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Rediff.com  » Cricket » Harsha Bhogle chats with Prem Panicker

Harsha Bhogle chats with Prem Panicker

Last updated on: September 18, 2009 

'People believe there is only sensational stuff happening in Indian cricket'

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His proudest possession and the one that best defines him is a photograph of a group of spectators holding up a banner that reads 'Harsha Bhogle Fan Club'. What gives it that special edge is that the photograph was taken in Pakistan, and features a group of spectators from that country.

It was in 1990 that the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad alumnus by education and chemical engineer by training went, by happenstance, to cover India's tour of England that year on behalf of Mumbai tabloid Mid-Day, and produced writing of such astonishing luminosity that by the time the tour was over, his became one of the most sought-after bylines in Indian cricket writing.

In 1995, when ESPN arrived in India, Harsha was almost the first name to be signed onto the commentary panel a remarkable achievement in itself, in a sport whose on-air coverage is not just dominated, but monopolised, by former players.

Fourteen years later, he remains the public face of ESPN; a 2008 poll saw cricket lovers worldwide vote him their 'most favorite commentator'.

His pre-eminence owes to a unique combination of gifts: An incisive knowledge of the game, coupled with extempore on-air eloquence of a particularly high order. Add to this an ability to step back from the immediacy of television coverage and produce writings characterised by rare insight bordering on the prescient, and you understand why, in an industry where shelf-life is measured in terms of a cricketing series, or a cricketing season, Harsha has thrived for two decades and counting.

Recently, the premier commentator released a compilation of his writings, Out of the Box, that brings together his views on subjects ranging from Tests and one-day cricket to the latest form, Twenty20; and from cricketing greats he has known at close quarters to the changing rules and regulations that govern the game he so clearly loves.

rediff.com Cricket Guru Prem Panicker spoke to Harsha recently:

In recent weeks, you brought out a collection of your columns in book form -- Out of the Box. Sunny Gavaskar celebrated his 60th birthday with Straight Drive, a collection of 60 of his columns. And there was also the book on Indo-Pak cricket, Shadows Across The Playing Field, which is effectively two long columns written by Shashi Tharoor and Shahryar Khan.

All interesting reads, but they raise a larger question: Why is there no good, original cricket literature coming out of India?

When high quality television came to India, I was so optimistic about quality writing coming out. Television tells you the whole story, shows you replays, Hawkeye, super slow mo, six different commentators talking about it, so there is not much left for the cricket reporter to do.

So I thought this was when great cricket writing would come in, because eventually the media must do what television cannot do to survive.

Across the world, radio has evolved into a beautiful chatty commercial medium, which is something television cannot do for commercial reasons, and you have to respect that.

I thought writing would then go to another level, where someone sits and writes a beautiful story of all that happened during the day. It went exactly the other way. It went into a situation where editors were asking reporters only to go to the press conference and get the quotes back and there is nothing more boring in Indian cricket than quotes from a press conference.

And what I find equally baffling is every newspaper goes to the same press conference, and the quotes are completely different, because we don't have a system of recording them.

As a result I think good cricket writing died. We still have some very few good writers; if you look at the newspaper space I think Anand Vasu is doing a very good job with the Hindustan Times, and in the magazine space Cricinfo has got some good writers, Sharda Ugra writes well for India Today -- there is small list of people who write very well.

But in the mainstream, where are the cricket writers? If cricket writers get celebrated, there will be more cricket writers coming in, that is number one. And if you want to put them together as a book, there is one thing that goes against that, which is that no one buys books in India. No one buys cricket books in India.

I was speaking to Akash Chopra recently and he told me his first print run for Beyond the Blues was 3,000 copies. I intend to read his book, I haven't read it yet, but -- 3,000 was his first print run.

So if you get a second print run you sell 5,000 copies? If you look at the amount of effort you put into writing it, 5,000 copies will generate how much money for you? So you won't find too many cricket books coming out of India.

By contrast, Adam Gilchrist's autobiography apparently sold 50,000, 60,000 copies in no time.

Yeah, it did well in India too. I remember going to Crossword about a fortnight after the book was released, and they said they had received some 30-odd copies and had run out.

That is not a bad number to sell in that time. And there is another thing that is happening as well, which is that technology is making the message shorter and shorter. So I wonder if a new generation will actually be able to paint a story. When you find that eight letter words are becoming three letter words to save space, and now people are tweeting -- people like you; when new technology comes along you have to be part of it -- so then, where will people write a nice 800, 850 word story?

We used to follow cricket in the nineties, which was a seminal period for Indian cricket. A true history of that period, warts and all, would be an invaluable addition to the canon. But who wants a true story? If you did write the story of what actually happened during that time, the first thing that will happen is that the players from that era will put out statements saying it is not true, the Board will put out 'one big happy family' statements.

Correct. And I'll tell you what else will happen -- the news channels will pick out all the 'sensational' stuff. Because the news channels are only geared towards sensational stuff -- and with some channels I suspect even that the truth is becoming far too heavy a burden to bear -- people believe there is only sensational stuff happening in Indian cricket.

Like for example I know people who think every game is fixed; I know people who think Indian selectors are jokers, and everybody other than the eleven should be playing.

So everything has to be news in India, just as there has to be a cruel mother-in-law, a docile daughter-in-law, a philandering son, so even in your group of eleven players all these characters have to be there. So, Tendulkar must have something wrong with Dravid, and there must be a conspiracy against Ganguly, and there must be something about Yuvraj, so I don't know how many people are now interested in cricket as a game.


Image: The articulate Harsha Bhogle
Video: Dominic Xavier
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'Australia don't know what it is to have their backs to the wall'

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Moving on to the Ashes, Harsha, the Aussies of today look a lot like the Indians of ten years ago: great team on paper, good openers, big middle order, attacking bowlers, but no results to match.

I was reading somewhere that Australia outscored England by 6.49 runs per wicket during this Ashes series -- that's a huge differential, the highest in Test history for a losing team.

Reminds you of the 1977-78 series where India outscored Australia by some 5.34 and still contrived to lose. What do you suppose went wrong?

I have a theory about Australia, and it is the converse of why some teams never win. A lot of teams never win because they don't know how to win. They've never been in winning situations before, so they get into good situations -- like Sri Lanka in the early years, they got into a lot of good situations and threw away games.

We used to do that a lot, too.

Everyone does. Bangladesh got into good situations occasionally and threw them away -- because you don't know how to win, you don't know how to close out games. It's like you know exactly the kind of house you want to buy and you know exactly what you want to do -- and suddenly the idea of buying a house terrifies you.

Similarly, the idea of winning terrifies some teams. So they can never win.

Teams like Australia, which have always won, don't know what to do in situations where they are not winning. Ricky Ponting said we are at our best with our backs to the wall. I think that is exactly the converse of reality.

Australia don't even know what it is to have their backs to the wall, and when they get in that position they don't know what to do.

Australia's cricket to my mind has been defined by extreme confidence bordering on arrogance. They go out assuming they are going to win, and the opposition also believes Australia is going to win.

Now all of a sudden, after the India series Down Under, people are saying hang on man, let's stand up and look them in the eye and maybe we can win. Then, when Australia find themselves in a difficult position where they can't back themselves as hard, maybe they become ordinary players like anybody else.

Maybe it was a combination of ability and extreme confidence that made them super players.

I've got some friends who argue that Monkeygate, and the other controversies of the Sydney Test on our last tour was when things began changing around for Australia.

I've got a friend who has this theory that because they did wrong to us then, the evil karma is now affecting them!

Interestingly, what happened in Sydney was, I was there at the time, I met a lot of Australians who said the team did not represent them, who said we Aussies are not like this. And I'll tell you honestly, there's a lot of talk, but I have never met an Aussie who was racist.

I've met really romantic cricket lovers in Australia, and I met some very senior ranking people who told me this is as bad as it gets, I've seen nothing worse than this since Bodyline.

So suddenly the Aussie players found themselves antagonised by their own public, and they got pushed into being good boys, which is not their style. I think post the Rahul Dravid-Anil Kumble era it is not our style either, but anyway -- so that is my theory about Australia from a distance.

Also look at the scoreboard, how many times Australia were 200, 220-5 and Gilchrist took them out. Now because they don't have Gilchrist, 200-5 is not becoming 380-400, it is becoming 260, and I think that is why they are losing as well.

It is funny, because when you think of Australia in its pomp you think of the arrogant opening combination, you think of Ricky Ponting at three, you look at Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath as the differentiators, but you don't often think of Gilchrist as the pivot, the main differentiator.

Gilchrist was in many ways the defining player because at one end you had McGrath and Warne, once in a lifetime bowlers, Warne even more so than McGrath, and you had Ponting as a once in a lifetime cricketer, you had Hayden, Langer, Waugh actually, if you look down that team there were five stars: There was Hayden, Ponting, Gilchrist, McGrath and Warne.

Now look at the support cast: Very often, what happens in matches is the stars on either side cancel each other out, and the support staff wins you the game.

Now who was the support staff? It was Langer, Martyn, Gillespie, Lee for a while now this calibre of support staff, other teams would die to have in their first eleven.

Even if you look at this series, I think you will find I haven't looked at the numbers I think you will find that what has tilted games England's way is the runs made by numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10.

The good thing to come out of all this is, where there was once clear daylight between Australia and the rest, there is now a tight grouping at the top of the rankings -- a good thing for cricket overall, if it can revive interest in the game.

I think the top three or four teams are now playing good Test cricket. Not the others. I think Test cricket depends to a large extent one on who's playing, and two on what kind of surface they are playing on.


Image: Born in Hyderabad, Harsha Bhogle is an IIM-A alumnus

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'I think there is a place for 50 overs cricket'

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Actually, Sri Lanka at number two in the Test rankings is a bit, um...

I'd like to see how many they've won away.

Exactly. They play a lot at home and win a lot at home.

There's something about those rankings -- no disrespect to (Nuwan) Kulasekara at all, he is doing well, and Sri Lanka always seems to come up with some guy who is doing well with the new ball, but do you look at him and say he is number two in the world or number one in the world?

In all fairness, Gautam Gambhir is a seriously good cricketer, but do you look at him and say world number one? I hope he becomes that some day, but today is he number one?

Yeah, both team and individual rankings. But moving on, we've got three forms of the game now and something has to give. Shane Warne said recently that he thought one day cricket should be abandoned altogether and cricket should resolve into the shortest and the longest form. Do you think it is that sort of either/or situation, or do you see all three forms coexist?

In 50 overs, a good batsman batted 30, 35 overs, which is a session and a bit in Test cricket. You would assume that a guy who could bat 30 overs in a one day game could bat a little more in Tests, you had the patience to bat a little more in Tests.

Maybe in Tests you could have gotten a nick and more slip fielders were around to take it, but you at least had the patience and skill to bat that long.

But now, the transition from 20 overs to 5-day Tests would be too big.

My feeling is that initially you start getting two kinds of players, one is the kind of player who can play five day cricket, and one the kind who can only play T20.

But in course of time, as T20 becomes more and more prolific, and becomes more and more paying, why would anyone want to play Test cricket if you are only going to play five Tests a year?

For example, how much is V V S Laxman going to play this year? When did he last play a game? He had a bit role in the IPL, but now his next game is going to be three Tests at home in November-December, after that he gets two Tests in Bangladesh, but then he doesn't get another Test till next September.

So when and where does he play cricket?

So everyone has to start moving towards T20, and that is why I think there is a place for 50 overs cricket as a bridge between these two.

My feeling is 50 overs will either undergo a metamorphosis, become two 25-over games or whatever people have come up with, which in a sense is a longer T20 game, or you might start having bilateral fifty over games becoming lesser and lesser, and have only Champions Trophies and World Cups.

I think that even more than when Kerry Packer came, this is the most dynamic phase the game has ever gone through. Lalit Modi was saying the other day that the Board wasn't making a lot of money five years ago. So that is a huge challenge -- what do you do in a money rich regime?


Image: Harsha wrote a classy biography of Mohammad Azharuddin

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'We lost in the T20 World Cup because we couldn't play the short pitched ball'

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That is one area I want to come back to, but staying with matches for the moment, in a recent column you wrote about what a good thing it was that Rahul Dravid was back in the one day side.

Good thing for Rahul, but not for Rohit Sharma, the 23 year old he has replaced.

Exactly. You made the point about Rohit wanting to ask himself why the future of Indian cricket, which is what he has been billed as, has been overtaken by a man 14 years older.

Fair point -- but one thing I have never quite understood, and we've spoken of this with regard to many other players of potential and promise, is why every time something goes wrong, we toss them out and shrug and say, no problem, plenty more where they came from?

Wouldn't you expect selectors to write a report saying listen, this boy has potential, he is the future, he has a problem however with his technique, and for the BCCI to say okay, if he has a problem, let's send him to the National Cricket Academy.

What is happening is, a lot of our boys are playing very well for short periods. Ishant Sharma played very well for a short period and has hit a barrier; Irfan Pathan played very well for a short period and where is R P Singh now?

When I saw R P in England I thought I had got it completely wrong about him, he is a seriously good bowler. Where's R P Singh suddenly gone? The same with Rohit Sharma. They are all looking good for small periods.

I actually thought Rohit should have been replaced by Virat Kohli.

I thought Rohit needed a break to go back and ask himself questions, because good players come back better after a reality check -- if they don't come back better you probably picked the wrong person anyway. I thought they'd go with Virat Kohli.

So obviously someone somewhere thought hang on, we need someone to bat 30, 35 overs, can this kid do that? So the thing in favor of Rahul Dravid coming back is that he has kept himself fit, and beyond a point you should be able to say the fittest, if he is in form, should play.

Like the point I made in that article about Hayden, who was dropped and who came back and averaged 54. The only person who should be disappointed should be Virat, because he went and made runs in a tournament in Australia, he is in form, and he could have been picked.

But how long do you see Rahul Dravid playing? Because what will happen now, Prem, is Rahul Dravid goes to South Africa and plays out of his skin. What you are going to do -- he then becomes your regular number three, and you've been grooming Suresh Raina for that position for how long?

Which brings me back to my original question -- shouldn't the Board be doing something in the nature of development?

I am beginning to wonder now if there isn't an inherent commercial element to India winning.

India has to win for the game to stay popular. So, we lost in the T20 World Cup because we couldn't play the short pitched ball; because we lost, ratings fell; because ratings fell, advertising fell -- so we are going, let's create a team that is best suited to the conditions and has the best chance of winning, and not worry about things like long term development.

Let's look at it this way: Who is going to open the batting for you? Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar? Gambhir can play in two forms, but he is coming off a bad patch just now. Tendulkar is no longer the guy who can hit over the top first ball. And then there is Dravid at three. Who is going to give you a move on?

I honestly am not sure if Rahul should bat at three or five he has played some of his best one day cricket at five, in 2003-04-05 when he was our best one day player, he was finishing matches with Yuvraj and company, and he took that form into the T20s as well recently where again he batted five.

I would not mind seeing Raina at three because you want to see if Raina has it in him to play at three on all surfaces. You can't have a situation where our blue eyed boys are very good at batting up the order on flat tracks and have no qualms about going down the order when the going gets tough, and saying Rahulbhai ko aane do na upar(Let Rahulbhai come up the order).

So send Raina at three, Yuvraj at four, Rahul five, Dhoni six. And where does that leave Dinesh Karthik? Every time you pick him he scores, so what do you do with him?


Image: Sunil Gavaskar was one of Harsha Bhogle's early mentors

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'How many great captains is the IPL throwing up?'

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To move to the IPL for a bit, Harsha, I watched large parts of the second season, 59 matches in 45 days, and it began to feel like an endurance test more than anything else -- for the spectator, that is. And now we are talking, in season four, of 90 matches.

Again in 45 days!

Right.

I was having a chat with someone about that recently, and I was telling him my vision of IPL is that it becomes a three or four month tournament, and that we start having slots for Test cricket in between.

Sort of like the English Premier League, where you have 16, 18 teams rather than eight.

16 teams, each playing the others twice, you have a fixed schedule of games, home and away, in India and abroad, supporters start travelling along with the team -- and yeah, I'd like to see it go abroad, be played, for instance, in the United States provided we can have good pitches.

But if you are going to play 90 games in 45 days, you are cramming all the action.

Clearly what will happen over time is that people will start following one or two teams only.

If, for example, you grew up in Chennai but you live in Mumbai and you like Ganguly, you'll say I'll watch only two teams. So viewership will start getting polarised, like happens to an extent with soccer where Man U games are higher, Arsenal games are higher, similarly a Mumbai Indians game will be higher or a KKR game will be higher.

So if you get 90-odd games, not everyone will watch all the games but they will watch the games of their teams, and maybe a second team. I suspect, it is my gut feel, that everyone has two teams they follow -- I don't know how it was with you, did you follow one team?

Not really, I was watching various teams for various reasons. Like watching KKR with the sort of morbid fascination you bring to a train wreck. Or watching Warne's outfit to see if he could outdo his own first season performance, produce a different bag of tricks.

All the tricks in the world though, won't help you produce rabbits out of the hat if you only have squirrels -- what can you do?

I was also quite fascinated watching Punjab, especially in the field. You had Yuvraj Singh as the captain of record, but you had long periods where you didn't even see him in the frame it was Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara doing all the field setting and changing bowlers around, discussing among themselves, while Yuvraj was pretty much a spectator.

For people like you who like to watch these aspects of the game, television lenses are getting so much narrower, so powerful -- the good thing is it brings you right in to the action, but the bad thing is you can't see anything around the immediate focus, the bat and the ball.

So sometimes you miss out on what is going on all around, because you are imprisoned by what the producer is showing you. So while it is brilliant to see what you are getting to see, you end up missing much of the larger picture, which is why being at the ground is sometimes more fun, because you get to see all that is going on, to see all these other things.

Actually, while on that, consider the question the IPL is inadvertently throwing up: where are the next India captains? How many great captains is the IPL throwing up?

Right -- most franchises are led by foreigners or past captains. On another note, the IPL has effectively killed off the ICL, and I am not sure that is altogether a good thing.

Two ways of looking at it: A strong ICL was good for IPL, because if you have strong competition you tend to keep your product up as well. But on the other hand, if you are going to increase the teams in the IPL, then there is enough opportunities for existing players anyway, and you don't then need an alternative.

There are about 10 or 12 very good players in the ICL, and they are in demand in the IPL now which is a good thing, because they were good players who for some reason had been rejected by the system, and who in the ICL found ways to prove themselves.

But the minute you start going into 10 teams, 11 teams, as the ICL did, you end up with diluting the base.

Against that, the reason I wanted ICL to work is because I am against monopolies, especially the kind we have in India with cricket. I thought a good ICL could have pushed the BCCI to better itself.

Prem, you've lived in the US, the home of franchised sport, where all sport is franchise-driven. How many alternatives did you see for the NBA or the NFL?

I believe that all sport has to be franchise-driven, necessarily, and then you take time off to play for your country. But when you have all these franchise driven sports, you tend to create monopolies -- like, does the NBA have a smaller rival somewhere? It still works -- and the reason is, while the IPL may not have competition, each of the franchises within it is very competitive.

So they will start searching for players, and the competition within them will keep the IPL entity alive. Unlike say a Ranji Trophy system where there is competition on paper, but it is really a very docile competition.

There's nothing docile about the IPL. The owners are now getting into it full time; you saw how initially the owners were leaving it to the cricket managers. Now they are into it full time.

Take for granted that the IPL has put down roots...

Typically, problems materialise in the second third and fourth years; the third year in fact is always the key year in any enterprise.

Yeah, but even allowing for that, it's almost a given that the IPL will survive and even thrive, so the question is, is this the cue we need to refashion our domestic cricket?

I think so. I think the best cricket, the best results, are produced by profitable enterprises. The best product eventually unless you are in a capitalist culture where everyone comes and forms cartels to cheat the consumer otherwise, the best deal comes from a profit driven enterprise.

My original excitement with the IPL and the idea of franchise-driven sport was, eventually the state associations go away and you only have 15 franchises in India, and the franchises produce three teams each a four day team, a one day team and a T20 team.

Just as the Yorkshire County Cricket Club is responsible for producing three teams. So similarly everything is done by the franchises, which are profit driven enterprises, and the BCCI is a governing council sitting up there framing the laws, picking the teams, having a selection committee, like a centre, with federations. And that is what I'd love to see even today.

Utopian, but will we ever get there?

No, because the state associations that exist have been fattened on grants. Any system where you are fattened on grants, you will not want to pursue excellence -- which is the bane of all sport in India, and the bane of federations in India.

Hockey, for instance, doesn't take off because hockey sits back and takes money from the government; archery sits back and gets money from the government, so they don't have to become good.

Associations don't have to become good because they sit back and get money from the BCCI. Which is why I was very excited about the franchise structure, where all Indian cricket is franchise-driven.

Currently people say the problem with the Ranji Trophy, for instance, is that no one watches Division 2, no one watches Tripura play, for instance, which is fair comment.

But if you have 15 private franchises, a Mallya, for instance, won't want to come 15th, so he will go around picking the best players for his franchise and so will the others, and suddenly the league becomes competitive, people come to watch, and when the spectators come, it becomes profitable.

Right. Plus, give each franchise one stadium, and each of them will vie with the others to make their stadium the best, most state of the art, and for no cost to the BCCI.

Yes, and another aspect of this is, don't the Bulls and the Lakers for instance do road shows? They want to popularise their players -- and that is what the franchises here will do in this system, because when selling jerseys becomes an important part of your financial model you want your four day players to be popular too.

The BCCI will no longer have to market the sport -- the franchises will do that for you. The BCCI can do what it does best -- sell television rights and pick teams, in that order.

You keep thinking, wishing, that at some point the administrators will learn, but nothing really changes. What the heck, you even have five senior players now pointing fingers at corruption in the Delhi cricket association. Do you see anything at all that tells you there will be change for the better?

I think democracy in some ways is a flawed way of running things.

You think a Hitler -- or a Lalit Modi is the answer?

But look at what has worked the best -- one man taking all the decisions. You may like or dislike him, and many people like him, many more dislike him. A lot of people like him, a lot of people dislike him, and he cares too hoots about those who dislike him. But he is running it, and he's made a success of it for two years.

Like if you say, if you win one Wimbledon you are good, if you win five you are great. So I think it will take five years for us to decide if the IPL has been the greatest thing on earth.

But today, an administrator is decided as the votes he gets, so Tripura is as important as Mumbai or Karnataka or Bengal or Delhi. So the Tripura administrator has to be wooed as well.

So suppose there is corruption in Tripura, and I am saying Tripura off the top of my head, one guy there you know in Tripura is going to win the election, so you still want him on your side warts and all. So he will survive because he can win the local election, and you get the vote you need to continue being in the Board.

So this vicious cycle will continue.

Correct -- are all our ministers good? Don't we dream of a situation where you have one Manmohan Singh or an Abdul Kalam, who then says right, who is the best man to run the railways, I'll pick him, who is the best man to run defence, but it doesn't work like that.

What is working with our cricket is, the enormous public demand is just throwing up talent, but that is what demand always does -- it throws up talent, but it doesn't throw up work ethic.

So our cricketers are all slightly short on work ethic, slightly short on temperament, but very high on ability.

Yeah, and because you are not held accountable, you get to do what you want. For instance, when I was writing on cricket, which is almost ten years ago, I remember writing about the dud they call the NCA.

One thing that has happened is, unlike in the past where the NCA used to be a two- month vacation school, today, Rahul Dravid can go to the NCA in the off season and train. You've got good facilities, there, a good trainer there, a good physio there, so the next season is in three weeks, Dravid can go to the NCA and train. Which is one of the best things that could have happened.

How good it is, I don't know because I haven't been there lately, but that is what the objective should be. The NCA should be a growing area for young kids.

Where Rohit Sharma should right now be practicing to cope with the short of length ball.

Right, he needs to go there. Dav Whatmore's there, he's been an international coach; Suresh Raina should go there, am I doing something wrong? See, if you are a Suresh Raina you cannot be doing too many things wrong, because then you wouldn't have gotten this far.

You are probably doing one or two things wrong somewhere, some bad habit must have crept in, like happens with writers as well, we take ourselves for granted and start writing rubbish sometimes.

Just like that, for cricketers, slowly bad habits come in, you go and sort them out. Like going for Vipassana -- you go there, cleanse yourself and come back, which earlier the NCA could not do.


Image: Unlike many cricket commentators, Harsha straddles both the television and print worlds

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'Why are Dravid and Laxman guaranteed selection in the Test team?'

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While on that, one of the best cricketing quotes from recent times was during the Ashes, when one of the commentators said something about how a player had made the same mistake again, doesn't he practice at all? And Ian Chappell almost off handedly said, 'Oh well, it depends on what he is practicing -- he could be practicing his mistakes.'

Which is so true! I've heard this story about this Indian batsman who didn't feel comfortable playing the short pitched ball, and he didn't want to seem be worried by the short pitched ball, so he only played volleys in the nets so that he could feel good.

It's like, suppose we were very weak at logarithms, in math, but we insisted on doing only additions or subtractions before the exam. You felt very good because you were getting all your sums right, but that is not what is going to come in the exam.

So you can practice your drive all you want, but that is not what is going to come at you, it is the short pitched ball. Probably that is why, earlier they said practice makes perfect, now they say perfect practice makes perfect.

I think you'll find that true of the good players. I'm sure Warne busted his gut at practice. When he was feeling good he didn't, but when he wanted to, he did. You see the story of Warne, Tendulkar, of the geniuses, and you realise their genius came out of the nets.

When things were going wrong Warne went to the nets and bowled his shoulder out.

Yeah, and similarly Tendulkar's obsession with practice is legendary.

Right, and yet he goes through phases where he doesn't want to bat. Like apparently Gavaskar went through the entire 1987 series against England without playing a single ball in the nets. He just didn't want to bat -- and the first ball he faced, in Chennai, he straight drove Bruce Reid for four.

I think the great players know their game, their game is all built on hard work. And I sometimes wonder if the Rainas and the Rohit Sharmas know that.

That brings me to a related thought -- from my time following cricket, I know the Rahul Dravids and Anil Kumbles are generous with their advice, but do we have in place a system of mentoring, so the veterans can pass on their knowledge to the younger ones?

I think it exists in an unstructured form, in change rooms and while travelling.

If you want it, I am there, that sort of thing?

Yes, and I am not sure a classroom setting will work anyway. If you are sitting together, watching a game together, you drop a nugget somewhere, someone picks up a nugget somewhere.

I'll grant that things have improved considerabl -- I remember Srinath once telling me that no one -- he named names, but let's not go there -- ever taught him anything.

Yeah and if you ask him who was the person who taught him the least, he will name that person as well.

Yeah! But to get back on point, now you notice that the Zaheer Khans for instance are proactive in working with the younger lot, with Ishant and R P and company, going up to them after every ball, talking to them, which I don't recall seeing in the earlier era.

Yes, but then they understand that when the other guy is bowling well at the other end it is good for them too.

The best statistic anyone wants is look up the records of Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft -- see how many of them got 300 Test wickets. Not even one -- the highest was 250 something, I know Holding got 249, something of the kind. And yet they were brilliant together.

Zaheer getting three and Ishant getting two is better than one guy getting five and the other guy one, because that five could be spread over a longer period and could include phases where your bowling is getting dominated.

But it's a different generation, this -- a generation made for the shorter form.

Yeah, like everything comes too easy fame, money so at some level, they don't seem to value it as much.

But you see, they all get a reality check somewhere. Harbhajan was dropped and came back, Zaheer was dropped and came back, Sehwag was dropped and came back -- Sehwag strikes me as the most balanced of the lot, actually -- then Kaif was dropped, Yuvraj was dropped, they all have been dropped.

But when was Rahul Dravid dropped? When was Sourav Ganguly dropped? V V S Laxman, always on the periphery, dropped maybe for a Test here, a Test there, but he was always there.

VVS's big argument is that he gets dropped only when India was playing some no account team, so someone else could score hundreds and beef up their averages.

My complaint with the Rohit Sharmas and Suresh Rainas is, why are Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman still guaranteed selection in the Indian Test team? Shouldn't you be pushing them?

You push them and then you say, ah, Rahul is class, Laxman is class -- but are Rahul and Laxman being pushed for a Test slot? And therefore, is it even the ambition of this generation to push them for a Test slot in the first place?

Increasingly, the fear expressed is that for players such as these, there is no appeal to excelling in Tests, when with half the effort you can earn double the money in the short form of the game.

Yeah, why sweat playing two bouncers, three bouncers, slips waiting, short leg waiting, when at the sign of the first bouncer I can look at the square leg umpire and go, ah, one for the over, now I can whack the ball all over the place.

Sanjay Manjrekar raised that point the other day, when he said it is very well for all of us, for Rahul and Sourav and Sachin and that generation to say Test cricket is the highest form of the game, but is that equally true of this generation, is it true of Rohit and Raina and the others?

Or is it just too difficult for them to be bothered about?

Yeah, plus even senior players are going, why bother with a year-long calendar when in two months of IPL you can make all the money you need.

It depends on the kind of player you are, I guess -- some people are content to work for two months, others want to work all year. There is a great story, actually -- I was in Sri Lanka in 1993, staying at the Taj Samudra, and W V Raman was with me, he had a drink, he is an interesting person to talk to, and he said to me 'You know, I have a question for you' -- I was writing for a newspaper that time, doing some work for All India Radio, and he said to me, 'Suppose your newspaper sent you to Sri Lanka for six weeks, and said go, we'll take care of your costs, everything, but you must not write a single word, we won't publish a single word you write, then would you enjoy the tour?'

I got what he was saying -- he hadn't gotten a single game in six weeks. 'How do you think,' he asked me, 'a cricketer feels when he is on tour and doesn't get a single game?'


Image: Harsha covered his first international series in 1990

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'There's nothing docile about the IPL'

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The flip side to that is, I see a generation today, some at least of whom are totally content with the perks of being a cricketer without having to do the hard yards, the glitz, glamour, Bombay party circuit, all of that.

We are also seeing a generation coming, I saw it first in IPL 2, where there were some three, four players who didn't want to play Ranji Trophy for the two months before the IPL for fear they would get injured and miss out they just wanted to go to the NCA and train, and these are the players who in IPL 2 were bigger and slower than they were in IPL 1.

The word goes around quickly, even though I am not part of the hard core circuit, the word goes around that these were the guys who didn't want to play domestic cricket.

And the more the IPL starts rewarding under-19 cricket -- and I hope that thing stops; we won the U-19 World Cup and we should reward them, that is okay, but I think we should stop under-19 cricket completely. Or have an under-19 tournament that is hardly ever reported -- but don't make stars out of under-19 players, maybe that is one way of ensuring that 23, 24 year olds don't play under-19 cricket.

I mean, I go to the IPL and at one point I was telling someone, let's not put the ages on, it's getting embarrassing to read the ages, because by no stretch of imagination can some of these people be 19, 20, 21. No chance.

What happens is, you show you are under 19, to play at that level, so three years later you can only show you are 22.

Yeah, as happened to a certain Shahid Afridi.

Yeah -- and when you say you are 22, you don't look 22 at all. So maybe we shouldn't give value to under-19 cricket at all.

Now, because of the financial value of under-19 cricket, everyone stays under 19 for as long as they can manage.

It's embarrassing -- I mean come on, we were also 22 once, right, we know what 22 looks like.


Image: Harsha has been ESPN's Indian face for about 15 years now

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'That little buzz in the morning, that won't fade'

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The 1990 England tour you first went for, you started as a cricket correspondent. I was thinking, all these years you've been following cricket, which wasn't the career you had your eyes on initially. But cricket became your life -- so how's it been?

Great! I don't know for how long because you never know when the party ends -- I'm on television, and television is a very cruel medium.

Suddenly there's a new kid on the block, and you could be out, you need to be aware of that. But actually watching cricket?

Even today -- you've been watching Tendulkar since 1989, I've been watching him since 1989 -- and yet when he stands up tall and punches a drive through the off side, you still want to watch it.

When Laxman plays what should have been a cover drive through midwicket, you still want to watch it on three replays. That will never fade -- that little buzz in the morning, that won't fade.

But that aside, does it at some point become a grind?

I don't know if it happens to print journalists, but on television it never happens.

When you have a bad day, you have it in front of everybody, so you are switched on the minute the title music begins to play. But that is it -- till then, I could be talking to someone, doing my thing, you don't have to stay switched on until that moment you are on the air.

What does happen though is, television pampers you. When I was a freelancer I knew everything about touring -- I knew what tickets cost, I knew which agent would give you an extra stopover on the domestic leg so you could save some money; you knew where to go for the best hotel deals.

In television, all of that is laid on for you and so it dulls your survival instinct a little bit.

I sometimes think back to those days, and one of the things I want to do before I wind up is go on a cricket tour purely as a writer, and see if I enjoy it.

As of now I think there is a romance, but it is a bit like going back to your old college and finding the romance is no longer there. But I'd like to try that sometime.


Image: Harsha, fine commentator, fine cricket writer

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