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|September 7, 1999||
Different strokesHarsha Bhogle
This might seem completely ludicrous to the under 20s, and they represent a fair share of the one billion that we now are, but there was a time when the Ambassador was the most prestigious car in India. We had our Fiats and Standard Heralds but the Ambassador was the car to be seen in. Ministers, bureaucrats, police officers, everyone got into them and neatly insulated as we were from the rest of the world, names like Mercedes, BMW and Ford could have been characters from the comic books. As far as we were concerned, the Ambassador was our pride.
Then, sadly for the car, two things happened. First the Maruti appeared and, as the economy shed its paranoia for anything foreign, it was followed by a stream of other good cars. And second, the people sitting in those Ambassadors lost their prestige. Our national car was now a fumbling, rickety, inefficient car. Worse, it became a symbol for all that was wrong with Indian industry.
The story of the Ambassador finds a striking parallel with Indian sport; the moment we saw what the world could do, we realised how outdated we were. Indian hockey was the first big sport to feel the heat until Mr.Gill arrived to rid it of its pain. But his therapy, to kill the sport like he killed terrorists in his heyday, would suggest that another alternative might be worth considering.
Indian cricket has been face to face with that situation for a while now but we have chosen to blindfold ourselves in the hope that if we can't see anyone, no one can see us. But the spectator can see even if the officials can't and what he saw in Sri Lanka embarrassed him. On the field India were like an Ambassador beside the Ferraris that the Australians were driving. And when you have a mismatch like that even if you have a Schumacher driving for you, you cannot win.
For years we have been a terrible fielding side but one-day cricket wasn't as scientific as it is now. Brilliant batsmen and decent bowlers could overcome the handicap of easy second runs in the field. Now, you can no longer do that. If you chug in the field, you get the loser's cheque even if you have Sachin Tendulkar playing for you. I am willing to stick my neck out and say that running, stopping, catching and throwing represent 50% of a team's assets. Batting and bowling skills represent only the other half.
And if you are wondering why I am so happy to stick my neck out, it is because modern trends have so easily passed Indian cricket by that it is obvious that nobody in our administration is watching international cricket.
From the time India started having cricket managers and coaches, we have had Bishan Bedi, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar, Sandeep Patil, Madan Lal and now Anshuman Gaekwad. Except for Bedi, nobody seems to have understood the need for fitness and our fielding and running standards stay unchanged; so wonderfully insulated from the rest of the world.
And so it doesn't matter if Anil Kumble or Nikhil Chopra bowl a good line and length because singles and twos are on offer anywhere. If they bowl a bad ball there is absolutely no chance that somebody will come up with a stunning effort to cut the boundary. Now, with Azharuddin away, the bowlers must wonder when the next slip catch will be sighted and apart from a few efforts from Jadeja, direct hits are as rare as solar eclipses.
Don't get me wrong, this is a very talented Indian team. But it is talented in the traditional forms like batting and bowling which won you matches once but which are not enough anymore. They are going into battle with the wrong implements. It doesn't matter if you are a great soldier if you have a spear and shield while the enemy has an AK 47.
And so, India might still win games occasionally but they will necessarily lose more than they will win. It is the old man versus machine situation all over again. Man might produce stunning individual products but he can never compete with a machine in a day-to-day situation.
Of all the mysteries in sport, this is what baffles me the most. We see the difference but we don't want to do anything at all about it. Australia come out with Ponting, Mark Waugh, Symonds and Bevan who are just unbelievable in the field; Steve Waugh and Shane Warne who are very safe catchers; Moody and McGrath who have fabulous throwing arms and even Lehmann, who seems to carry so much extra weight, produces great catches in the deep.
In the decider against Sri Lanka, India had seven fielders on the ground whose standards didn't merit even first class status. And that doesn't include the wicket keeper who should never have had to do the job.
That is why India will need extraordinary individual performances to win while Australia and South Africa will win in par situations.
But the saddest thing of all is that fielding skills are the easiest in the game to learn. If you want to bowl like Kumble (at most times!) or bat like Ganguly and Dravid you have to possess extraordinary skill; merely spending as many hours as they did in the nets will not be enough. But if you want to field to world standards (and we are not talking of Rhodes and Ponting and Harris here), if you spend as many hours as the best the chances are that you will end up being at least 80% as good.
This brings us to a very important question. Who is responsible for the cricketing standards of the Indian cricket team? Whose job is it to see that they match world standards in every aspect, not just in batting and bowling? The captain and the coach? I think no because they only represent the last link in the chain. In fact, I don't think anybody has that job at all. Let's take a guess. The technical committee? The president and the secretary of the BCCI? The working committee? Honestly I don't know and I don't think anyone does. If there are any first class cricketers, or Test cricketers or officials of the BCCI reading this, maybe then can enlighten a lot of us.
The strange thing about all this is that there seems to be a very competent system to ensure the financial health of the BCCI. The value of Indian cricket, as a brand, is very well understood and that is why television rights figures are soaring, sponsorship revenues are very good and even the guarantee money is very skilfully negotiated. There even seems a passion for making money. I believe that if a quarter of that passion was transferred towards taking care of the product that is bringing in the money, Indian cricket would be in very good health. But then, in a monopoly, product quality is the first casualty as we saw with the Ambassador and till such time as other sports start competing with cricket for sponsorship money, the attitude will not change.
But unlike the Ambassador which was operating in a carefully controlled market, Indian cricket has to compete in a global market and our current organisation structure seems unable to come to terms with that. That is why we put our national team in a camp and sent them to a tournament, after a two month lay-off, without a trainer. Now if someone, anyone really, were responsible and accountable for the performance of the Indian team, he could have been asked questions. But how do you ask them if there is no one to ask them to?
Things are very different elsewhere. The United Cricket Board of South Africa has a proper player policy with specific plans for individual cricketers. Coaches are appointed on long term contracts and there is no suspense about who is going to take over. (Purely to amuse you, I must tell you that during the camp in Chennai I asked one of the Indian players if he knew who the manager of the team was. There was a delay and a puzzled look before the answer emerged!).
Australia has a similar approach and the Cricketer's Association there is pretty powerful as well. England probably have too many people around but at least they understand the need for accountability. They are moving with the times in most parts of the world. Here in India, let us start with giving the Ambassador a decent burial. It should have happened five years ago but we can at least start now.
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