An outsider's perspective

HARSHA BHOGLE

John Wright... showing great intensity and commitment. -- Pic. V. GANESAN-

JOHN WRIGHT makes some very valid points in a recent interview and in doing so, confirms why every progressive organisation needs to bring in an outsider's perspective from time to time. It's interesting having to call Wright an "outsider" for no one else that I know in recent times has brought a similar degree of intensity and commitment to Indian cricket. And yet, he thinks and speaks differently, possessing and willing to offer, a point of view that was shaped elsewhere. We need that in an atmosphere where cricket is getting almost incestuous, where similar points of view, like chain e-mails, keep floating around.

He is telling his team to "forget about the World Cup. It's gone, it's finished, and we didn't win it." You can't agree more. Memories are great for nostalgia, occasionally for confidence building but they don't win matches. And while India had a fine World Cup, we made far too much of it. It confirmed the view in world cricket that India are a serious one-day side but it also highlighted how far below Australia we are. That party is over, we now need to think about Australia and about Test cricket where we have more questions than solutions at the moment.

The biggest questions will come at the top of the order. The openers are like the foundation for a skyscraper; if you don't have them you don't build tall structures. "In India opening the batting is like batting at number 5 or 6," Wright says. In the last 15 years India have travelled poorly overseas because that has coincided with the retirement of Sunil Gavaskar; and a sense of stability at one end of the wicket. Unless the crust is hard enough, the belly gets exposed too soon and in essence that has been the story of India's tours abroad in recent times.

Interestingly, during one of our ESPN Cricket Show recordings Sourav Ganguly asked Ravi Shastri how he was able to make the transition fairly successfully and Shastri made the point that Geoffrey Boycott and Wright now do as well. To be able to open the innings you must want to enjoy the experience. "It is a unique experience. If you don't enjoy it then your chances of success are pretty low. You should want to be out there first, when things are buzzing around. You ought to enjoy the thrill of facing the new ball." I think all those who open for India need to ask themselves that question; especially those who hope to face the first ball on a bouncy 'Gabba track. If we find two such people, and stay with them without resorting to the temptation of a stop-gap pseudo opener, then we will make genuine progress.

There is something else that Wright says that all of us must sit up and take notice of. In most professions, the arrival of money is welcome because it is a sign of prosperity. Everyone benefits from it and in the long run, the game must grow as a result. There is however a side-plot which slips in occasionally. "The aspect I worry about is that when we play well, everybody gets very carried away. Then the commercial angle comes in and that's a trap. Here, more than anywhere else, success, both individually and team-wise, creates challenges. If players are not careful they forget the reason they are getting those rewards in the first place. I am concerned about how some of them use their spare time, because they have many other responsibilities, commercial or whatever. Sometimes, unknowingly, they might start neglecting their game, all the hard work and all the training that got them there, and get into a comfort zone where their form suffers. That's something that is very much part of the environment here, where cricketers are big stars and earn a lot of money."

Sachin Tendulkar handles his off-field activities fairly well, so does Rahul Dravid and senior cricketers like Anil Kumble and V.V.S. Laxman seem to show the right work ethic as well. But Wright seems a bit unhappy with a few others and that should be a strong enough message.

So are India's cricketers ready and tough? The questions will be asked in less than a month now and India need to answer those questions very truthfully even before they get on the plane. The prevailing atmosphere in Indian cricket is one of hope and I fear there are too many assumptions made there. To win a Test match a side needs to take 20 wickets, unless there is a Cronje-style declaration somewhere. For this Indian side to take 20 wickets, it needs two fine new ball bowlers, a very steady back-up seamer and a top spinner.

Theoretically, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Javagal Srinath and Harbhajan Singh can be those four. But Zaheer's early season form has been erratic, Nehra is returning from a serious injury, Srinath is still unsure of whether his knees can stand up and Harbhajan should be the first to admit that his form has been disappointing.

Ravi Shastri... "You should want to be out there first. You ought to enjoy the thrill of facing the new ball." -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

A planner must know what his best case scenario is but must plan for the worst case situation as well and I wonder if the hype industry in India is ready for that. A seam bowling line up of Zaheer, Agarkar and Balaji may be honest but it will not scare anyone and that is a distinct possibility at some stage on the tour. When you add that to the fact that a wicket-keeper will probably bat at number seven with Zaheer at number nine, you start to wonder if there is enough steel to weather even a mini-collapse at the top.

It is to prevent the national side from getting into such corners that you need hard-talking honest people all the way down. Often, the man from within can have an agenda. That is why you need a man with no axe to grind. John Wright is that man.