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April 29, 2000

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Ranji performances go unseen

Harsha Bhogle

Indian cricket is a bit like the pie-throwing scenes in the old movies; itís a free for all and it doesn't really matter who you are aiming at. Now if only they were throwing pies and if only there was some laughter.

There is a lot of innuendo around, lots of allegations of cover-ups. Thatís a pity because the only thing that has definitely been covered up so far is some fine performances in the Ranji Trophy. So let us cast aside bribery and match-fixing for a while and spare a thought for some genuine, hardworking cricketers. For even if the standard of cricket wasnít particularly breathtaking, there were some performances to cheer.

Let us set the bar first though. The leading bowlers in the Ranji Trophy have virtually no chance of playing for India and the top two, Kanwaljit Singh and Utpal Chatterjee are around forty. That is as much a statement on their ability as on the quality of spin bowling available in India at the moment. It goes further. The next two in the wicket-takers list are Venkatapathy Raju and Ashish Kapoor.

Not surprisingly then, in the course of a casual conversation with the national selectors, the one point that came through was that no young cricketer made a big impact this year. There was not one cricketer who had forced himself into the selectorís minds.

That might be a bit unfair to Rajesh Pawar, who took 44 wickets and who looks a good young left arm spinner, especially since I am convinced his arm is straighter than it used to be. But for Pawar, as for the impressive Murali Kartik, this is where the challenge begins. Their natural ability has brought them to the point where they can create a big impact but from here onwards, they will have to learn on their feet. That is where Indian cricket, like English cricket, is particularly weak. Not every cricketer can grasp what is happening around him very quickly but our young boys are not trained to observe and to inculcate. But Pawar clearly has a future.

A few others would seem to have one as well. Tamil Nadu did not make the final this year, overwhelmed as they were by the magic of the finest innings that Sachin Tendulkar has played outside international cricket. Otherwise, there would have been very good cricketers on view because I believe that Tamil Nadu could have been the team of the year; they probably were till Hyderabad achieved two wins coming from behind.

Hemang Badani and Sriram would remember this season well because they did all the difficult work. If you have been making 800 runs a year, it is easy to keep the momentum going (remember dynamic friction being less than static friction?). But both Badani and Sriram, after tremendous starts to their career, had stagnated. Hopefully, this is their coming of age, that time in their career when they come to terms with themselves for there is no denying their talent. Badani, in particular, is a very attractive player and stands out even in a long line of talented left handers.

Like with Kartik and Pawar, their ability has brought Badani and Sriram thus far. Now, like Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Venkatesh Prasad did so remarkably in 1996, these players must show that they can bridge the gap. It is at this stage that the Australians and the South Africans move ahead. Remember, Mark Boucher, Nantie Hayward and Makhaya Ntini were all part of the South African Under 19 team that struggled here. But the system there creates an environment that can nurture talent. In India, you are largely on your own.

I wonder though, what it is with Tamil Nadu that a lot of talented cricketers seem to under-perform. I remember asking W.V.Raman, an outstanding player one rung below international cricket and he seemed to think that cricketers from Chennai didnít get the breaks at the right time. Sadagoppan Ramesh, who did get it, seems to think similarly but I would like to believe there is much more to it.

But Tamil Nadu were different this year and I wonder how much of that was due to the fact that early in the season they had Robin Singh as captain. In spite of not being home-bred he is proud about the fact that he plays his cricket in Chennai and the players seem to be warming to him. Apart from the major players, they had some valuable bit players like Madanagopal, S Mahesh and Rajat Bhatia who allowed them to bat very deep. And Ashish Kapoor, back to where he should always have been, had his best season for a long time. An off spinner who bats...we havenít heard of that category for a while in India !

Yet, the team of the year had to be Hyderabad because twice, they retrieved matches that seemed to be gone. They had the best batsman of the year in VVS Laxman who not only got 1415 runs but got them in a manner that had people asking for more. As far as I am concerned, the best news is that he has now announced he no longer wants to be considered as an opener. At number six he has so much more to offer.

Hyderabad also had the two most successful spinners of the year and they conjured up quite a few wins for them. Rajuís action seems to have acquired a slight jerk but he still seems to enjoy turning out and often, that determines how successful you will be; which is also why Kanwaljit Singh picks up the number of wickets he does. Madan Lal and Ashok Malhotra, two of the national selectors, say he is the only off spinner they have seen this year who bowls without a man at point; inviting the batsman to cut against the turn. It speaks not only of his confidence but of the nip he can still get off the track.

Having said that the team that won it was Bombay and if everyone around tends to underplay what they have achieved it is only because they had to fall back on Sachin Tendulkar once again. I donít see why that is a problem though given that he is officially part of that team ! As turnarounds go, what they achieved was fantastic given that they had not even qualified last year and team spirit had sunk so low that players from other states openly talked about Bombay not being a challenge anymore. Tendulkar got 437 runs in the two matches that he played but lots of other players crossed 600 runs.

That tells me two things; that there is a lot of depth to the batting but, worryingly for Bombay, none of them got past 800 runs. For a team that makes the super league, that should be the bench mark and amidst the victory celebrations, people like Jatin Paranjape, Amol Muzumdar and Wasim Jaffer must wonder if they could have done better individually because this has to be the stepping stone to playing for India.

The revelation though was Vinod Kambli who played two very responsible innings, looked trim and gave glimpses of the disciplined cricketer his admirers had started giving up the search for. He has time on his side and if he can overcome the enemy in himself, you never know, Kambli part 2 may not be a dream. But he has succumbed before and so, I would much rather wait and see.

Elsewhere, Utpal Chatterjee carried Bengal on his shoulders. He bowled a very mean line, picked up wickets without giving away too many runs and generally, would have given the youngsters in the side a complex ! He has suffered a little bit from looking a lot older than he really is but you cannot argue against wickets and he had them. Srikant Kalyani continues to play important innings as well and the fact that he gets in means the youngsters arenít really shaping up.

The team to watch in the years to come will be Punjab for they have three of the most talked about youngsters in India. In Ravneet Ricky, Reetinder Sodhi and Yuvraj Singh they have a very good batting core but they need to fight history for apart from Navjot Sidhu, youngsters from Punjab have rarely fulfilled their promise.

In recent times Vikram Rathour, Pankaj Dharmani and Dinesh Mongia have all looked like taking one step up only to fall back. In fact if you notice that is the recurring theme of this article and maybe that is where the new academy can help. Talent is rarely a problem with most countries, it is what you do with it that separates one team from the other.

And so to my two disappointments of the year. Top of the list would have to be Madhya Pradesh who did not even qualify after coming so close last year. Names like Amay Khurasia, Devendra Bundela and Abbas Ali were being taken with some respect and the old guard of Rajesh Chauhan and Narendra Hirwani were still spinning teams out. Now there must be a question mark over some of them.

The other disappointment, even though they reached the semi-final, was Karnataka. In the last few years they have set very high standards and have shown that they have the back-up talent to counter the absence of their stars. Mainly that had come from Sunil Joshi, Vijay Bharadwaj and Dodda Ganesh. Bharadwajís injury meant that the only class batsman in the team apart from Rahul Dravid was unavailable as well and in spite of the efforts of Arun Kumar, they just didnít have that aura around them. And Ganesh had a rare off season.

And finally to the dark horses of the year. No racial prejudice here but they came from Kerala where Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev thought they had seen three young fast bowlers who might just have it in them. Fast bowlers from Kerala? What an exciting thought ! And one of them, with a very famous surname, Yohannan, has just done very well for Kerala in the under 25s.

Watch out for them. Till next year then, amidst all the muck pies and the hope that some of them hit their intended target and we emerge at least a bit clearer.

Harsha Bhogle

Mail Prem Panicker

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