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What's the point in the Challengers?

September 16, 2003

PEOPLE are at their most amusing when they don't mean to be -- as you will find, when you read Faisal's think piece on the just-concluded Challenger Trophy.

Check this out: A selector is asked about the kind of flat batting tracks that were on view for the tournament.

His response is a classic: 'Why should the spinners be given turning tracks or the fast bowler be given bouncy wickets? If they are good they should perform anywhere.'

Open mouth. Insert foot. Gargle.

The statement misses two points that are perhaps minor from a selectorial point of view, but are of real importance for players, and for fans.

One, the selector appears to be under the impression (common, in fact, to cricket administrators in India) that cricket is a bit like golf; that it is about a bloke coming out and seeing how far, and how cleanly, he can belt a ball. Which is contrary to what we always believed, that the game is about a batsman, and a bowler, engaging in equal contest.

And two, by the same fuzzy logic, why then create a flat batting paradise? Why -- to use the selector's own argument - should a batsman be given a flat track? If he is good, he should be able to make runs in even hostile conditions, against quality bowlers on tracks that favor them. No?

In fact, if a batsman were to score runs -- even, say, a 50 -- in testing conditions in course of such a tournament, its value would be incalculable; the selectors would know that he has what it takes to cope even in adverse situations, and will likely cash in big time if he finds himself on a good wicket.

That point appears to consistently escape our cricketing powers that be; on previous occasions when I asked about such tracks, administrators ranging from the ubiquitous Jaywant Lele on down have told me that the idea is to provide good entertainment for spectators.

Right -- that explains why the Challengers, which involved every one of India's cricketing stars and a whole heap of wannabes, drew zero crowds.

It's a bit like formula films: film-makers go on churning them out, arguing that these are what the public wants to see; the public consistently stays away from the theaters; and yet the message doesn't get across.

Maybe one of these days, we should try skywriting?

THANKS to being marooned here in New York, I only got to follow the Challengers through Faisal's reports, and the scorecards and related stories.

But even at this anaesthetizing distance, I can't help wondering what the point of it all was.

We knew, going in, who our main batsmen for one-dayers would be. We knew, too, that the Challengers were not going to answer the question of who our Test openers should be.

What we did not know, heading into a new season, was the composition -- and depth -- of our bowling lineup. Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan will line up, fitness permitting; so will Harbhajan Singh.

But who are our other bowlers on the pace front, and among the spinners? Going into the Challengers, we didn't know; four days and as many games later, we still don't know.

So, soon enough, the selector quoted by Faisal above, and his four mates, will sit down to pick a team -- it will be interesting to see what the basis of selection will be.

IF the Challengers were, for practical purposes, a washout, you can't say the same about the camp that preceded it.

Again, much of the information I got on how the camp went came from Faisal and my other colleague, Ashish Magotra, who were there; also from the stories appearing on Rediff and in other sections of the media.

By all accounts, it appears to have been eye-opening, in more ways than one. Increasingly, fitness has become the single biggest focus area for Indian teams -- that is not something you would have thought possible even say three years ago.

It is heartening to see the way the back-up team is working: new physio Gregory Allen King working in cooperation with his predecessor Adrian le Roux, who is now doing duty for South Africa; le Roux himself, though no longer a part of Team India, continuing to provide inputs; Wright and King roping in aerobics instructors, yoga teachers and such to supplement the already rigorous physical conditioning regimen -- quite extraordinary, that, and on this count, the board deserves credit for giving Wright and his team the elbow room to work things out their way.

On an earlier occasion, when I said something similarly complementary about the board, a friend wrote in to ask if I was suffering from fever or something; or had NYC 'mellowed' me, he asked, in jest.

So if you think I am giving the board too much credit on this count, consider this: the same board, and the same president, was just not so long ago strenuously resisting the idea of physical trainers, more so imported ones.

The same board had coasted along, for decades, under the impression that an Ali Irani with his bag stuffed with aspirin and Zandu balm was all that was required by an international team engaged in top competition.

When push came to shove and the board was finally forced into looking outwards for back-up, it then appointed Andrew Leipus -- and expected him to function as physiotherapist, fitness trainer, and general dogsbody.

Wright put his foot down, and argued that if Leipus was to do a good job of keeping the side fit, then he needed to be left alone to concentrate on that; equally, that the team needed a professional, fully qualified fitness trainer to bring them up to speed.

Creditably, the board acceded; the results are showing, so hey, how about a cheer?

Equally interesting was the way the current Wright regime roped in past greats -- Sunny Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Syed Kirmani et al -- to work with the team.

Not to name names, but earlier, I had attended a few of the camps conducted by Wright's predecessors. I particularly remember one camp in Bangalore, in 1996, and one in Chennai, a year or so later.

On both occasions, the coach of the time had past greats within call; in Chennai particularly, both Sunny and Kapil had come down, on their own initiative.

On both occasions, the official coach refused help, and made the seniors feel unwelcome. Sunny ended up sitting in his hotel room for one day, then taking the flight back to Mumbai; Kapil -- more thick-skinned, perhaps? -- did land up at the ground, but the minute he stepped on to the field, the coach in question walked off and sat in the pavilion in a very speaking fashion.

It takes a professional to use all the tools at his disposal; it takes a professional, too, to show the requisite humility, to ask others for help, and to accept it with grace when it is offered.

AND that brings me to my favorite left arm spinner, Bishen Bedi. Great fun to talk to and discuss cricket with; a born raconteur, who uses stories and anecdotes to illustrate the serious side of cricket as also its many foibles; a great guy who goes about with his heart on his sleeve.

However of late, Bish unfortunately has become a bit of a misguided missile, teeing off at the drop of a hat and, to continue the golfing metaphor, as often as not driving into the rough.

A friend and rediff regular, Arindam Bannerjee, not so long ago sent me Bish's latest -- a rather incoherent rant against foreign coaches.

Bedi said in course of his diatribe, that we have enough coaching talent in the country. Where? It was precisely because our in-house coaches proved disastrous, that the players held a gun to the board's head and demanded that a foreign pro be appointed.

What followed, though, really took the biscuit: 'Too much reliance on the laptop computer will not be helpful to our players', Bish reportedly said. 'Why shouldn't we play the game the way Col C K Nayudu, Vijay Hazare, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar played the game?'

Um. Why, it is equally pertinent to ask, don't we still travel by bullock cart? Both questions can be answered the same way -- times change; we either change with them, or we get left behind.

You began to wonder --  more so, when you read some equally intemperate comment about why, given that coach John Wright is a left handed batsman, Sourav Ganguly had to go to Greg Chappell to hone his skills -- just what Bedi's agenda was. (In passing, Ganguly also took tips more recently from another right hander -- Sunny Gavaskar. What's wrong with that?)

Later in that same article, which appeared in the Times of India and which Arindam forwarded to me, Bedi talks of his own Cricket Coaching Trust based at the Jamia Milia University, and of an upcoming camp he was conducting.

The juxtaposition of the two will impel the less charitable to wonder whether his outburst against foreign coaches conceals a personal ambition.

Or you could give the man the benefit of the doubt, and argue that he genuinely wants to see Indians coaching Indians. But then, the way to bring that about would be, as Faisal pointed out pertinently in our discussion on the last episode of Panix Stations, to have quality Indian coaches working with Wright as his assistants, thus enabling them to get invaluable hands-on training and building a talent pool of coaches within the country.

Go for it -- but for god's sake, why undermine the good work the guy is doing with these periodic, and ill-judged, attacks?

PS: This blog -- as many of you have written in to point out, needs a bit of an overhaul.

Am working on that; a more user-friendly navigation system should be in place later this week.

That is also why I haven't put up many of the mails you guys sent in; those, too, will resume shortly.

Meanwhile, looking forward to hearing from you guys. Later, all...

Previous Blogs: In Praise of Sourav | Gentlemen, Play? Not! | Shut up, you **^*^* player!

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