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Home > Cricket > The Cup > Column > Arjun Swarup


Failure of tactics and strategy

March 26, 2007

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(As I write this, Bangladesh are chasing 96 to win in 20 overs against Bermuda. If they lose, India WILL go through to the Super Eights, and the following words might appear redundant. I do not believe so, and hence this article).

India does not deserve to be in the Super Eights, let alone the semi finals or finals. The way this team has played, it has not proven to be good enough. The knives are out, and come Monday, the parliament will be in a tizzy, the channels will fall over themselves to find the tournament ka mujrim, the ex-cricketers, never fond of the idea of a foreign coach, are already at work, led by the irrepressible Sunny G.

Yet, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, it is not all gloom and doom for Indian cricket. Certainly, nothing can match the sense of doom and depression I felt seven years ago, when India were thrashed soundly and looked completely out of depth in Australia, and even ended up losing at home to SAF. That was quite simply the lowest point, and precipitated major changes in our cricket, and over the next six seasons, major gains have been made.

Yet, with this World Cup first round exit, we seem to be back to square one. All the old failings of Indian cricket - unfit and pampered players, lack of emphasis on fielding and fitness, weak leadership, a rigid star system prevailing over meritocracy - has anything changed really?

I think, more than anything else, this World Cup ouster signifies a failure of tactics and strategy. Statistically, this is our worst world cup ever since 1979, although I would still rate 1992 and 1999 as worse campaigns. One point that needs to be made is that the format is a bit too sudden death at the outset, not giving much time to recover (although the way our team performed, it would not have done much better even if it had more games). The 2003 format did allow the team time to recover and tweak its strategies.

For better or for worse, the 2005-2007 time period in Indian cricket will be synonymous with Greg Chappell, whose much trumpeted Vision 2007 was the focus of much debate. The hard-talking Aussie, who has courted controversy at every step, appears to have failed in his vision and process, with our first round ouster.

And yet, looking back, one can't help but wonder where it all went so wrong and if the blame should really fall on Greg. His first season in charge (2005-06), barring the test series defeat to Pakistan, was outstanding. We walloped Sri Lanka, drew even with SAF, and handed out crushing defeats to Pakistan and England (all strong opposition).  Our test results were mixed, but in the ODI format, the team played outstanding cricket.

The success of that season had been based on some simple precepts: pick players with high fitness levels, strong attitudes, and focus on doing the basics right, such as run more singles, field well, and maintain high levels of intensity. It is not often clear to Indian cricket followers, bred on a diet of dazzling batsman ship and artistic bowling, the role fitness plays in success on a cricket field. We always clap more for the batsman who scores a 50 with 10 boundaries and 40 dot balls, than the one who does it singles.

Yet, this shift in thinking had come at a cost: the ouster of the old guard, and the old mindset (it does not matter that this was Sourav Ganguly). All it took was one major defeat, to the West Indies, and the pressure on the team management was immense. Senior players returned to the squad, suddenly 'experience' was valued more than youth and fitness.

The result: a confused team, unclear about what mode to take on the field, haphazard selections, and defensive, unsure play. And for this, the blame lies solely on the shoulders of one man, and that man is not Greg Chappell, it is Rahul Dravid.

Of all the 'seniors' in the team, it is Dravid who clearly bought most strongly into Chappell's vision and line of thinking, yet it is also clear that he has played the last few months being pulled in two separate directions, trying to implement the ideas of fitness and stamina in all players, yet at the same time, picking players based on 'experience' and making bizarre statements like "yes, fielding is an issue, but we can do 'smart fielding' and perform that bit extra with the bat and ball". What, pray, does that mean?

The result: Sri Lanka and Bangladesh out fielded India by yards, had significantly more intensity throughout the game, and looked fitter and leaner by miles. Perhaps the most interesting comment came from the Dutch captain, who said that India looked nowhere near the same level as Australia.

The confused state of Dravid's state of mind could be seen in his field captaincy. Unsure of whether to attack or defend, he looked confused and forlorn. This is the same skipper, who when standing in for Sourav Ganguly in Gwalior 2003 and Bombay in 2004, impressed with his aggressive and thoughtful captaincy. It is the same skipper now, who is hesitant in his field placements, consistently looking over his shoulder and worried about how his actions would be perceived.

The selection for the World Cup squad, as well as the team for various games was a complete and utter mess. The development of multi dimensional players such as Karthik and Pathan was ignored, and the 'tried and tested' likes of Kumble and Sehwag persisted with. Players like Mohammad Kaif and Suresh Raina were jettisoned after a few failures, while the 'leadership group' did not apply the same logic to non-performing seniors. Sehwag went close to 25 games without a century, and Kumble averaged close to 50 in the 7 games preceding the tournament, yet, astonishingly, they were played.

One thing needs to be mentioned here: there is nothing wrong in picking experience per se. Sri Lanka have, in Murali and Jayasuriya, two senior players, but the contrast in attitudes was exemplified by Murali's statement at the end of the game against India, when he said his coach had been telling him he was too old to field and he wanted to prove him wrong. Contrast that with Dravid's statement about fielding, and you know which team deserves to be in the Super Eights.

It is the 'senior players' who have not embraced the work ethic needed to succeed in cricket today, and all of them are culpable. Sachin Tendulkar is now a pale shadow of himself (and bizarrely talks of playing in 2011, if 'my body holds up'), struggling to play genuine pace, Sourav Ganguly's batting is completely devoid of singles, Sehwag's weight and fitness have been a joke for a while now. Anil Kumble who was deemed fit enough to play 3 games in the World Cup four years ago, now averages over 50 with the ball.

It was Bill Cosby who said "I do not know if there is any surefire path to success, but if there is a surefire path to failure, it is when you try to please everyone". For the past six months, Rahul Dravid has tried to co opt the views of the 'senior leadership group', and as a result, has reversed the gains of the past seasons, and ended up with this mess.

Indian cricket is still in a good way. There is plenty of young promising talent in batting and bowling, fit and agile players who, if given the right training and exposure, could be molded into a fighting and competitive unit in 3-5 months. However, all of this will come to naught, if the team management, especially the captain, continue to be pulled in two separate directions.

Over the next few weeks, there were will hopefully be some genuine introspection and soul searching within those who run Indian cricket. If so, I hope they will realize this is not the time to find scapegoats, but to realize that this debacle was a result of confused thinking and lack of commitment. It was a result of making wrong choices and not having faith repaid.

Yet, Greg Chappell AND Rahul Dravid deserve a second chance, for at least one more season. Rahul Dravid's captaincy is looking to mirror his early days as a batsman, when he was not clear on his mode of play. He has always emerged stronger after each challenge, and while there are often no second chances, I believe if he gets one, Indian cricket will be the better for it. As for Greg Chappell, it is difficult to see him getting another shot, but his thinking and approach about the game are correct, and given the right mandate, could be good for Indian cricket.

Post Script: Quite fittingly, Bangladesh has defeated Bermuda, and India is out of the World Cup.

Arjun Swarup is based in Richmond, Virginia. He can be reached at arjunswarup@gmail.com

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