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|June 17, 2000||
Stuck on stickersHarsha Bhogle
Every time a batsman walks out, on our telecasts we put out his career statistics. With a very large number of cricketers, these are very revealing by themselves because over a period of 40 or 50 matches, they are very good indicators of ability. With India though, there is a worrying factor and it has been pointed out by a lot of visiting commentators.
They talk of the cosmetic value of our batting records because five of our top six batsmen have batting averages in the high thirties or early forties. That puts them in the very special category, equivalent to a 45+ average in Test cricket. With a batting line-up like that, India should have won many many more matches than they do. But of course, they don’t, and that makes you wonder if there is a dud value to some of those numbers.
Just to give you two examples in recent times, Sourav Ganguly’s 135 not out against Bangladesh and Ajay Jadeja’s 93 against Pakistan would boost their batting averages and their career strike rates. And yet, Ganguly will be the first to admit that the Bangladesh attack could aspire no further than to keep him quiet. And 80% of Jadeja’s 93 runs were made when the match had lost all competitive interest.
You cannot take those runs away from them, but maybe when selections are made, we need to factor in the quality of some of the runs. That is why selectors are different from computers and yet, if our selectors asked the computer, or a statistician who can operate a computer, some relevant questions, he could create his own indexes and form a different picture of a player.
For a start, you can look at home and away averages or scores batting first and second, you could look at the number of 70+ scores that have been scored in a winning cause, you could look at an elite index (runs scored against Australia, South Africa and Pakistan) and you could look at a comfort index (runs scored against Kenya, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in India, Sri Lanka, Sharjah or Dhaka). But more than anything else, I would like to eliminate scores made when we have batted second and lost by more than 30-40 runs.
The objective behind an assessment like this is not to belittle achievement but in fact, to strengthen it; to separate the steel from the wax. Too often, we have batsmen plodding along in lost causes, playing for a place in the next game instead of winning the match, and that does nobody any good at all. Actually it does, and therein lies the increasing importance of commercial considerations.
The more time a batsman spends in the middle, the greater the visibility of his bat, Indian television’s most under-rated advertising medium. So, sometimes, if a team needs 180 from 140 balls with five or maybe, six wickets in hand, it can actually be quite profitable to score 120 runs in that time, easily achieved once the fielding captain knows where the game is headed. So if a batsman makes a 60 or 70, it boosts his stats, makes it difficult to leave him out for another three or four games, and increases the value on the sticker on his bat.
This is not an armchair theory. Over the last six weeks, in the course of casual conversations, two prominent Indian players spoke to me with great feeling about how these commercial interests have entwined themselves around team performances. “The incentives on bat contracts are ruining our cricket” one said. And the other, whose views I have great respect for, said “The objective today is to play ten games and look for ads, rather than try hard to play a hundred games.”
So you see why staying in the team can become more important than taking a chance on playing a match-winning innings. To be honest though, there is another factor to this as well, and that comes from a lack of continuity, and trust, in the team management. If a player is asked to play a specific kind of innings, or if in the team cause he gets out looking for quick runs, he needs to be backed by the captain, coach and selectors. If he finds that, two games later, he is being left out, he learns very quickly to keep his end up, produce a soft performance but have the numbers on paper to press his case.
That is why it is essential to have continuity in team management. Australia have had three coaches and three captains in the last fifteen years, South Africa have, effectively, had two captains and three coaches since they returned to international cricket. In such situations a captain and coach can back a team player and armed with that confidence, a player will be motivated to attempt a match-winning, rather than safe, performance.
But then, why do we blame the players alone. Organisational culture diffuses very quickly into a player’s psyche and, as we know, building a bank deposit has always been more important to the BCCI than building a winning team!
Mail Prem Panicker
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