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June 11, 1999


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They'll go flat out!

A transcript of the conversation Harsha Bhogle had with Prem Panicker on June 11

Good morning, Harsha, how's it going there?

Well Prem, even as we speak, I'm getting ready for the game against Zimbabwe. It's funny, isn't it, how Zimbabwe should keep haunting us every time - how they beat South Africa and put India's qualification in peril, and now they virtually control India's destiny in this crucial game against Pakistan. India's entire World Cup has been built around Zimbabwe in a way.

They called them dangerous floaters before the tournament started, now they're turning out to be much more than floaters, aren't they?

Yes, and they seem to be floating around India all the time, aren't they?

Well, as some of the morning papers pointed out, one thing Zimbabwe has got going in its favour is that there are nine hundred million people rooting for them, aren't there?

Absolutely, Prem, absolutely.

Well, that's probably more support than they ever had before. Getting back to the game against Pakistan, India showed a lot of nerve and pulled off a big one. It really makes you wonder as to why India can't to do this more often, doesn't it?

If you remember all those talks that we had before the tournament, and I remember talking about the flair of the east and the depth of the west, both India and Pakistan have the flair. They have been wonderful teams to watch, and there is a huge sentiment in England in favour of India qualifying. And people are saying, well, yes, Zimbabwe and New Zealand have played well, but from the spectators point of view, India has really been the darling team of the World Cup because of the kind of cricket that they have played. But both these teams have been inconsistent, and that inconsistency married with flair has not been the happiest ones. As a result, India have played wonderful cricket, very spectator friendly cricket, but they have not been consistent enough, and as a result it has to be either India or Pakistan going through and not the both of them, which should have been on balance. Remember, before the tournament started, there was some projection that Australia, South Africa, India and Pakistan would be the four teams going through to the semi-finals, and that is pretty much the way it would have been, if it hadn't been for the hiccup against Zimbabwe at Leicester.

Well, I guess it's something that's going to keep haunting a lot of players on this tour for a long time …

It's always bad if India doesn't qualify, but it's not really bad from the point of view that for players like Sadgopan Ramesh, who played that one bad shot; if that doesn't make him a better cricketer, nothing will. He's going to have at the back of his mind that when India were rolling along, and it's always wrong to force the blame on one person and there were lots of other players who played bad shots, but still, when India were rolling along, he played that shot and it was the one shot that changed the course of that game.

For someone like Ramesh, it has huge learning value to the effect that when you're playing for India, you must finish the match off yourself.

And also this whole thing, that we have off late been responding to criticism by saying that well, we've put that behind us and we're now concentrating on the next game . Maybe, now we'll realize that we just cannot keep putting things behind us. To look at the positives, Harsha, considering I have occasionly slammed Azhar's captaincy... that day against Pakistan, he seemed to get just about every single thing right, didn't he? I mean, he brought Prasad on, and he took a wicket; he brought Srinath on, and he took a wicket immediately. In fact, it was very funny, when Prasad was once brought on, there was this huge debate that maybe Azhar had overreached himself .... two overs of Robin that he left coming in the death would actually make the difference. And what happens, he immediately takes a wicket... .

Sadly for me, this has become a slightly touchy one. I have read a lot of feedback on this issue, and a lot of people have gone on record, stating very strongly that they are pro Azhar. This has become a very awkward for me, because I am as much pro Dravid and pro Jadeja and pro Kumble, as I am pro Azhar... and this is because I am pro India, rather than pro Azhar. All that I'm saying is that if we take someone to the cleaners when he makes a mistake, we should have the grace to turn around, as you did in your match report, and say that you were wrong . I think too many of us are scared of saying that we were wrong . There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that, 'Hang on, I made an assessment about this person, and I was wrong and maybe the brutality of my assessment wasn't worth it. I think someone's got to stand up and say... well we criticised Azhar because he was the one in charge, but there are two sides to this picture.... and that is what I have been advocating all this time, that there are two sides to the picture and why should we just confine ourselves to one. I have never said that Azhar is an outstanding captain, but he's really not anywhere near as bad a captain as he's made out to be. And all of sudden, this has left Azhar a very confused man . I mean, Rediff on the Net carried a very vehement pro Azhar article just a few days back, and Azhar told me this several times that he's really perplexed. And he told me this last week that, to be honest, he doesn't know which are the days when I'm a bad captain, and when I'm a good captain, because I'm the same captain on the days India wins as I am on the days that India loses. The truth is that on some days the things the captain does come off, and on some days, they don't come off, just like it happens in all other games like soccer. Against Pakistan, maybe the players were more charged up, but everything that they did seemed to come off when they were on the field. Just like against Pakistan, everything they did against Australia didn't come off . Here, his bowlers bowled beautifully for him, they pitched it up, and maybe, if they had done the same against Australia, the result would have been completely different. But the truth is, as Gavaskar told me in his post match analysis, Azhar had one of his finest moments. He scored the runs, and he hung in there well, and those are one of the things you get with experience. When Azhar was batting 22-23, we were telling ourselves, Azhar, take a single, take a single …because Robin was looking very good. But he hung in there well . And he got that one lucky break, when Afridi didn't reach the catch that he should have and the shot went for four, and that unlocked him …these things do tend to happen, as you will see if you watch a lot of cricket. To his credit, he hung in there, and that turned things around and put the total up to 227, which was a good score at the end.

I was amazed by Pakistan's approach… I remember saying at the top that Pakistan playing Afridi was a huge sign of confidence. It was stating the fact that Ah well, Afridi's always done well against India, let him go out there and get the runs. Then I couldn't believe the statement that Akram made at the beginning of the match when he said it was a practice game for the crunch matches ahead .To be fair to him, and I am trying to be fair to him, what he said could turn out to be true if they win against Zimbabwe, and the game against India could then turn out to be the one from where they learnt their lessons. But then he made another amazing statement at the end of the game when he said that he was very happy for Azhar and for India. Now, for all our readers at Rediff, if an Indian captain made such a statement, he would have been roasted, wouldn't he?

Coming back to the game, I think India kept their cool really well, and Pakistan lost theirs … I think they were just a little complacent.

Well, another thing that I've noticed in the last few games, and then in the partnership between Dravid and Tendulkar against Pakistan… I mean you expect them to play their shots and play them well, but in the last two or three innings I seeing things or has the running between the wickets seem to have reached an entirely different plateau …it was outstanding.

Yes, they have been running well . I think Rahul Dravid has transformed his game completely . He has grown a couple of notches on this tour. He has unlocked a few aspects of his game. He has started to do things that he believes he could not do, or that he was meant to do, but he was unwilling to do. There were certain barriers that have been erased from his game now. You can see that in his stroke play…in his running, and he's fought hard. When I interviewed him a year- year and-a-half ago, he had identified two areas in which he had to improve his game- one of was fielding and the other was running between the wickets. His fielding has gone up a notch, but on this tour, especially Robin Singh and Jadeja's running between the wickets in the game against Australia was sensational. They were scoring at a run a ball when Tendulkar and Dravid were batting together, and I also wonder if that probably was because of the fact that he was betting with Tendulkar, who after that hesitant start looked like he was going to play one of the innings of the tournament.

But Tendulkar played one of those shots that he seems to play for no apparent reason ...sometimes you tend to overreach yourself and come a cropper. The other thing that was interesting, was Debashish Mohanty . I remember speculating if Agarkar should be brought back for Mohanty, but he bowled really well, didn't he?

I think when they changed ends, that was what made the big difference …and that is what I mean by being patient and having the ability to acknowledge a mistake. I think two overs into the innings, India realized that they were bowling their bowlers at the wrong ends. They had the awareness to quickly turn things around. I feel Azhar bowled Mohanty through because he was in a groove, he was really bowling it on a length, well. Maybe, if he took him off, he would have to come back and get adjusted again ... which is something you expect of an international bowler. But if Robin hadn't bowled those eight overs very well, then Azhar would have been struggling … his freedom, his options, would have been limited then, because he had already bowled out one of his major bowlers. He took a gamble and it came off.

Yes, that highlights another aspect, doesn't it? India went in without the services of Ganguly and the bowling still came off . ...that brings up another question, doesn't it? Now, irrespective of what happens between Pakistan and Zimbabwe, they wouldn't like to play against New Zealand saying that 'well, what the hell…our campaign's as good as over...

Well, I think they'll go flat out, because they know the sentiments in India are on a real high after their win against Pakistan. If they beat New Zealand and return on a high, I think they'll know that the people back home will say that ...'okay fine…they played bad cricket early on, but they turned things around. Maybe, if they had a few strokes of luck here and there, then they would have been in the semi-finals. I think they'll give everything against New Zealand, irrespective of wether Pakistan beat Zimbabwe and put India out of the tournament' .

Well, considering then that it is still a very important game irrespective of today's results, do you see the team staying pretty much the same, or do you think they'll be making any changes? For instance, Ganguly …is he fit to play?

Yes, I spoke to Ganguly and he said that he would definitely play. If he comes in, he'll come in at the expense of Ramesh. They had an outstanding game and played out of their skin against Pakistan. Everyone came through that day. Jadeja didn't get runs, but he was a real live wire on the field. Everybody else played well and contributed. Ramesh played a big role in facing Shoaib Akhtar and ensuring that he doesn't get a wicket early on, because when he does, he immediately becomes a quicker bowler.

Everyone had a role to play and I don't think they should fiddle around. I think the team that has the problems is Pakistan. The other day, Akram went on record to say that Akhtar's 17-run over had cost them the game against South Africa, and now Akhtar comes back in his second spell and bowls at 87-88 . I really don't trust that FedEx, that speed machine…it showed one of the New Zealand bowlers at 97 yesterday.

That reminds me …I remember getting a lot of flak when I called Srinath a fast bowler a long time ago. One thing that struck me, was the other day, Srinath was shown bowling at about 94…yet, when the captions come on on television, Srinath is shown to be a fast medium bowler. What does this guy have to do to be a fast bowler ?

And Shoaib is shown as fast. I think if you look at average speed, there will be a difference. I think 94 is average speed for Shoaib, who has the capacity to go up to 97 or so. If you talk to a couple of batsman, they will tell you that Srinath can bowl really quick spells, his quicker ball is certainly as quick as anything else. Funnily enough, Srinath is rated as a much better bowler abroad and amongst foreign cricket watchers than he is at home. He is very respected abroad, much more than we give him credit for.

Yes, I mean in South Africa, people held up posters of Srinath rather than Tendulkar. But that brings us to the deciding point …

Yes, I have been accused of shielding India's cricketers. I mean even if Pakistan beat Zimbabwe, India will not lose to New Zealand because they have been one of the dead boring teams of the competition. But India's cricketers will come back saying that they've played very good cricket for about 70 per cent of the tournament. Every team has had its bad moments…but India's bad moments have counted for more than the other teams. I think India has played very good cricket.

I was watching the game against Pakistan and what struck me was the crowds that India and Pakistan are attracting to the cricket...

Well, in the game against New Zealand and South Africa at Birmingham…there were empty sections in the crowd, and one fifth of the crowd was Indian. Someday, someone should assess India has contributed in terms of sponsorship and crowds to the tournament financially. There have actually been Indians coming all the way from America! ....on a cricket watching tour. And they've enjoyed it so much... they tell me that they plan to do it again when India tour Australia at the turn of the year. It is incredible as to how much they've contributed to the tournament.

Yes, they make it seem like there's a cricket match on. The colour and the atmosphere…the classic example was the other day against Australia, Mark Waugh was belting the ball all over the place and there was dead silence.

Yes, I don't want to sound like a moral crusader ... but earlier in the tournament there were incidents that fortunately didn't repeat themselves as the tournament moved to the bigger stadiums later on, but these incidents and influences apart, the Indian crowds have been absolutely fantastic.

Yes ... well, we'll talk again after the game against New Zealand. Have a good day, Harsha.

Yes, you too, Prem.

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Harsha Bhogle

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