Stop playing around with captains

Abbas Ali Baig is a seasoned manager, who has been part of many a triumph of the Indian cricket team. But the tour Down Under recently, was a big disappointment. What went wrong?

Indian team manager Abbas Ali Baig snapped during the Cricket World Cup held in Australia in 1992.   -  V. V. Krishnan

Abbas Ali Baig has been manager of the team on several occasions, during the last decade or so. His first assignment was the Asia Cup in 1984 when India won the title. In 1986, came the 3-2 victory against Australia in the one-day series for which he was the manager. The Asia Cup-winning act was repeated last year when India won in Calcutta. Next was the triumph against South Africa in the one-day series.

With these achievements behind him, Abbas Ali Baig’s choice as the ‘cricket manager’ for the Australian series and the World Cup did not come as a surprise.

The series against Australia and the World Cup proved to be a taxing experience for Baig and the players. Sportstar met the former Indian player. The excerpts.

Question: Your experience as a cricket manager?

Answer: This was the first time I was associated with the team as its ‘cricket’ manager although I have been simply ‘manager’ on a number of occasions for over a decade. I must admit that being manager is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, particularly for a retired cricketer who is still active in the game. The sense of participation as part of the team is stimulating and I prefer that rather than writing on the game or doing television commentary. If your contribution is sincere and positive and the boys respond to you, the satisfaction is immense. If you also win in the process there’s obviously nothing like it.

Did you face any constraints in performing your duties?

The concept of appointing two different individuals as managers is frankly perplexing in the Indian context and is fraught with possibilities of confusion and conflict. In Australia, England, Pakistan and South Africa a cricket manager in equivalent to that of a ‘coach’. But the difference is enormous. Here a coach is a cricket supremo and his appointment is by contract for a specified number of years. He wields great power and is a member of the selection committee. He has high responsibility and the compensation is handsome.

With schedules as tight as they are, he has a full time job on his hands. Along with the physio he is responsible for the fitness and form of his team. In India, the situation is different. On the Australian tour the ‘manager’ and the ‘cricket manager’ had hardly any differences except to some extent, perception of media relations and timing of certain decisions; but that is not to say that confusion and embarrassment can always be avoided, particularly on a long tour.

 

What exactly then should be the manager’s role?

The incumbent — appointed for a reasonable length of time — should be a respected past player. He should be in touch with the game and his opinion should be respected by the players. He should be able to spot and correct flaws in a player’s technique. But he must be more than just a coach in the narrow sense of the term. He must also be their friend, philosopher and guide and a conduit between them and the outside world, including the Press and the Board. For administrative help, an assistant may be appointed from time to time but with host countries assigning local managers to help out, even this position may be superfluous. Oh yes, the manager must also have a certain status and bearing, as on tour he and the team are Ambassadors of the country.

Q: What are the requirements of a cricket manager and do you think the Indian team needs a cricket manager?

Yes, certainly the Indian team needs a manager in terms of the definition I have given earlier. Perhaps, one or two of our ardent observers and critics can have a go at the job. Two ex-captains come to mind. The senior of the two may have to take a crash course first, in identifying some of the members of the present Indian side but the other seems to possess the better credentials: 1. He is an assiduous crystal gazer and can predict results most accurately. (This will help in team selection and formulation of strategies). 2. He is a complete diplomat (a now one and not a future one like some). 3. His commitment is absolute (including to cricket) and 4. He is nice (but not too nice like some). But jokes apart, he would make the perfect manager and it’s time some of our revered past cricketers entered the fray instead of remaining on the outside.

At the end of the Australian series, what were the disappointments?

Basically the batting failed to come to grips, with the pitches offering extra bounce and pace, particularly when there was some moisture in them. This was the case for most of the early part of the tour. We had been playing on batting-oriented pitches in India in our series against South Africa and the transition proved too much, particularly as there weren’t any outdoor net facilities available owing to rain.

Our first exposure to Australian conditions was on their liveliest pitch in Perth. We failed to cope with. At Lismore, the dose was repeated. And the rains followed us, giving little scope to rectify our defects. By the time we knew what was happening the first two Tests were over and though the bowlers and tailend batsmen gave some brave performances we were two down in the series.

The World Series was a similar story though here we did manage to pip the West Indies to the final. The itinerary ensured we travelled zig zag all over the country, sometimes traversing its entire breadth only to return on the same route to play another match elsewhere. On a fairly conservative estimate even before the World Cup, we must have logged some 10,000 kms and were in the frequent travellers category with the local airlines.

Other disappointments were inability to give some youngsters enough opportunity, continual fitness problems, inconsistent fielding and running between the wickets and not as good a rapport as we would have liked, with the media and also the announcement of the World Cup squad while the last Test was still in progress.

What went wrong in the World Cup?

Fatigue caught up with us. Constant travelling, packing, practising, playing, then more travelling — a vicious circle. The daily allowance being meagre, most boys did their own washing and pressing. Thanks partially to questionable umpiring and bad weather, the results in the Tests were disheartening and the damage to the morale was inevitable. Victories in Sydney and Adelaide would have put us in a better frame of mind. For the World Cup, the composition of the team was good except when Shastri was sidelined — owing to injury and form — we missed an additional frontline bowler. Banerjee, partly due to injury and partly owing to form, could not step into the breach.

The rain rule was a joke and it is amazing no one foresaw its flaws. It played havoc with our games. Unfortunately, when it could have come to our rescue, against the West Indies and New Zealand, the expected rains never arrived. After the happy experience with the ball for the World Series, our seamers did not fancy the ball used for the World Cup and the wet outfield did not help either. If our bowling had been as good as in the World Series, our improvement in batting would have seen us through to the semis and then it would have been a toss up. Through all this we practised relentlessly, though some bowlers and batsmen had to be made to work a little less hard than the others.

The practice pitches being rain affected some batsmen preferred batting inside nets and we needed many outside bowlers to help them out in practice. Some media persons decided our efforts were not serious enough. They did not see us practice fielding for about an hour — including shying underarm at a stump before turning to the nets. Yet, alas, our fielding and running between the wickets remained inconsistent. One could only put it down to fatigue, which took its toll.

A rest between the Australian series and the World Cup might have been a relief but it was already arranged to play practice matches in this period. We did not play badly but not well enough and the panic buttons were pressed everytime there was a minor crisis. I wonder how many people realise that in the four months we were out on tour, there was not a single opportunity to visit a beach; or that a journey between hotels in Dunedin in New Zealand and Adelaide in Australia prior to the South Africa game took 18 hours with three changes of aircraft and a couple of hours halt at the Sydney Airport.

Do you think the tour was too long..., so long that it saw the boys play like amateurs during the World Cup?

Yes. It was far too long and the travelling was exhausting. A break between the Australian series and the World Cup would have been most welcome. Our long stay in Australia certainly helped our batsmen to get acclimatised to the pitches but our bowlers suffered when conditions underwent a drastic change with blistering winds and rain which made life miserable for them. Did we play like amateurs? Not really, though the Indians were almost amateurs in terms of the compensation received as compared to the other participants. As I mentioned before there was no relaxation for the boys — not even an outing to the beckoning beaches. And if our fatigued players took it a little easy at the nets the entire exercise was dubbed as uncoordinated and lacking in focus. What rubbish!

So what were the gains, if any, from the tour of Australia?

Unexpectedly, vigourous and incisive performance from our seamers. Kapil’s return to his wicket-taking habits, Manoj’s sustained aggression, Srinath’s improvement. Some manful fightbacks by our lower order. Our ability to rise to the occasion from time to time. Realisation that those now over the hill cannot continue to play on past reputations. Realisation, too, that there is no substitute for hard work in evolving methods to counter hostile bowling on an alien soil and that a closer look at preparation of domestic pitches is imperative if we wish to assess talent realistically and honestly. Tendulkar’s continued progress towards greatness. The promise of Amre, Ganguly and Kambli. The dedication and commitment of Amre, Pandit and Hirwani which some others would do well to emulate.

You had said that the team did not play to its potential? Could you explain the ‘potential’ part?

In the World Cup, our batting improved substantially but was still below its full potential. In the matches against England and Australia we should have got the targeted runs and in the matches against New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa we should have scored 30/40 more runs than we did. Nevertheless, there was noticeable improvement. On the other hand our bowling, so admirable in the Tests and the World Series, disintegrated somewhat for reasons already enumerated.

Did the youngsters suffer because of the pressure situations?

Probably! Because of tight schedule some youngsters did not get as many chances as they should have and when they did, their turn came with only a few overs left to play. When it was necessary to play shots from the word ‘go’ in order to improve the run rate. In the process they got out cheaply and no blame can be assigned to them. Why, even some of the more experienced players could not cope with the pressure in such situations.

Sanjay Manjrekar kept running himself out. What was the problem?

He never learnt to take a start and was a very complacent runner — difficult to understand as he is such an intelligent cricketer.

Do you think the Indian batting line-up was over-rated?

It was not over-rated. We got off to a poor start to the season and frankly, never really recovered. Individual contributions came in fits and starts but there were not many occasions when all clicked together, except may be in the Sydney Test.

Don’t you think Manoj Prabhakar could have been tried as an opener?

This thought certainly occurred on a number of occasions but considering his load in Test matches — he has to bowl long spells — and his rather average running between the wickets in limited overs tie, we did not try out. When he had back trouble and did not bowl he did open in a few practice matches and got some runs.

The series against Australia and the World Cup in 1992 proved to be a taxing experience for Baig and the players.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

You had said there was no dissension in the team but don’t you think the seniors should have performed more responsibly?

Like I said there was no dissension in the team. Everyone got on very well with each other and there are some happy memories of the good times that were spent together. However, it is true that some seniors did not exactly rush to the captain to offer advice when matters were not going well on the field. As to their performances, I doubt if anyone deliberately performed irresponsibly — there were aberrations arising out of fatigue and pressure. Azhar to his credit always admitted if he had done something wrong and constantly invited all, seniors and juniors, to point out any errors to him whenever they occured. In team meetings, everyone made positive contributions and Kapil was generous with his advice to the youngsters.

Why does the Indian team often lose from winning positions?

That is a million dollar question. I suppose we lack mental toughness — a cliche-sounding expression but true nonetheless. How else could we have not won the match after skittling out Australia for 145 in the first innings in Adelaide? All we had to do was occupy the crease and build a lead of 200 plus. There was no way they could have escaped. Yet we struggled on a good pitch and only managed an 80-odd lead, this too thanks to some rear-guard action. This is one time one really missed Shastri. Then through a brilliant innings from Azhar we came to within a whisker of winning. We should have got those extra 30 runs.

In Sydney, of course, the weather was the spoil-sport but in the World Series final again after containing Australia to 208, we muffed our chance by six runs through some extraordinarily panicky batting. We were either too complacent or too panic-striken. I am not sure whether an outside agency like a motivator that most Australian teams have, will not be a good idea. Indeed I took the liberty of inviting one such person (a Mauritian who could not bear to see such wasted talent) to give us a talk before the World Cup. Unfortunately, only half-a-dozen juniors found the time to turn up. (I had not made it obligatory for obvious reasons). Then there was a trace of petulance in some individuals if they were sent a little lower in the batting order than what they perceived to be their rightful position or when they were dropped. In the first instance their performances were certainly adversely affected.

We keep changing our captains frequently. Is it good for the morale of the team and the displaced captain?

It is an imminently avoidable habit. You lose a series and the whole blame falls on you and you are displaced. In the case of Srikkanth we hadn’t even lost the series! You may have been a great captain only weeks earlier when you won but suddenly all the magic is gone and you get transformed. This practice is truly reprehensible and does the morale of the team no good at all. Whatever else is being contemplated on the captaincy issue at the moment, let us please keep Tendulkar out of contention for at least five years. Let him just get on with it.

What do you have to say about the future of Indian cricket. Will it look up, given the kind of domestic cricket and the state of wickets we have?

If we are true to ourselves and make our pitches sporting, there is a good chance that we will beat most teams. Even though we failed to reach the semifinals in the World Cup, our team was potentially as good as any in the competition. We simply lacked that decisive punch and had other factors going against us. The future should be bright with some good new batsmen and pace bowlers on the horizon. Obviously, the batting will revolve around Tendulkar and fortunately he is wonderfully balanced. When will we produce any spinners though?

If pitches are not improved, the promising medium-pacers will also soon perish and the dearth of good spinners will become a permanent feature. Pitches should also help seamers at the start and the spinners towards the end. Only then will our ‘super batsmen’ not get exposed once they encounter sporting pitches overseas. Another important factor is players’ fitness. There must be no room for any question marks against the fitness of any player. There is currently an overdoze of cricket and some players simply get carried away. A fitness camp and an early announcement of the captain are essential before the team undertakes a tour. A short course reorienting the players with the fundamentals like running between wickets is not a bad idea though some may consider this too demeaning.

You have been termed a ‘soft’ man by many. What is your reaction?

What others call me doesn’t overly bother me. The idea should be to do an honest and sincere job and take whatever action is appropriate in your opinion at any given time. If being civilised and soft-spoken is synonymous with being soft, then I must be among the softest persons going (I hope my wife reads this). Just like dropping someone is not a sign of toughness but a mere reflection of your honest judgment, not grinding your already beleagured team into the dust, not shouting from the roof tops about bad umpiring for fear the team may be penalised as per the Code of Conduct rule of the ICC but conveying the same sentiment subtly and as effectively, and not responding to every criticism often based on false premises, by questionable motives is not in my opinion being soft.

Although most media persons travelling with us in Australia were knowledgeable and respected professionals, there were some whose presence and utterances defied logic and to whom objectivity, fairness and professionalism could not be commended. I would just like to add that even though we lost the series and the World Cup, we won, by our demeanour and sportsmanship, a host of well-wishers and friends. I, for one, am proud of our boys.

This article was published in The Sportstar on June 13, 1992

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