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May 28, 1999


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'Azhar is a good team man now'

Harsha Bhogle, on Real Audio.

A transcript of the conversation Harsha Bhogle had with Prem Panicker on May 28

Harsha, the last time we spoke, you talked about how Tendulkar at number four provides a huge comfort zone for the Indian team. Well, it now looks like a bit of a luxury layer, doesn't it?

Yes, it is. I think it will be very difficult for the Indian management to make any changes in the batting order with Saurav, Rahul and Sachin in such tremendous form. It creates problems, but very pleasant problems, for the management now, because Robin Singh has run into very good bowling form by picking up five wickets. So it gives the Indian management the luxury of batting Robin at number seven, which would really strengthen the batting order, wouldn't it? But that automatically weakens the bowling, because they'll have just two frontline seam bowlers and Anil Kumble, which is not enough at Edgbaston, because it is thought to be a good batting pitch.

So what would you go with, Harsha? Would you stretch the batting till number seven, with Robin Singh's good bowling form in mind, or would you rather strengthen the bowling? Or one wonders... is the horses for courses option really the best one, that is, picking the eleven on the basis of the match conditions?

I would prefer to go for a full bowler, the extra bowler. Pakistan and South Africa have been using five full bowlers on a regular basis, and India will really have to go in with at least four frontline bowlers. Ramesh, batting at the top, with Sachin at number four, coming in all fired up after the 10th over, and Jadeja, batting at number six, gives a very healthy feel to the batting. But really, Robin, in spite of his good bowling, will have to be the one to go out. Mongia's injury gave him the opportunity to slip in, but with Nayan back, I think the man who has to go out in favour of four full bowlers is Robin Singh. I see India reverting to the original game plan they had for the match against Sri Lanka now that Mongia is fit and raring to go.

You're saying that Mongia is back, but we're getting conflicting reports here. Some reports from England say Mongia still is nursing a bit of a bruise on his left hand. With that in mind, do you think it would make sense to continue using Dravid as a keeper? Also, keeping in mind the downside, which is the fact that Dravid might have to keep wickets for 50 overs and then go out and bat against a fresh bowling attack...

(Laughs) I think the simplest way to answer that question would be for me to give Rahul Dravid's room number to you and let him answer it. I met him at breakfast, and he said that he had a new-found respect for wicketkeepers after the game against Sri Lanka, because it was such a draining job... charging up and down to the stumps, shouting all the time, watching the bowler's grip, screaming instructions... and all this after batting out 40 overs in the middle! He said it was most exhausting.

I think it would be unwise for India to go in with Rahul as a wicketkeeper because of two reasons: first, it places severe restrictions on Kumble. It doesn't allow him to drift to the leg side, because it is terribly difficult for an irregular keeper like Dravid to keep to Kumble drifting down leg. And secondly, it means that Dravid has to stand up to the fifth bowler, which is terribly hard, and a little too much to expect Rahul to stand up to the likes of Saurav Ganguly. So, I don't think India will be taking the risk, and they will be going in with Mongia as keeper, because they do not want to take any unnecessary risks and leave everything hanging on the result of the Zimbabwe-South Africa game, or the Sri Lanka-Kenya game.

So, essentially it is the fact that India has to win against England. Harsha, what is the state of mind of the players after producing pathetic displays and then hammering hundreds where no one else can?

Funnily enough, in private conversations, Dravid told me that after the loss against Zimbabwe, team morale was terribly low, but everybody put their hand up and said 'yes, it was my fault, and we did play terrible cricket'. But in personal conversations with the players I have never, ever got the feeling that 'Oh no! we are going to have to return in May itself and not June, and we aren't going to make it to the Super Six stage'. I think the general mood of the players is the fact that 'yes, we do play good cricket'.

I had a chat with Sachin after the game against South Africa, just before he left for his father's funeral, and I told him that the only man who can turn the team's fortunes is him. And he told me that if we play the same level of cricket that we played against South Africa, we will win most of our group matches and go on to the Super Six. And since the Zimbabwe game, I don't know whether it is Simpson, Azharuddin or Gaekwad... I really feel as if India has gone completely irrational over the captaincy issue, but someone, or something, has made the side realise that they play good cricket, and since then, there has been an air of positivity around them. I think the important thing is the fact that they realise that they played bad cricket against Zimbabwe. This, in turn, has allowed them to play better, more positively... and I am really interested in seeing how exactly the side performs against England.

Harsha, since the game against England is the key, what exactly is the weather forecast like?

Temperatures were around 23-24 degrees, the sun was out, and we were roaming around in T-shirts... it was absolutely glorious. But there were a couple of thunderstorms at night. The forecast, I think, will be clear and sunny for most of the time, and, maybe, there will be a couple of thunderstorms, brief little pockets of bad weather. I really feel that the weather is good enough to play out the match in the course of a single day, and there will be no need as such to stretch it to a second day. Birmingham is a good draining pitch as well, so that's good.

Isn't it a slightly funny fact that this was supposed to be the more difficult group, but all the problems are in Group 'B', with all sorts of mathematical calculations coming into play to figure out who goes into the Super Six?

Well, I think the main reason for that is that Australia has been playing bad cricket, and that has opened up the whole group. So many people have said that Australia are one of the favourites for the tournament, but we have discussed this in private conversations as to how Australia's performances in the West Indies showed that there were a lot of problems in the team. This is a syndrome we associate with India and Tendulkar, but if McGrath does not fire, then the bowling looks very, very thin. Warne is not bowling as well as he used to, and to see a side like Bangladesh getting away to 178 for 7 against them is a reflection of how weak the Australian bowling is right now. And they are not being able to solve their problems quickly enough, which is, maybe, indicative of the fact that the management is not solving the problems in the side fast enough. Bob Simpson pointed out how their winning percentage in the last year has only been about 50% from about 68%, which is disappointing for a side like Australia. But I would really back Australia to win their remaining match against West Indies, and knock New Zealand out of the Super Six, but that is more indicative of which teams should be going in to the Super Six, sad as that may sound for New Zealand.

Which would be good news for India, because apart from Pakistan, no other team from the other group entering the Super Six would really be at the peak of their form.

But you have to remember that West Indies beat us in the semi-finals at Dhaka in a crunch game. What is critical for India is picking up those two points against England. Because for England to enter the Super Six, it would be really difficult to do so if it enters that stage without any points to its name. If things go according to plan, teams one and two should be entering the semi-final stage, so for India to enter the semi-final stage, winning tomorrow's game and picking up two points is absolutely essential.

Once you are in the semi-finals it is really the team that is better on the day that will win and go through to the final. So, tomorrow's match will hold the key to how far India go in this competition. If they lose to England, they will spend a sleepless night, because, to qualify, Sri Lanka will go for a do-or-die chase against Kenya, and that will make them vulnerable to losing all their wickets and in a freak result, lose to Kenya. If that happens, India and Zimbabwe go head to head, and Zimbabwe qualifies because they have beaten us. But I spoke to Kumble, and he said that they really are not thinking of all these things, and are more worried about playing out Gough and Mullaly, because if they can play these bowlers out, they set themselves up really well to win.

Harsha, what is your opinion of this English side? I read in the papers that the bookmakers have elevated India to number five, but England is still at number four...

Their strength is really their bowling. If they have overcast, cloudy conditions, they make one of the best opening pairs along with Akram and Akhtar, and Ambrose and Walsh. They are slightly underrated, and this makes them a little more dangerous. Gough is a wicket-taking bowler, and both of them strangle you and don't give away easy runs. Especially Mullaly, who is in superb bowling form. They have very good back-up bowlers as well. Ealham is a good, tight bowler, and if they play Austin over Fraser, which is what I think they should be doing, and they together comprise a good back-up to Gough and Mullaly, because they don't let the pressure go off.

Their batting, though, is a bit suspect. It tends to be a little too predictable, and un-innovative at times, which makes it their weakness. They don't believe in their batting a lot, which isn't good, and the bottom of their batting order really hasn't been making too many runs, from number five onwards. I think England should play six full batsmen, leave out Croft, and use five full bowlers, with Hick to bowl off-spin when it is required.

But their batting is weak. If India put the runs on the board, England are not a good chasing side, and will struggle to chase a lot of runs.

Yes, I was looking at the statistics Mohan sent in, and he told me how the sides scoring the maximum number of runs in the end overs are the ones that are winning the maximum matches. Pakistan leads all the sides in this department, scoring at about 9.5 an over in the last 15 overs, whilst India is scoring at 8.08, and are in second position. Whereas England is scoring at about 4.5 in the last ten, putting them in sixth place.

Well, England have Neil Fairbrother, who is a great cricketer to have around in the final overs, but he is not a Michael Bevan... because the need is for ones and twos, getting 12 an over isn't easy. I think what India needs to watch out for is the number of wides and no-balls that they've bowled. Because they've bowled the maximum extras of all the top teams in the tournament. They have to watch this aspect in the game against England. If there is a lot of extras given, runs will flow in the last ten against England.

Harsha, what is the mood in the team after that victory against Sri Lanka... the team spirit... you should know, you're in the team hotel...

The team is really coming together now. There is a lot of bonding, a lot of it. We used to think that Rahul and Saurav don't bat too well, but after the game, Ganguly said that when he got to 140, Dravid came up to him and said "That's it, now chase 190, you have the runs on the board." There was a lot of backslapping when each got to his hundred. Ganguly said that Dravid took all the pressure off him and admitted that the first thing Azhar said to him when he came in to bat was, "I'll go for the singles because you need three runs to go past Kapil's record of 175." It is unfashionable to say that Azhar is a good team man these days, but the bottom line is what the players think, not the journalists. We sometimes tend to look at a readymade theory, that Azhar is a bad captain, and take facts and place them into the theory, but the players are giving the impression that Azhar is a good team man. There is definitely a lot of team bonding now; I can't pinpoint it, but there is.

So, you'd give them a thumbs-up at this stage?

I would think so, because the performance against Zimbabwe in those last five overs is probably a recurring nightmare.

As long as it doesn't become an encore, Harsha... I'll speak to you after the game against England, when the Super Six stage is a little clearer...

No Prem, when India enters the Super Six with two points to its name.

Good way to end, Harsha... goodbye.

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Harsha Bhogle

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