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March 29, 1999


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Mixed signals

Prem Panicker

A while back, there was this news item, emanating from New Zealand. It said that the Kiwi cricket board was angry with World Cup organisers for ignoring a request that the preliminary list of 19 submitted by it be kept a secret.

The New Zealand board had picked its shortlist and passed it on to the organisers, with . However, the board had not informed the players on its list, because the international season was still on, with South Africa touring for a Test and ODI series, and it didn't want players who missed out to be discouraged.

The World Cup organisers went ahead and released the list, much to the disgust of the NZ board. Chief executive Christopher Doig spoke about how the premature release of the list had meant that he and other officials of the NZ board had to spend hours making phone calls to the players who had been dropped, explaining to them why they hadn't made the list and ensuring that their morale stayed high.

 Raj Singh Dungarpur
When last, do you suppose, did Raj Singh Dungarpur or Jaywant Lele, or chairman of selectors Ajit Wadekar, make such a phone call? When last did those who head our cricket administration bother to personally explain to the players concerned the reasons for their actions?

It might seem like a petty thing to pick on, but is it, really? Imagine your state of mind, if you were superseded at your workplace by someone else, and your bosses didn't think of the damage that action did to your morale, didn't try to sit you down, explain the whys and wherefores, make you understand that you weren't being devalued.

How high would your morale be, if that happened? How committed would you be, to your work?

 Mohammad Azharuddin
There's a World Cup coming up -- and as far as I can see, our officialdom appears to be working on a one-point plan. That one point being to ensure that every single player is either upset, angry, or demoralised.

Start with skipper Mohammad Azharuddin -- a very angry man just now. His problem is the selectors' penchant for 'experimentation' -- vide the use of Ajay Jadeja as opener, to cite one example.

Jadeja didn't want to open. Azhar didn't want him to open. But the selectors insisted that the middle order batsman be slotted at number two, citing 'experimentation' as the rationale.

 Ajay Jadeja
That the experiment of opening with Jadeja was pointless has been discussed in detail in our match reports, so we won't reiterate the reasons here. What it did achieve was an upset skipper, an upset 'opening batsman', and an unbalanced team. Further, it created a situation where the captain takes the flak for a defeat, while the selectors sit in the shadows and 'experiment'.

Azhar's point of view is this: The selectors keep talking of experimentation with a view to the World Cup, their experiments are not really productive of any worthwhile results, meanwhile he doesn't get the team he wants, and is increasingly under fire for the string of recent defeats.

So Azhar sits and smoulders -- nursing a shoulder that was painful before the first ODI of this series, but which he couldn't rest because the powers that be insisted he should take the field.

So much for the captain -- now look at his deputy. Which, in case it has slipped your mind, is a gent named Anil Kumble.

 Anil Kumble
The leg-spinner was re-named India's vice captain following his superb showing in the Delhi Test against Pakistan, when he emulated Jim Laker with his ten-for haul. And as far as anyone knew, he was vice-captain designate for the World Cup squad.

And then, on Sunday, Anil Kumble wakes up to the news that Azhar is not going to be playing in Pune, against Sri Lanka, and that Ajay Jadeja will lead the side.

What kind of signal are we sending Kumble, here? That his elevation to vice-captaincy was just a form of tokenism? That as far as the selectors and management are concerned, he doesn't rate the captain's armband?

Sometimes, when in course of our analysis, we point out strategies the team missed out on, people write in and ask, 'Okay, Azhar may have missed that bet, but how come the other players, the senior members of the side, didn't spot it, how come they didn't point it out to the captain?'

That of course is how it should be. While the captain is the one who has to take the final decisions, cricket has to be a team effort, every member of the squad has to be thinking all the time, helping out with suggestions. But given the way Kumble -- to cite just one example -- is being treated here, given the way he is being devalued, do you see him being very forthcoming with ideas and suggestions?

Would you be, if your company had first held out hopes to you, then dumped you unceremoniously?

What then of the players? Sadagopan Ramesh, the natural candidate to fill the shoes of the absent-through-injury shoes of Sachin Tendulkar, finds himself on the bench while a reluctant Jadeja straps on his pads and walks out to open.

What is Ramesh supposed to think? That any option, even forcing a reluctant middle order batsman to fill the opening berth, is preferable to having him go out at the top?

 Laxmi Ratan Shukla
What is Laxmi Ratan Shukla's state of mind at this point in time? He is hyped by the selectors themselves as an all-rounder of talent and immense potential. He is picked for the two Tests against Pakistan, and finds himself on the bench. He is picked for the Calcutta Test, the first in the ATC series, and still stays on the bench.

Fair enough, you argue, after all, with Srinath and Prasad both playing, there was really no room for Shukla. So then he is picked for the Colombo Test against Sri Lanka, in place of the absent Srinath -- and on the day of the match, finds to his surprise that Ashish Nehra has been jumped ahead of him in the pecking order.

The signal being that any option -- even that of blooding a bowler who was not thought fit enough to make the 14 for the three earlier Tests -- is preferable to playing this 'all-rounder of promise'.

And then he is played in the first of the one-dayers in the ongoing series and, after bowling just four overs, finds himself dropped from the side! Dumped unceremoniously, without a word of explanation leave alone encouragement.

Our selectors speak ad nauseum of the need to develop quality all-rounders. Surely there must be better ways of going about it?

 Vinod Kambli
Remember a guy name of Vinod Kambli? He makes a comeback from injury, gets to bat in the penultimate over of his first game, and given that he was walking into a situation where he had to throw his bat at everything, does as well as can be expected. He gets another game -- the first full innings after his comeback -- and fails.

And he is dropped.

 Saurav Ganguly
No one is making a case that failed players should be persisted with -- but surely, a middle order batsman of that calibre deserves more of a trial than one single, solitary innings? More so given that if you were to drop all those who failed in that game, Ganguly, Dravid and Azhar to name just three players would need to be sitting out, as well?

Kambli is back in Pune -- unsure of himself, unaware of the reasons for his ouster, unclear on what he now needs to do to get his place back.

We are now in the leadup to the World Cup. The period when our selectors and management are expected to be creating, and fine-tuning, the team that will try to go out there and fulfill the expectations of several million Indian fans.

Instead, what we have managed to do, in the space of 10 days or less, is to create an angry captain, an uncertain ex-vice captain in Kumble, a disaffected stand-in captain in Ajay Jadeja, and an unsettled, worried bunch of cricketers. All adding up to a team that lacks in cohesion, unity, and morale.

When we return empty-handed from England -- as a red-blooded fan of Indian cricket, I hope we win the Cup; as a cold-blooded commentator, I don't see how this team can pull it off -- and start the inevitable post-mortems, perhaps we will remember to look back at this period, and realise that this was when, and how, we lost whatever chance we might have had.

And that it is not just the players who are to blame for results or the lack thereof -- accountability, to mean anything, must extend through the full spectrum, from the administration on down.

Prem Panicker

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