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March 10, 1999


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How many Tests have you played?

Harsha Bhogle

Watching India in the field at Colombo, my mind went back to what our physical education master at school used to tell us. His name was NSJ Devadattam and he was a daunting man. We were petrified of him and sadly, it wasn't till it was time to leave that we realised there was a soft core within him. The two things that Mr. Devadattam hated the most were dropped catches and run-outs. "One more time," he used to say, and his palm hovered threateningly close to the face, "and you needn't come back to the pavilion. You go back the other way."

If he was in a good mood, which was very rare if we hadn't done well, he would come to you and say "Nice free gift, eh" and we remembered not to cross paths for the rest of the day. Those were small lessons, but we remembered them for a very long time. I still do and that is why it is so frustrating to see free gifts being handed out in the field.

Now, if Mr. Devadattam were to confront some of our cricketers with his "go the other way" stance, I fear the first question he will be asked is "How many Test matches have you played?" It is a question that is asked all the time and is, to my mind, an extremely sad response. It is both a sword and a shield. As a sword, it attacks fresh thought and as a shield, it prevents intellectual growth. It closes your eyes and mind to the fact that the best ideas can come from unlikely sources; or indeed from performers at lower levels who may not have the skill to perform at the international level but who have the necessary understanding.

At university, I played with a cricketer called Anantha Vatsalya. He had played for the Indian Schoolboys in 1978 and was easily the best spin bowler of his age that I have seen. He was a wonderful fielder as well and we used to chat a lot because he fielded at cover while I was at backward point. On a hot afternoon one day in a senior division match, when no wickets were falling and the fielders were back on their heels out of frustration, he sidled by between overs and said in our Hyderabadi dialect "chal, next twenty minutes mein apne beech me se ek bhi run nai chodna". It became a game and a challenge. Every time he attacked a ball that was to his left, I moved very quickly behind him. And I knew that I could attempt a pick-and-throw even when the ball was struck a bit firmly because I was sure he would already have started moving to his left.

It became a habit and it livened up several otherwise dull periods and it reached a stage where we would have a go at each other in practice sessions. One other day, he told me "In the first twenty minutes, attack every ball and hit the keeper's gloves even if there isn't a run. After that, even you misfield one or two, or you are a bit slow, they won't take chances against you."

That is very good advice for a young fielder. That, and the challenge we used to set ourselves, helped me enormously at the level I was playing at. It made us very popular with the other bowlers because we were always trying to make their figures look better. And on the odd day, a run-out, or an unlikely catch would change the course of a match.

It was very basic things like these, that are relevant at every level of the game, that Bob Simpson was trying to remind the Indian team about during his camp in Chennai. He was trying to improve their fitness as well because you cannot be a great fielder unless you are very fit. At the end of that camp, I asked one of the cricketers what he thought of it. "Aaah," he said, "It was like going back to school." There was a touch of disdain to his tone, as if to say `look-we-know-all-that-so-what's-the-point-in-wasting-time-over-it'.

Now Bob Simpson has been a very successful Test cricketer so he was spared the standard response, but this was just another example of how quickly we can allow our minds to get closed. And yet, all over the world, the most successful people go back to school. The best managers in the corporate world go back for refresher courses. Officers in the armed forces do as well.

And only recently, Glenn McGrath told me in an interview in Australia that when he bowled very badly in the first Test of the 1997 Ashes Series, he pictured himself back in the Academy at Adelaide; to try and relive what he was taught there. "I was taught that cricket is a very simple game, it is about keeping things simple. It struck me then that I was trying to do too many things and was losing out on the basics which is to bowl a very good line and length. It was a wake-up call. In the next Test I took 8 wickets...."

India's fielders need a wake-up call and they need it very very fast. But they need an open mind to be their alarm clock. If their armour consists of "How many Test matches have you played?", they will cut themselves off from a whole world of knowledge. They can sift and pick what is right for them, but the door must be open.

The best Finance Ministers learn from academician-economists. They don't ask them how many governments they were part of. Gandhi drew freely from the works of philosophers without ever asking himself `How many wars of independence have these guys fought?' When Kavi Pradeep wrote "Aaj Himalaya ki choti se phir hamne lalkara hai. Door hato ai duniyawalon, Hindustan hamara hai" , nobody asked him how many times he had visited a battlefield.

But for some reason, I haven't been able to understand why so many of our cricketers, otherwise so richly talented, coat themselves with this arrogance. It has been proven for centuries that arrogance is the biggest obstacle to learning and yet, several of our young boys allow themselves to get trapped by it. Playing Test cricket is a great achievement but it is not the only one in sport.

A great Test cricketer does not automatically become a great thinker, a great marketer, a great administrator, a great coach, a great broadcaster or a great groundsman. But several cricketers, particularly in Asia, believe this to be true. And so they remain immune to ideas from people outside this closed community and that I fear eventually retards intellectual growth.

It is this arrogance, I suspect, that is forcing their eyes to remain closed to the amazing developments taking place all over the world. Even in the areas of fitness and athleticism. More and more teams are winning matches by holding catches and by hitting the stumps. There is a revolution going on in some countries but we have our iron curtain up. We bowl well and we bat with great skill but we can't field. We see its value but allow ourselves to remain immune to it.

What is just as staggering is the fact that an emerging generation fails to see this as well. Fielding and fitness standards at the Ranji Trophy, and even at the India A level, are unbelievably poor and I suspect that is because cricketers at those levels blindly follow what the stars are doing. If they see dropped catches and missed run-outs making no difference to a cricketer's standing, they probably believe that these are not important skills to possess.

Asanka Gurusinha wrote an article on this site recently where he said that the number one reason behind Sri Lanka winning the World Cup was the difference in fitness levels that Dave Whatmore brought about. There was one other reason. The Sri Lankan team accepted Whatmore's wisdom. They did not open the record books to him. They did not ask him how many Test matches he had played or what his batting average was.

They could have. But they would not have won the World Cup if they had. You see, Whatmore played 7 Test matches at a time when Australia had lost their best players to World Series Cricket. He scored 293 runs @22.53. But they were open-minded enough to understand that the best ideas need not come only from the best cricketers.

India needs in its young and talented cricketers a similar freshness of thought. India needs young men who can grow intellectually as well; who can read about, and draw wisdom from, diverse sources.

An open, inquiring mind might even lead to more Test runs and wickets. Questions like "how much Test cricket have you played" might retard careers.

Even end them

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