A pitch with grass in India!

Published : Dec 15, 2001 00:00 IST

INITIALLY, the English team received a truly traditional welcome in Jaipur. Everything was just about right, what with shehnai in the Rambagh lobby, red tilaks on foreheads and massive marigold garlands around the necks of each player. All this was great touristy stuff, and no other place can match Jaipur in regal hospitality and khatir.

The English team happily joined the party for two days. Some did the sights, took in the grandeur of Amber fort and enjoyed camel rides. Of course, this entertainment did not distract them from cricket, practice was also on the agenda, the emphasis squarely on fitness and athleticism. Much of their exercises are borrowed from football, they apparently help mobility, speed, flexibility and endurance. The team trained under a gentle sun, and with a cool breeze blowing across the Sawai Mansingh stadium, conditions were just perfect.

But at the ground there was a surprise in store for them - causing a collective rising of English eyebrows was the wicket for the game. Where, some seemed to wonder, is the promised mud track? And why a pitch which has grass, looks green and promises plenty of bounce? The touring team's bowlers were not displeased but the India 'A' batsmen had a different view about the surface, their feelings revealed by grim expressions on their faces. When play started these fears were quickly proved right and within 20 minutes - the time it takes to have tea - four top batsmen were dismissed for nothing. The ball, as expected, was flying all over the place, the 'keeper collected several deliveries above his head and batsmen scurried for cover.

But, as we all know, on a cricket field there is no place to hide. International cricket is tough, it is not a social kitty party full of chai, samosas and friendly chit-chat. Kishan Rungta, a hardened cricket observer for over half a century, saw the discomfort of groping batsmen and suggested a radical move to improve batting standards. "Make them play on matting to learn how to play sharp bounce and movement," he said. But matting went out of fashion decades ago? I protested. "So what," he replied, dismissing my objection. But is this, really, an answer in the form of a tactical step back to take two steps forward? Think. Think. Think.

Gagan Khoda and Abhijeet Kale waged a grim battle meanwhile, somehow keeping out deliveries that jumped at them. Batting was a challenge as some balls took off like rockets on hitting firm patches, others looped up gently on meeting softer spots.

But batsmen were not alone in facing hostile bouncers - officials too were in a fair spot of bother, that too from a totally unexpected quarter. Anticipating a lukewarm response they printed only 1500 tickets priced at Rs. 10, which is less than the price of a Pepsi can. But as tickets sold out quickly, and many more fans wanted to get in, the organisers were forced to convert complimentary passes into tickets. This is completely unprecedented, exclaimed one official caught on the wrong foot - all our lives we have done the reverse!

* * *

Not long ago, on MTV Bakra, Rahul Dravid was stumped when a young, aggressive girl suddenly proposed marriage to him. Rahul is normally composed and unruffled, being used to wicked googlies adversity brings the best out of him. And looking at his record one readily concedes that Dravid knows how to handle bombs.

But, on this occasion, his guard fell, though I mean this in the right sort of way. Dravid looked stricken as though spotting a ghost on a deserted street, that too on a day when he had carelessly omitted to carry a mobile. Beaten all ends up, he stammered incoherently for a while but as speech and sanity returned he firmly rejected the offer and walked briskly away.

Perhaps Dravid should have displayed similar guts on Indian cricket's Bakra show. In a recent episode Dravid was the fall guy who took the rap and offered himself to get slaughtered. When volunteers were sought to open the innings in Tests, others looked away but Dravid, driven by some internal defect, raised his hand. It is not certain whether he debated the matter or demurred or reacted with horror but it seems he said yes because he did not know how to say no.

Dravid, of course, was under considerable pressure because a strong case was made for him to nod his head. First, the irresistible call of duty, India-needs-you-in- this-moment-of-crisis kind of emotional appeal, just the pitch for a thoughtful, sensitive person like Rahul Dravid. Moved by this powerful deshbhakti, what could Dravid do except pick up his sword (a hand crafted bat, made in Meerut by SG) to take on the opponents. Dravid was convinced nobody could lead the assault on the new ball better because his technique was faultless, he gets into line (while some slip towards leg stump), has a cool mind and loads of patience. So where is the problem?

Such smooth words can't hide the harsh reality that a problem exists, and spurious arguments which are good on paper really don't match up with ground realities. Opening an innings is as much about attitude and training as technique, it is a difficult art requiring specialised skills.

Dravid has been moved and tossed around right through his career. His first break came in one- dayers though it was apparent he was more comfortable in Tests at number six. Subsequently he went up and down the order many times, and each change was justified on the basis of team interest. But the question is whether team interest is served by Dravid's failures or success? Dravid has scored almost as many runs as Sachin in the middle order but he struggles first up. Logic suggests team interest is served if Dravid makes runs because when he fails it impacts him, the team and number three who is forced to play the new ball which he desperately wants to avoid.

In one-dayers Dravid has borne the brunt of critics who feel he can't rotate the strike, can't pierce the field, can't play the big shots and jams the run rate. But the same Dravid was India's best player in the World Cup, treated as some sort of an allrounder and even made to keep wickets.

The core issue (to borrow a phrase from Musharraf) is the scarcity of quality openers but somehow this problem has become Dravid's problem. Vikram Rathore, Devang Gandhi, Gagan Khoda, Wasim Jaffer have all tried and failed, the same cruel fate seems to await the others in line. Which is why we are forced to convert 'keepers into openers and push Badani and others into the top slot.

The answer lies in finding openers. If that happens there is no need for cricket bakras to give qurbani.

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