Born to create and conquer

Published : Nov 24, 2001 00:00 IST


BOLD strokes on the canvas. Splashes of colour. Spirit and courage of the adventurers of the past. Swashbuckling soldiers cutting a swathe through the enemy ranks. Clash of swords. Flying sparks. Cries of victory. Some of the random images that spring to mind when we talk about the exploits of Chris Cairns and Lance Klusener. Artists and Warriors, for they can both Create and Conquer. Opening up opportunities in a jiffy for their sides, and then winning battles. Cricketers who infuse life into the proceedings, all-rounders of rare brilliance.

The return of Cairns, an influential player, is welcome news for the game. The kind of cricketer who makes men manning the turnstiles busy, with his hurricane batting and brisk seam bowling.

Cairns may be injury-prone, but he is also dangerous and when in the mood, he can be mean: smashing the ball around the park or making the batsmen hurry their strokes.

New Zealand is a very different side with Cairns in its ranks and it indeed appeared an outfit without a soul during the period this special cricketer was away with a dodgy knee that required a surgery.

There were some who doubted whether he could be the same bowler again, but Cairns, dispelling doubts, has operated at a fair pace, picking up six wickets - five in the first innings - apart from batting in his usual breezy fashion in the recent Test at the 'Gabba.

And Lance Klusener's century in the Bloemfontein Test, an innings in which he took the game away from India, when the contest was in the balance, was yet another example of his explosive ways with the willow.

The South African is such a clean striker of the ball, even if his technique, though uncomplicated, is not a purist's delight. Sending the ball soaring over the fence with ridiculous ease, that is the man they call Zulu for you.

Injuries might have diminished his ability with the ball, yet he has adapted well to the team's demands, cutting down on his pace and chipping in with nagging off-cutters.

And along with Klusener are two other all-rounders of exceptional ability, Jacques Kallis and skipper Shaun Pollock. A formidable trio indeed.

Pollock didn't quite fire with the willow in the first Test, but his 'corridor' bowling, that lured the Indian batsmen to their doom was a definite highlight of the match.

A 10-wicket haul on a batsman-friendly pitch called for plenty of heart, but then, Pollock has seldom been found wanting in this department. Sending down over after over of searing intensity, even at the fag end of a long, tiring day.

Kallis has invariably displayed plenty of character too, which coupled with his unquestionable talent makes him one of the most precious commodities in world cricket. And an exciting one at that too.

A technically well-equipped free-stroking batsman at No. 3, and a deceptively quick paceman who has the happy knack of picking up wickets, Kallis scalped his 100th Test batsman in Bloemfontein and fittingly the victim was world cricket's premier prize, Sachin Tendulkar.

The Indian maestro may have been guilty of an indiscreet stroke, chasing a rather wide delivery, yet it was a significant moment for Kallis, who progressed from being a change bowler to becoming the battering ram in the South African attack only during the ICC knock-out tournament in '98.

In sharp contrast during the first India-South Africa Test was the complete absence of all-round talent in the Indian line-up that dented the side's chances.

This also takes us to a ridiculously simple question. Which is the single biggest deficiency in the Indian team?

Indeed, the lack of a genuine all-rounder is the Achilles Heel of the side in both versions of the game. Glaring, painful and ultimately reflective of a distinct dearth of versatile players. Surprising in a land that boasted of some great, dynamic cricketers.

Like the graceful Vinoo Mankad, a strokeful opening batsman, and a left-arm spinner of guile, and the extraordinary Kapil Dev, a match-winning paceman and a destructive batsman down the order.

Even given the fact that players like these do not surface very often, the current Indian team could have done with men like Ravi Shastri and Manoj Prabhakar, very useful cricketers if not great ones.

It goes without saying that the all-rounders provide any team with the most essential quality - Balance. This also means stability.

Having quality all-rounders provides the team a chance to execute Plan 'B' when Plan 'A' goes wrong. In other words, when the specialists fail to deliver, these men fill the breach.

In fact, one of the principal causes for the decline of West Indies is the absence of all-rounders. When the great batsmen departed in the late 80s, and early 90s, the side required all-rounders to plug the holes. Sadly, there was none in sight.

Batting depth is essential, and even during the glory days under Clive Lloyd, West Indies had someone like the versatile Malcolm Marshall, capable of dismissing an attack ruthlessly to the far corners of the ground. Yet, for most part of the 90s, the West Indies hardly displayed any sting in the tail, making things worse for a struggling side.

This is exactly where the Indians come up short too. There is no back-up, no cover. The fine recovery acts are becoming rarer by the day, given the shallowness of the Indian line-up. Just where are the all-rounders?

A Kapil Dev walking in at No. 6 or 7 made a world of difference to the Indian fortunes, boosting the morale in the dressing room, apart from putting fear into the opposition ranks. Kapil was the kind of player who could bring about astonishing turnarounds.

The opposite is true now. The moment the opposition has a look at the Indian lower order, it senses a clear chance to snuff out the innings quickly. In contemporary cricket, where depth is of paramount importance, this is a recipe for disaster.

What rankles is that the Indians have crumbled in pressure situations even against lesser teams like Zimbabwe. The collapse in the Harare Test, where the Indians clearly panicked against what was at best disciplined seam bowling, was a shocking tale of meek surrender.

The message is clear. Unless India discovers all-rounders, it would struggle to win in conditions outside the sub-continent. The current Indian side has no flexibility, that can unearth escape routes.

Once the top and the middle are gone, the rest of the batting is invariably brushed aside. And God forbid if a frontline bowler breaks down. India will be left with just three bowlers. At Bloemfontein, we had Javagal Srinath, Ashish Nehra and Zaheer as pacemen with Anil Kumble being the lone spinner. Had one them been an all-rounder, the team might have been able to squeeze in another bowler, enabling Ganguly to rotate his attack better.

Coach John Wright admitted later that the team-management had erred in leaving out Ajit Agarkar, but this again was forced on the team due to the lack of an all-rounder. A comparative study is interesting here. In the same Bloemfontein Test, Klusener, Pollock, Kallis and Nicky Boje provided South Africa with so many options. Men who could bat and bowl more than adequately.

In addition to these four, the Proteas fielded pacemen Nantie Hayward and Makhaya Ntini in the XI. Which meant that even if two of them had pulled up during the match with injuries, South Africa would still have had four bowlers. One of the principal reasons for the deterioration of all-round talent in India is that the selectors have got their priorities wrong while picking men who can both, bat and bowl.

Bits and pieces cricketers are not all-rounders. They might at best be 'utility men', that too only in the abbreviated form of the game. In the much more demanding Test arena, these men are bound to be exposed.

For, one-day cricket seldom reflects the real ability of a player, and to make matters worse, the accompanying media hype that invariably follows 'a one-off' match-turning performance, gives a false idea about the qualities of a player. Let's get the definition of an all-rounder right here. The blue-blooded ones are those very special cricketers who can make the side, both, as a batsman and a bowler. Cricketers like the legendary Gary Sobers, the destructive Ian Botham, the dominant Imran Khan, and the dashing Kapil Dev.

Then we have players who are strong in one department, with the capacity to hold their own in the other too. The names of Kallis and Pollock spring to mind. Kallis, the batting all-rounder, and Pollock, the bowling all-rounder.

Then arrives the category of one-day all-rounders, capable of giving the ball a whack down the order, and sending down seven to eight accurate if not threatening overs. These men do have a place in the hectic world of limited overs cricket, but let's not give them more importance than that. It's basically this flawed thinking of raising such people sky-high that has done more harm than good to Indian cricket in recent years.

The truth of the matter is India currently doesn't have any all-rounder worth mentioning. Yet, we keep harping about the pretenders who are never really going to deliver in the cauldron of five-day cricket.

No such problems for the Kiwis with the return of Cairns, who put his foot on the accelerator in Brisbane, so soon after coming back from injury.

He posed some searching questions to the Aussies with his seam and swing, and then stroked the ball adeptly into the empty spaces, rocking back to crash the fast bowlers on the off-side and then using his feet delightfully, when Shane Warne gave the ball air.

Punishing knocks of 61 and 43, the second taking the Kiwis to the doorstep of a sensational victory, before the Aussies shut the door in the nick of time, underlined his class. His is indeed a towering presence.

And Klusener's bludgeoning 124-ball 108, after the Proteas had lost their sixth wicket while still two runs adrift of India's first innings 379, was easily the key innings of the Bloemfontein Test, the knock that put all the pressure on India when it batted the second time.

Genuine all-rounders do make a difference. They stand out like those bold strokes on the canvas. And they win duels, like those magnificent warriors. Yes, they can both Create and Conquer.

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