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It's the basics, stupid!

November 14, 2003

If Sourav Ganguly's 'boys' are to beat New Zealand in Hyderabad tomorrow and frighten, if not conquer, the Australians for the TVS Cup at Kolkata next week, they have got to get only one thing right. Yes, our present cricket team has just one thing wrong -- the basics.

Embarrassing: Rahul Dravid
Embarrassing: Rahul Dravid
Start with the wicket-keeper, the most crucial fielding position. Rahul Dravid had a bad day behind the stumps at Cuttack against the Kiwis last week, and a terrible day against the Aussies at Bangalore on Wednesday, during which he blundered with the easiest of stumping chances with Ponting on 25 and, later, had no clue about an inside edge that the same batsman snicked to leg off Anil Kumble's bowling. And Dravid's frequent groping and snatching and tunnelling the balls between his spread-eagled legs is a positive embarrassment to international cricket.

The fault is not Dravid's at all. The fact is that the man detests 'keeping. The first chance he got to have his own way as the team's captain in Ganguly's absence, he promptly assigned the big gloves to the specialist, Parthiv Patel.

But Ganguly thinks nothing of plugging a square peg in a round hole. Just because Dravid did reasonably -- and surprisingly -- well in the last World Cup in South Africa, where we reached the final, Ganguly insists on Dravid as 'keeper so as to be able to include one more batsman in the team. He treats a one-off performance as being par for the course.

Clueless: Sourav Ganguly
Clueless: Sourav Ganguly
It may have been okay if the surrogate was one who was unsure of his place in the team and therefore would be prepared to die wearing the big gloves. But Dravid's bat makes him an invincible certainty in the eleven and no blame would lie on him, poor man, if he did not have his heart and soul in the gloves he is forced to wear. How many teams other than India rape this basic of international cricket?

In contrast, we are persisting with 'specialist' spinners who concede more or less the same number of runs in their quota of overs as the all-rounders like Hemang Badani and Sanjay Bangar without showing a harvest of wickets for their profligacy.

On the other hand, while we can reasonably expect Badani, Bangar and Sairaj Bahutule to get us a bagful of runs at a healthy strike rate, these 'specialist' bowlers of ours don't even raise hopes when they come in to bat. Kumble, who, we have often been told, has got a Ranji Trophy century to his credit, has now been reduced to a mere name on the batting roster. Ashish Nehra is a cipher, albeit a serious one. Harbhajan Singh simply refuses to get out of his rustic, bewildered approach. And Zaheer Khan wields his bat as though he were indulging in a game of lottery. Thus it is that our batting from numbers eight to eleven is a cruel joke that the millions of our supporters have to suffer. Of which other team is that true in international cricket today?

Questions arise: Don't our 'specialist' bowlers bat long enough at the nets? Doesn't our coach, John Wright, insist on that? Doesn't skipper Ganguly? Doesn't our coach, or anyone else, guide them on the basics of batting? Or don't our 'specialist' bowlers care a fig about this basic of bowlers honing their batting?

Why, these 'specialists' don't seem to ponder much over the basics of their bowling either. Look at the way a maiden over comes so rarely their way, what with accuracy being a forgotten discipline. Look at the routine way Harbhajan Singh bowls from over the wicket, almost every ball from the same minuscule spot, simply refusing to use the entire width of the crease by way of variety. He also simply refuses to go round the wicket, as though he dreads it as much as the roaring lion his team-mates have been filmed to confront in a cola TV commercial. And he will just not give up his diagonal run-up to the wicket that tends to take balls to the batsman's pads. He refuses to change that run-up even in limited overs cricket where a ball even slightly outside the leg-stump results in a wide run thrown away.

Stagnant: Harbhajan Singh
Stagnant: Harbhajan Singh
Really, Harbhajan Singh has lived on his reputation long enough, and it's time to send him packing to a serious reorientation programme.

Then there is Zaheer Khan, the success story of the last World Cup, barring that final against Australia. The man has suffered a big climb-down. His first over now arouses fear -- not in the batsmen, but in India's supporters, so expensive is it proving to be. His initial deliveries simply tend to go helter-skelter -- a span away to the leg-side or a span away to the off. At Cuttack, he was so fearful of losing control over the swing of the new ball that, from the latter half of the first over itself, he began to hold the ball with its seam horizontal. Which pace bowler of any other international team gives up the basics of gripping the shining new ball with its seam up?

The question arises: Why is Zaheer Khan not made to bowl 15 minutes non-stop before India takes the field?

Ah, the field, India in the field! Our present team's outcricket has become almost pathetic, what with even the ex-panther Yuvraj Singh now developing butter fingers and Mohammed Kaif showing tunnelling feet. The throws all round are anaemic, and the bull's-eye crack at the stumps is a rarity. The dives rarely stop the ball's escape. The basics of modern cricket are amiss there.

Finally, the field placing. Take one example. The thumping drives back past the bowler by Sachin Tendulkar and V V S Laxman are invariably stopped by the Kiwis and the Aussies, but those of Stephen Fleming and Matthew Hayden rush to the fence against the Indians. The reason is simple: our captain places the mid-off and mid-on fielders in the coaching manual positions; Ponting and Fleming, having studied Tendulkar and Laxman, place the mid-off and mid-on much narrower.

With so much wrong in our 'boys', can they nevertheless take the TVS Cup? Not unless cricket once more proves itself to be a funny game, or not until Zaheer Khan learns to ground his bat, not his foot, in the crease when taking a run.

Photographs: Getty Images

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