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April 21, 1999


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Weatherwise, and otherwise

Prem Panicker

There is, on my table, a little instrument called the 'telephone'. I understand the gadget is fairly prevalent, and not particularly hard to get hold of.

By the simple expedient of picking up that instrument and punching a few numbers, I managed to establish communication with a member of the ground staff at the Leicestershire County Cricket Club ground, situated on Grace Road in that county.

That gent informs me that as elsewhere in England at this present, temperatures there range from a 'high' of 10 degrees Celsius to a low of around 4 degrees. But more to the point, he says that it has been raining, and heavily at that, every other day -- and the weather forecast for the next few days promises more of the same.

In the first half of this column, we discussed what needed to be done, at this point, to ensure that the Indian team as selected has a good chance in the upcoming World Cup. On that to-do list, for the board, add the following: 'Acquire telephone. Call Leicester. Check weather. Then call other venues, with a view to figuring out alternates.'.

Why? The thing is, we keep talking of acclimatisation -- which is vital, most definitely. But simply booking the Indian team's passage to England three weeks before the start of the competition does not help them acclimatise.

What does acclimatisation actually mean? It means getting used to the weather and the conditions prevailing at a particular venue, or in a particular country -- from a cricketing point of view. In other words, going out there on the field and playing cricket, and thus getting used to the conditions.

You can't 'acclimatise' by huddling under the blankets in your hotel room. And you can't play cricket if it is raining out there. Which is why I suggested that the board should check the weather in Leicester, where the team is going to be based. Find out if the forecast is for continued rain. And if that is the case, then check with the ECB about alternate venues, where the team can base itself for a week or so, till situations in Leicester improve. Preferably find a venue that has an indoor facility as well, so that if it rains outside, the players can continue to practise indoors.

It is a simple thing to do. But the difference it can make is obviously enormous. And that is why that call needs to be made, like, now!

Will they? I really don't know. A few people suggested in email to me that the board should be sent copies of the column I had written yesterday, suggesting that five extra bowlers go with the side. That column had in fact been duly faxed to the office of the board president.

Remember that old saying about leading a horse to water? To paraphrase it a bit, we can fax columns to Mr Raj Singh Dungarpur -- but we can't make him think.

And oh yes, as a few readers so politely suggested, all I can do is criticise. But I would rather use my column to make such suggestions at this point of time, than to wait till June 20 and then write 'analysis' reading: "India could have done better but you know, the team didn't have enough bowlers to practise against and it was cold and raining all the time so they didn't get to acclimatise properly and..."

I'd rather think of ways to make something work, than expend that same energy finding excuses for why it didn't -- wouldn't you?

One other aspect of preparation that I intended to discuss in this column has now become redundant. Simply because Dean Jones, in his latest column (which will be up on our site tomorrow) has touched on the aspect of coaching, with particular regard to Bobby Simpson's role.

It is a very important aspect of our preparation, one that could play a vital role in shaping India's prospects -- but in this case, 'Deano' has the authoritative, having actually played in a World Cup team coached by Simpson. So on the subject of coaching, and Simpson's contributions, it is over to our Australian columnist.

Columnists of the calibre of Sanjay Manjrekar have, on this platform, earlier discussed the composition of the Indian side. Sanjay in fact has done a person-by-person analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses.

Moving on from there, let's look at team composition in the collective, from the point of view of giving the side its best shot at winning the tournament.

The real clue to India's prospects -- indeed, that of any of the participating teams -- lies in the points system. To quote the relevant bit:

The first phase of the competition will be the Group Matches.

Each team will play every other team in its group. Points will be allocated for each match Win, Tie or No Result in accordance with the system described in Section 11 of these Playing Conditions, which will apply throughout the Tournament.

Following the Group Matches the top three teams from each group will progress to the next phase, the Super Six. The teams will be placed in order of merit based on the points gained in the Group Matches and will take forward into the Super Six phase the points scored against the other teams which have qualified from their group.

In the Super Six phase of competition, each of the three qualifying teams from Group A will play each of the three qualifying teams from Group B.

The top four teams at the end of the Super Six phase of the competition will progress to the Semi-finals where the team placed first will play the team placed fourth and the team placed second will play the team placed third. Now think of what that means, from the point of view India, which finds itself in Group A alongside Sri Lanka, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

It is inevitable that South Africa will go through to the Super Six. So the real fight is for the other two berths, and it is between India, England and Zimbabwe.

What this means is that starting with its first league match against South Africa on the 19th, India will need to go out to win every single game it plays. And against teams like Zimbabwe and Kenya, it will have to put in an extra effort to make sure it wins big -- because in the event of a tie for one of the Super Six berths, net run rates come into play.

Recently, a cricket analyst and good friend of mine was evaluating India's chances. He argued that India could get into the Super Six by defeating Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and that this task was well within India's capabilities.

I don't know. My reading is that it will be Sri Lanka, South Africa and India that go into the Super Six (Pakistan, the West Indies and Australia from Group B) -- I don't see the England squad, as is, getting through into the next stage, home advantage or no.

But as the rules are devised, it is not enough simply to get into the second stage. The relevant segment reads: "The teams will be placed in order of merit based on the points gained in the Group Matches and will take forward into the Super Six phase the points scored against the other teams which have qualified from their group".

In other words, assuming that SL, SA and India go through, then India's points will be whatever it has earned against SL and SA. If, say, India beats England, Kenya and Zimbabwe, but loses to the other two nations, then it will start the Super Six phase on zero points. And since entry into the semis will depend on cumulative points, starting at zero effectively means that India will not make the semis.

Which is why I think the team management will not be able to afford to put the 'best team' in the field for all games. If precedent is any indication, the Indians will go in with this lineup for all games, making changes only in event of injury: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Azhar, Jadeja, Robin, Mongia, Kumble, Agarkar, Srinath and Prasad.

That, I think, would be folly. Rather, it will need to tailor team selection to the needs of each particular game.

Thus, against Sri Lanka, whose strength is batting, it would be suicidal to go in with six batsmen, weakening the bowling in the process. The ideal team for that game would be, in batting order: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Azhar, Jadeja, Kumble, Agarkar, Srinath, Mongia (who finds himself dropped down the order because he is not particularly good at batting with the tail), Mohanty and Prasad.

The presence of four seamers and a spinner, backed by Ganguly, Tendulkar and Jadeja, should help give the side a lot of options against the strong Lankan batting lineup. A similar lineup would be ideal against England, and Zimbabwe. Against South Africa, however, India will need to jettison that approach and go in with depth in batting, in order to counter one of the best bowling lineups in this tournament.

The point I am working towards is this: for once, the management will need to be very flexible in its team selection, the picking of players depending on the composition of the opposition.

It is in such strategic thinking that India has lacked in the recent past. Again, this is one area the board can help -- by ensuring that senior players like Sunny Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Jimmy Amarnath, Krish Srikkanth et al, all of whom have enormous experience in those conditions and good cricketing brains besides, are on hand in Leicester, to sit with the team after practise, to discuss strategies, to help with planning.

Other sides, you will notice, are beefing up their back-room strength -- Pakistan recently hired Richard Pybus, Sri Lanka has taken Trevor Chappell on board. It is in the back-room that India is weakest -- Anshuman Gaekwad hasn't exactly proved himself a mastermind, Azhar is, well, Azhar. But India does have enough past players, right here at home, to help fine tune the side -- all it takes is for the board to take the initiative, request them to make themselves available.

Their presence, their thinking, would make such an enormous difference. They are all going to be in England anyway, thanks to their various media commitments. To fail to make use of their talents, thus, would be criminal on the part of the board.

In passing, it would be nice if the likes of Dungarpur and Lele could spare some time to ensure that the team goes there fully kitted out. Especially in the area of warm clothing.

Seems like a petty think to point out? 'There he goes, picking nits again'?

Not really. Just a case of once bitten. Remember India's last tour of South Africa? Two members of that team received their team blazers at Delhi airport -- on their return!

These are little things, but they can make a big difference -- and that is precisely why the exalted personages mentioned above need, at this point, to spend some time thinking about these things, and ensuring that everything goes through without a hitch.

And finally, a lot of questions were asked about Sachin Tendulkar's form and fitness. I wouldn't want to hazard a guess about his 'form' after watching him play the over-age, over-weight members of the 1983 World Cup squad in that tamasha game at the Wankhede the other day.

But I did watch his entire innings, with an eye to his shot selection -- thinking that the shots he played, and the ones he left out, would give a clue about the state of his back.

In that innings of 100+, two moments stood out as worthy of special interest. The first was when he took that trademark halfstep away from leg stump, and played an up-from-under inside-out drive, lifting the bowler back over his head and into the stands behind the sightscreen. And the other was when, to a ball not all that short in length, he swivelled into a vicious pull that deposited the ball, taken from just outside off, over the midwicket boundary.

Both those shots place an enormous strain on the back. Yet he played them without a thought, and played them as well as ever. So yes, I'd think he was spot on when he said, in an earlier interview to Rediff, that his back is back to mid-season form.

Your turn


Sports Editor adds: Thanks to a technical goofup, the guest columns submitted by you got deleted from the database. We regret the mishap, and request that you resubmit your contributions. Again, sorry, and thanks.

Prem Panicker

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