winning has an electric effect on the team. But after Sachin, it is Saurav. Saurav performs better when he is captain. He is very aggressive, totally transformed. When he is a player, he plays in one fashion, as captain he is a different individual. I think if he gets the opportunity he will do very well, his strategy and skills are all good, he has not had the opportunity, that is all. When he leads Bengal, I find him very impressive.

There is much talk that India's opening problem can be solved by having Saurav go up to the number one spot. How do you rate his technical competence to do the job? And is it a good idea, to your way of thinking? He appears reluctant to go up the order -- why? And would you say he is wasted at number six? If not the opening slot, where then should he bat in Tests?

The ideal position for Saurav is the middle order, where he has such consistency. Why promote him to opener and spoil that, when he is averaging 50+ in the number six slot? Ramesh is doing well as an opener, it might be an idea to promote Dravid to fill the other slot -- technically, Rahul is very very good. But yes, Saurav has been running out of partners -- it might be an idea for him to switch places with Azhar, a left hander in the middle of the lineup will be good for the team.

We are less than 80 days away from the World Cup. At this point in time, how would you assess the readiness of the Indian squad for the big event? If you were in charge, how would you plan the preparation of the team from this point on?

There is very little option. We have a calender which is very full. World Cup is not our focus now. At the moment, I cannot comment, because the Asian Test Championship seems to be more in focus.

England in May is a different ball game from playing ODIs anywhere else in the world. Keeping the conditions in mind, what kind of team would you pick for the competition? Could you elaborate on team composition, the type of bowlers to go with, the kind of batsmen who could handle the conditions?

Like I said, we have a long way to go yet. The Indians have done well in England in the past. Saurav, Sachin, Robin they all do well in England. In 1983, Roger Binny, Sandhu, Madan Lal none of them were big stars, but they all bowled line and length, exploited the conditions prefectly. Saurav is not a regular bowler, but he might repeat a Toronto. I would pick more fast bowling options than spinners, because the conditions there are conducive to swing bowling Agarkar could be very very good there.

Who would you pick to lead India in the World Cup, and why?

I would pick Sachin to lead in the World Cup, he has always been my choice. I have the highest regard for Azhar, he is the most successful captain India has ever had. But Sachin will provide that extra aggressiveness to the side, in the real sense. Azhar lacks in aggression, which is something the side needs for a competition like that. Also, Azhar is not a pro-active captain, he believes he doesn't have to do much in the field because everybody knows what he is supposed to do, but a captain has to be more involved in the proceedings out there. I favour Sachin -- but then, time is short, and I am not sure anyone wants to change captains at this late date.

If, at this point, you were asked to pick your favourite to win the Cup, which team would it be and why?

My favourite any day, is India. But on current form, I lack the conviction in that belief. On form today, I would say South Africa are the favourites. They are a consistent, well balanced side, with very good all round strength and further, they are a brilliant fielding side. But you have to remember that favourites have generally not won World Cups in the past -- generally, the team that plays well, wins.

You have had a closer look at Laxmi Ratan Shukla than most -- how do you assess his ability and potential?

He is very aggressive and spirited, that is his strong point. But he is also young and raw, there is lots of scope for improvement. One thing that needs to be mentioned is that he is an exceptional fielder, ideal for one day cricket. He bowls with fire and when he bats, he hits the ball really hard. He has the exuberance of youth, but when youth fades and the pressure to perform remains is when he will have to decide whether he wants to be a batsman first, or bowler. In my book, he is a definite choice for the World Cup.

Do think he was discriminated against, he hasn't found a place in the side against Lanka?

Not at all, I guess the team management and captain had their reasons.

You are now running a cricket academy -- could you explain in some detail what your objectives are, and how it functions?

To give as many youngsters as possible a chance to play, and not merely to select very few players. Only if we broaden the base will we have more quality at the top. Of course, those who show promise are given more attention, but the basic idea is to get as many youngsters playing as possible.

I find it very satisfying to work with kids. Admission to my academy is open for any boy above six years. In Calcutta, there is plenty of enthusiasm, but the facilities are not available. There are no grounds in many schools. In my academy, the kids learn discipline and character building, alongside cricket skills. Right now, there are 400 boys in my academy, and 16 coaches who have played first class cricket. I concentrate on coaching, everything else is managed by my wife, Devyani.

Interestingly, a whole lot of ex-cricketers have been setting up academies of late. Do you think it is time for some kind of tie-up, even at an informal level, between these various private academies? Would this kind of coordination have any positive benefits, that you can see? If yes, what kind of a structure would you propose?

Well, there definitely is a case for some kind of tieup. Already, teams from my academy visit Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay. It costs us over four lakh every year, and ours is the only academy where we do not charge the kids. All expenses are borne by Bournvita and Cadburys, the official sponsors. We played matches against Brijesh Patel's and Kiran More's academy. It is a start, I am sure things will get better.

Despite having a wealth of top quality talent at its disposal, the Indian cricket board is yet to put up an official academy. What do you suppose the hitch is? How would you suggest that the talent we have at our disposal (after all, we have batsmen of the quality of Gavaskar, Jimmy Amarnath, Vishwanath, Vengsarkar et al, and bowlers like Kapil, Prasanna, Venkat, Chandra and such to call on for expertise) is not further wasted?

An official cricket academy is a must, absolutely, there is no doubt about that. But as to the other -- you may have talent, but are they available? How many of those talented players are selectors? Is it because they lack credentials? They are neither in the board, nor are they in the selection committee, because they do not have the time, or do not want to spare the time. The thing is, very few past players make themselves available for honorary services. And having said that, I believe selectors should be well paid -- and then held responsible for results, after all, it is a huge responsibility.

Coaching Bengal is pretty much an honorary job, isn't it? So how do you make ends meet?

I am supposed to get an honorarium which I have not got for the last two years, frankly. But it is okay, I have a consultancy firm, I have a contract with ESPN, and I run the academy. I am doing okay.

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