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June 6, 2000

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Minds in a maze

Harsha Bhogle

From an Asian power to a mere also-ran. Dhaka confirmed that the elevator taking Indian cricket down isn't stopping anywhere.

India looked old, jaded, tacky. India looked lost. The mind and the body were on parallel paths and being in Dhaka seemed an accident. The captain was angry, the players were unhappy and the coach was wearing a disguise. The man we saw in elevators and lobbies wasn't Kapil Dev. The man I knew by that name was ebullient, smiled readily and had a charisma around him. This man, with a passing resemblance to Kapil Dev, looked weighed down; he looked like he had a migraine. If this is what cricket does to heroes, I don't want to see another.

In fact, Indian cricket looks like it has a migraine at the moment. There is pride but it is scattered, like pollen in a desert. The mind is there but cricket is one of the many things fighting for a place in it. Individually, people were hurt and disappointed, collectively, those were emotions that were washed away pretty quickly.

Yes, India looked like an old, stumbling, uncertain team. When a lion grows old, it resembles a hyena, dining on what is available to it rather than going out proudly for the kill. At Dhaka, India could only hunt fowl.

And so, the only team they could conquer was Bangladesh. Even there they stumbled, allowing them to score 97 from the last ten overs. Then they bullied them, hitting them mercilessly on a flat track. Bullies are not inherently brave people, they only pick on those that cannot fight back. Maybe that is where Indian cricket stands. Wait for flat tracks and poor bowling and pile on the averages. Then look for Anil Kumble, and now Sachin Tendulkar, in the field.

It would be very easy to say 'throw these guys out' and yet, what we need to do is to throw the rubbish out of the minds. These are not bad cricketers, these are underperforming cricketers and they are playing the way they are because the mind seems like a colony of mazes. I suspect we will end up making wholesale changes in the team, and a couple of players did look out of place, but to do that would be to miss the picture completely.

What we need instead is to make wholesale changes in the minds of these very cricketers because there is little doubt that these are among the best available. This is what our orchard is throwing up, this is the crop that we have to choose from. To pick another cricketer and hope to solve the problem is like picking another fistful of rice from the same bag.

I think it is obvious now that India will only produce sporadic performances over the next few years. India have a couple of matchwinners and when they click, India will win matches. But India are playing a completely outdated form of cricket and until we sit in a time machine, we will not move on. The first button to click, in the immediate future, is to have the right coach with the right powers.

I have enormous respect for Kapil Dev as a person and cricketer but he is fighting on too many fronts. Even the best gun can only fire in one direction at a time and Kapil Dev is swirling around at the moment, trying to fire everywhere. At the moment, the job is beyond him and that in itself is a tragedy because he has so much to contribute to young cricketers, most of whom seem so reluctant to dip into his pool of fire and commitment. I have no doubt that he was the right man, even if golf was always going to be an extremely demanding mistress, but too much has happened since. Kapil Dev is not a happy man today and an unhappy, disgruntled man cannot make others feel good.

And so, in the immediate future, we need to shop around; to look for a straight talking, hardworking, intelligent man who does not have to worry about Delhi and Tamil Nadu and Bengal and Bombay. But before that we have to admit that such a man does not exist in our cricket. If we want to play the kind of cricket that the rest of the world plays, we must open our doors and we must do that now.

And then we must stop attending inconsequential, meaningless meetings that only talk about what to do with money rather than what to do with cricket. We must know what business we are in and we are in the business of playing good cricket not in the business of making money and fighting for more. That is important but that is not the only point and at the moment, all we want to do is to make more money. The administrators are fighting for more, the cricketers are fighting for more and the game that all of us love is being forgotten.

We need to accept now, and we should have accepted this long ago, that our system can no longer produce good cricketers; that if we do, it is an accident because we play soft cricket. But all we do is to change the chairs in the board room. And so we eliminate the Super League in the Ranji Trophy and go back to a knockout pattern, we make the Duleep Trophy a league instead of a knockout. And we go back exactly to where we were five years ago.

You cannot put different clothes on a dead man and expect him to dance. The root of the problem is the quality of our domestic cricket. The Ranji Trophy is, and will have to be, the feeder system and with so many teams and so many players there, the quality is pathetic. Now if a young man plays against poor opposition on poor wickets he can never become better; not even if he plays ten matches instead of five. He needs to play tougher cricket to become a better player and that is why the Ranji Trophy has to become a tougher tournament. Playing more mediocre cricket isnít the answer. All it will do is to give mediocre cricketers more first class runs and make them even more unsuitable for international cricket.

You cannot make good sugar if your cane is going through bad crushers. What we are doing at the moment, by this superficial restructuring, is to look for different sugar cane. We need instead to look for better crushers that will squeeze more out of the cane that we have. But if you continue to make your best young players play against Tripura and Services and Himachal Pradesh and Goa and Gujarat, they can never become competitive. We have to clear the weeds before we can plant the next seeds but we donít want to do that.

The desire in Indian cricket to miss reality at the moment is staggering. If making money was the goal, Indian cricket and Indian cricketers would never lose.

We are on the money elevator at the moment. In a bizarre form of reality that is going up even as the playing elevator comes plunging down. But the people who matter in our cricket are only looking at one elevator.

Harsha Bhogle

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