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October 30, 2001

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Chokers or heart-patients?

Roshan Paul and Shreyan Singh

Everyone's been talking about how the Indian cricket team comprises "a bunch of chokers". 72 per cent of the 2,000-odd votes in's online poll say the problem is that of 'choking' in finals. Yet, that is merely the symptom of the disease and, like with diseases, we should treat the cause rather than its manifestation.

Let's caveat this analysis by saying we're not professional statisticians, just amateur fans who have taken a close look at the scorecards of those nine finals and attempted to extract some virulent strains.

First, the relevant facts (and some of these speak for themselves):

- In two-and-a-half years, the Indian team has lost nine finals of one-day tournaments, in which there have been at least three teams.

- There have been 4 captains in those nine matches, namely Ganguly (5 finals), Jadeja (2), Tendulkar (1) and Azharuddin (1).

- On four occasions the third team in the tournament has been Zimbabwe and twice it has been Kenya.

- India has chased a total five times and batted first four times. Thus, the inability to chase big scores is not a significant factor.

The disease, in our opinion, goes much deeper than mere choking. It is widespread and deep, and brings together two principal factors. These are:

Lack of big-match temperament

A) As individuals
Rahul Dravid Obviously the players are not rising to the occasion. Let's begin with the performances of our top batsmen and bowlers. In the finals he's played, Tendulkar has averaged 18.2, which is more than 25 points below his usual average. This is, to be frank, pathetic from a man considered one of the all-time greats. Our other batting star, Ganguly, has averaged 30.78, which is about 14 points below his usual average. The surprising statistic comes from Rahul Dravid, who has averaged 44, more than six points above his usual average, in finals.

Does this mean that the only man we can depend upon in a final is Dravid? If so, that's worrying, because for all his great qualities, he is not a match-winner.

The less said about the rest of the batting the better. Besides, the top three, the only significant scores in finals have come from samir Dighe (94 n.o.), Reetinfer Sodhi (67), M S K Prasad (63) and Nikhil Chopra (61). While these contributions are delightful, the fact that they have all come from lower-order batsman should set alarm bells in our head going off deafeningly.

Why are our other batsmen failing every single time? The next batsmen in terms of number of games played are Yuvraj Singh and Sadagoppan Ramesh, who average 6.75 and 5.50 respectively in finals! In case you're interested, V V S Laxman averages 20, Virendra Sehwag 13 and Vinod Kambli manages 1.67.

Much has already been written about the over dependence on Tendulkar and Ganguly, but these appalling figures indicate that the problem is much more serious than that. When the going gets tough, nobody, not even the greatest opening-pair in one-day history gets going.

As for the main bowlers ("main" being defined as who has played the most), Ajit Agarkar has an abysmal 1 wicket in 5 games and Zaheer Khan has 3 wickets at an average of 76, but Anil Kumble has taken 5 wickets at 42.8, Prasad has 7 wickets at 32.14, and Harbhajan has 5 wickets at 22.14. So, a mixed bag from our bowlers, but, again, nobody has really delivered when it most counts.

Inexperience has been touted as a reason for the failure of the lesser lights but that excuse is wearing thin and by its very nature, it cannot stand for much longer as the players get more experience with every game. In fact, Laxman, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer, Harbhajan and Agarkar have all played more than 20 games (Agarkar has 81!) and should be almost as ready by now as they ever will be to handle big-match pressure.

B) As a team
Often, the lack of individual brilliance can be compensated for by a solid team performance. A great example of this is the triumphant World Cup ride in 1983. However, it now seems that finals bring out the worst in the Indian cricket team. While batting first is traditionally its strength, the team has been dismissed for less than 200 in two of the four games that it's batted first. In four of the five games in which it has fielded first, it allowed the other team to amass over 290 runs, thus effectively putting the match out of reach. Further, on only one of those occasions has the run-chase crossed 200, and that too only because of a fighting yet inevitably doomed comeback from Dighe and Sodhi after being reduced to 80 for 5 in 18 overs.

We can only conclude then that our players, while skilled and talented, lack the big match temperament that distinguishes great players and teams from mediocre ones.

Selection issues:

To compound matters, the board, in all its collective wisdom, has tried 25 different players in these nine games, hoping, we think, for a miracle. Only Ganguly has played in every final (see Appendix). Although we did lose Tendulkar and Kumble to prolonged injuries, Azhar and Jadeja to their dark sides, and Srinath to his high horse, the selectors have certainly been guilty of too much experimentation.

Nayan Mongia This is not another selector-bashing article but the point still remains. The miracle is yet to occur, and why should it? If seasoned players are unable to come to grips with the pressure of a final, it is unreasonable to expect the less experienced to save the day.

There have also been five wicketkeepers in these nine matches. Dighe, Vijay Dahiya, Rahul Dravid and Nayan Mongia have all kept in two games and MSK Prasad has had one game. In a span of a mere 30 months, the fact that no keeper has kept in more than two finals is ludicrous.

From this, it's clearly evident that choking is a rather simplistic way of looking at the issue. From a surface-level look at the scorecards, the problems appear to be selectorial inconsistencies and poor temperament. India's bowling attack is often accused of impotence, and this intuitively seems to be the case when you look at a batting line-up comprising the so-called "Fab Four", and still witness the team lose final after final. However, in the tournaments in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka earlier this year, it was the bowlers who shone in most games that India won and the batsmen who failed in the lost ones, especially in Sri Lanka.

While this bowling attack certainly won't cause any batsmen sleepless nights, it also seems to unfairly cop the blame at times. Like the batsmen, the bowlers too have failed in finals and that does need to be addressed. But given the talent disparity between India's batsmen and its bowlers, we think that the facet of the game that needs to be addressed more closely is the batting frailty.

Thus, the malaise afflicting our team goes much deeper. It goes to the core of the way the game is set up in our country and the nature of the cricketers such a set-up breeds. It goes through to our heart.

We grow up dreaming to emulate Tendulkar and Ganguly. Perhaps a role-model shift is in order. Perhaps we should focus our search for inspiration in the direction of Marvan Atapattu, Gary Kirsten and Steve Waugh.

Roshan Paul is studying for a B A in Political Economy in Davidson College, USA; and Shreyan Singh is studying for a B S in Computer Science in the National University of Singapore.


Number of games played:

9: Saurav Ganguly
8: Rahul Dravid
6: Venkatesh Prasad, Robin Singh
5: Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Ajit Agarkar
4: Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh, S. Ramesh
3: Javagal Srinath, Ajay Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, R.S. Sodhi, Vinod Kambli, Sunil Joshi, Debashish Mohanty
2: Hemang Badani, Ashish Nehra, Sameer Dighe, Vijay Dahiya, Nayan Mongia, Nikhil Chopra
1: Azharuddin, Amay Khurasiya, Vijay Bharadwaj, MSK Prasad