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'You have to play positively'

Ashish Magotra | November 20, 2003 09:05 IST

Nestled within the confines of his gym -- named, rather existentially, ést -- in Hyderabad, Mohammad Azharuddin seems to be at peace with himself.

Always positive: AzharuddinHe is still bitter about what happened during the dark days of the match-fixing scandal, when, he believes, a lot was said and written that was not true, but he has learnt to forgive and to forget.

He may have been forced out of the game in disgrace, but the former India captain, who played 99 Tests and 334 Limited Overs Internationals, is obviously a man of great experience. And who better to comment on India's chances during the forthcoming four-Test tour of Australia than the man who lead India on two tours Down Under and visited that country thrice, including for a World Cup?

"The only way to succeed in Australia," says Azhar, "is to play positively and score runs at every opportunity. There is no use just staying at the wicket without scoring runs, because there the bowlers will get you anyway.

"You have to play positively. If we manage to do that, we just might win one Test."

But Azhar believes a series win is "out of the question. We do not have the bowlers." What's worse, just ahead of the important tour, India has bid goodbye to one of their biggest strengths -- fast bowler Javagal Srinath, who has retired from the game. Srinath had made his debut under Azhar's captaincy.

"Srinath was a very good, attacking bowler, capable of bowling very fast at the start of his career," remembers Azhar. "One always got the feeling that he was not quite doing justice to his talent, but he ended up quite well. The team will miss him in Australia."

Australian opener Matthew Hayden remarked recently that Indians cannot play the short ball. But Azhar dismisses this: "Aussies talk. You do not pay too much attention to what they say."

Getting Hayden out is a problem that not only the Indian team, but teams across the globe are struggling to solve. "He has become such a good batsman that the only way to get him out is to bowl a consistent line just on the off-stump and hope to get him early," says Azhar.

In the current Australian team, wicket-keeper Adam Gilchrist and middle-order batsman Damien Martyn are his favourites. "I love the way Gilchrist plays positively and has so many shots," he says. "Martyn is very compact, but not afraid to play his shots either."

The Aussies have revolutionised cricket with their high-risk, no-nonsense approach of scoring runs as quickly as possible. "The thing about this Australian team," he explains, "is that they play their shots, no matter what the match situation. Whether it is 50 for the loss of 2 or 4 wickets, that does not matter. If we try that in India and it does not come off, we will face a lot of criticism from the media."

The Indian team's strategy of playing Rahul Dravid as part-time wicket-keeper and going into the match with seven batsmen and four bowlers does not quite appeal to Azhar. "It basically means that if your fourth bowler fails, you are going to get your non-regular bowlers to bowl 20 overs and that will cost you anywhere between 100 and 150 runs," he argues. "For the strategy to work, the backup bowlers need to have at least 80 per cent of the bowling talent that the regular bowlers have. But Sourav, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Yuvraj fall way short of that mark.

"The selectors also need to listen to Dravid, who has not been very happy doing the wicket-keeper's job."

In his playing days, Azhar was the best and fittest fielder in the Indian team. Even today, his fitness level is the envy of younger men. Times have changed and the team's fitness regimen is handled professionally today, but Azhar is not too impressed. "The Indian fielding has improved a lot," says the ex-captain, "but some still have a lot to do before they are considered decent."

Before allegations of match-fixing put a full stop to Azhar's career, he had several memorable moments in Australia, prime among them being winning the World Series Championship of Cricket in 1985 under Sunil Gavaskar's captaincy and performing well in the Test series that followed in 1986.

But 1992 is a year he would like to forget. Not just the Test series, but the World Cup as well. "My own performance was decent," he says, "but the performance of the team was not very good."

As captain, Azhar enjoyed tremendous success at home. The chief architect of all those victories was one man -- Anil Kumble. Azhar believes the selectors have done well to keep their faith with the veteran leg-spinner for the tour of Australia.

"He is the only experienced bowler India has now with Srinath announcing his retirement," he says. "To win in Australia you need a lot of experience and only Kumble has that among the Indian bowlers."

Azhar is confident that Kumble will be successful in Australia. "There is a lot of bounce in the wickets," he points out. But there is a caveat: "The captain should know how to use him and set the correct fields for him."

Murali Kartik is another bowler who deserves mention, according to Azharuddin. "He is a very attacking bowler, one of the best in the country," he reckons. "The batsmen will do well in Australia, but the bowlers need to take wickets for us to be a force."

Sanjay Bangar, who is currently out of the team, was a tough batsman, Azhar agrees. "But he did not have the ability to score at a quick pace. Akash Chopra, his replacement, is technically better, but he too likes to take his time at the crease.

"The openers need to realise that just staying there is no good. You need to score runs. A bad ball needs to be punished. The players have to adapt to changing times. It's always better to score runs than to stay at the wicket for a long time but not score runs."

But faced with an Australian attack that is considered by many to be the best in the world today, indeed one of the best of all time, the Indians have a tough task ahead.

"The Australian bowling attack is very good," Azhar concedes. "Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee are all very good and all have different styles.

"But the thing with good bowlers is that you cannot allow them to settle down. If they are bowling very well, you have to give them respect, but you have to try your shots. Most times you will succeed in getting them to change their line and length."

And what about the few occasions when you do not? "Well," says Azhar, "that is part of the game."

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