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January 18, 2000


India Down Under

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For want of a shoe...

Sriram Ranganathan

As Nikhil Chopra came out to bat in the Sydney one dayer facing a hat-trick, An Australian commentator muttered something about being glad that Srinath wasn't the one coming out, as he was an expert at avoiding hat-tricks, having had so much of practice. Another commentator said "Where is Ajit Agarkar when you need him?" And that provoked laughter.

That about sums up what the Indian cricket tour to Australia has become -- a cruel joke with there being no competition, just a thorough and ruthless decimation of India by Australia (and now Pakistan).

For the Indian cricket fan, every match means getting up in the morning eager to watch another Tendulkar century or Ganguly caressing the ball through the covers and Srinath and Prasad swinging the ball in a way that looks so beautiful on the Australian pitches with their high bounce and with the cameras catching the nuances of each delivery so beautifully. But the expectations being dashed every time without fail, and the incompetence of the players and their inability to come to terms with the marauding Australians is leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth.

One thing that sometimes escapes notice in all the hullaboo of the team criticism is the fact that the Australian team is in the same boat most of the times. Rarely, if ever, have we seen the Australians get off to a good start in their innings, and though the bowlers have performed considerably better than their Indian counterparts, the fact remains that the Australian team has not performed, with the bat, as a team, being bailed out by the odd individual performance time and again. Thus, if Ponting had not scored that century or if the tail had not wagged in a couple of the Tests, where would have the Australian totals have been? Nowhere.

The fact remains true of even the one dayers being currently played. Mark Waugh is just a token presence on the batting pitch. Gilchrist though playing his shots is not getting the big scores. The main difference between the Australians and the Indians in this series has been not monumental, but minimal, at least with the bat -- but that little bit has made the difference. And it can be summed up as self belief, toughness, the ability to get into the opposition's heads (and into their faces as well) and, more than anything else, the ability to keep plugging away without ever slackening.

The swearing and sledging of the Australians is getting so much of publicity that their toughness and aggressiveness is being confused with this boorish behaviour. Calls for the Indians to toughen up and be aggressive in their turn are being made, and this brings up a point. I am not sure that Srinath should be mouthing eff words at Ponting, for instance, or to see Sachin pointing to the boundary after hitting some bowler for four. Srinath smiling when Ponting was at his most boorish, or Sachin walking off with head held high after being given dodgy decisions twice in two innings, or refraining from reaction when McGrath screamed at him after getting his wicket with another dodgy one, is something that made me, as an Indian fan, proud to be an Indian.

The aggressiveness we are looking for is not of the boorish variety. What we are looking for is mental toughness, pride, self-respect.

It has been many years since we started talk about improving our fielding. It is been many years since we had a couple of slip fielders who could be relied upon to take most if not all of the chances coming their way. It has been many years since we had an all rounder who could bat, bowl and field decently enough to be trusted to score a few runs when called upon to bat, bowl some overs decently when required and who can throw from the deep and find the wicket-keeper on seven occassions out of ten. It has been many years since a batsman could come into the ground with his team struggling with a not so great start and steer the team out of trouble with a matchwinning performance. It has been many years since a bowler came onto bowl with the opposition firmly in the driving seat and proceeded to sculpt victory from defeat. It has been many years since a fielder came up with a stunning catch or a superb run out that turned the course of the match. It has been many years since we had a wicketkeeper who could bat (in spite of what anyone may say about Mongia or MSK or Dighe, to call them batsmen is simply a joke).

It has been many years for a lot of things and at the rate at which things are progressing, it looks like we will have to wait for many more. And here comes the lack of pride I was talking about, because these things have existed for a long time, without anyone taking the effort to address these questions, to redress these ills. The difference in many matches in the current series in Australia has been minimal; a run out here, a catch there, a brilliant save. Things that seem to happen to all teams except our team.

Bad luck, some might say -- but there is also a saying that makes a lot of sense; winners make their own luck. Australia in the last match against India at Sydney were hitting the stumps at will. One of their slip catchers, Warne, was injured and Martyn stepped in as if it was the simplest thing possible. And this when we haven't had decent slippers in god knows how long.

All this is not luck. All this is the hard work put in so that their performance is not found wanting in any way whatsoever. All this is in the pride that an Australian cricketer takes in wearing that baggy green cap. Australia, time and again, got off to a bad start and then someone got a decent innings and got the team to a decent score. Never in fact did we see the whole team fold up together, and that was the difference between the two teams in the series. A Tendulkar or a Ganguly may sparkle on their day and steer their team to a victory making fans forget all the losses before, but that is the catch in this whole situation. Australia will win whether their star players sparkle or not. India will win only when the stars sparkle.

And this explains the rot, because for so long no one has realized that it is better to have a team without stars in which all the players do their job, rather than having a team with stars who are better than anyone else in their own right but who cannot win because the rest simply do not have it in them to be the support cast.

Lots of things need to be changed. When we are thinking (if we are thinking at all) of making changes, let us go whole hog and make up for all the changes that we did not do over the years. Let us get pitches where both the batsmen and bowlers have an equal chance. Let us get players who get to experience all kinds of pitches, the dead ones so that they do not feel strange when they go to Sharjah and Sri Lanka; and the lively ones so they do not feel strange when they go to Australia and South Africa and the West Indies. Let us get players who do not feel scared of the international scenario but who look to perform. Let us get players who think of it as an insult when the opposition beats them in a game. And finally, let us get administrators who have enough selflessness (they will need to work hard for it, just as the players will need to; they will need to take hard decisions that may make them unpopular) and national pride to want to make it happen.

We need change and we need it now. We need to remember that this is not just 15 people going out there and losing to every Tom, Dick and his grandmother. This is the Indian team. In the eyes of the world, this group of players equates with the nation -- and thus, when commentators laugh at an Agarkar, it is this country, my country, they are laughing at.

And that is why we, the fans, ask for change. So that never more will commentators on radio laugh derisively when the next Indian batsman walks in to bat.

We need to have the courage and the conviction to make hard choices, to be tough enough to change the things that are not working, whether in cricket administration or elsewhere. We need to learn, if not from ourselves, then from those who can teach us what we need to learn. And we need to do that so we can be winners. Someday. Sometime.

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