Colombo impressions

WHEN all teams participate in one place there is opportunity to compare them, look at their strengths and different styles of play. What, then, did we learn about the various teams on view in Colombo?

Little that is new, really, except that some teams should not be competing at that level. Holland would struggle in county cricket. Bangladesh, despite Test status, is unlikely to make the semi-finals of Ranji, Bengal would thrash them without Sourav. Kenya, despite Tikolo and some other quality players, is exceedingly raw and fragile. If you want sensible competition keep all these out and let only the big boys play. Otherwise, as seen in Colombo, there is enormous mismatch which produces boring cricket. Some games were worse than Karnataka playing, and murdering, Kashmir.

At present, Australia is clearly ahead of others in the field, despite the recent double hiccup in Colombo against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They are in a different zone and if the Ranji format was extended to international cricket, they'd be seeded 1 in Grade A.

Australia does not just dominate, they play cricket which is stylish and systematic, a mix of flair and function. The players get on with their jobs with impressive efficiency, there is no unnecessary fuss. The Aussies are a mature bunch, a team of adults who have immense pride in their performances.

All this is possible because they are a team of wonderfully gifted players, and are pushed hard by others who are no less talented. Australia has an abundance of riches, those sitting on the bench waiting for a mauka are almost as good as the ones playing. With everyone on standbye, including the captain, the best is extracted from each player and emotion counts for nothing in matters of selection. Would Australia recall a reluctant Srinath or revert to Saeed Anwar/Wasim Akram/Rashid Latif? No chance.

Another reason for Australia's domination is they have slashed the margins for error. McGrath is lethal not because he bowls unplayable balls; he is devastating because he offers no free runs. He is relentlessly at the batsman each ball, there is nothing to drive, nothing to cut. He is a machine whose radar is fixed on off stump - and leg stump is OB. The batsmen are forced to make things happen, create scoring opportunities and try and get on top, all of which is far from easy.

With Gillespie and Brett Lee firing from the other end the only place the batsmen have to hide is the dressing room. And after the quick bowlers retire to fine leg, and have a drink left there so thoughtfully by the 12th man, Shane Warne hands over his Oakleys to toss up his leg breaks. Warne has lost his appetite for pizzas and fries but not for wickets; he is, like Murali, a wicket-taking, match-winning bowler. The only way to succeed against Australia's all-round attack, it would appear, is to hope they collectively have an off-day, or all are simultaneously attacked by a stomach bug.

The ICC Trophy also provided a chance to examine the different cricket cultures of participating teams. Australia's cricket is marked by professionalism, high commitment, supreme athleticism and fitness. South Africa plays cricket much the same way but their skill levels are lower and one gets the impression they are looking for genuine spare parts, now that some top players are fading away. With Klusener in sad decline, with bat and ball, South Africa lacks punch towards the end.

England, in comparison, is more difficult to slot. Though organised, their cricket is brittle, prone to cracking up despite the talent in their ranks. For some odd reason English cricket is forever complaining and cribbing, battling itself as much as others. It appears tired and weary, missing spirit and exuberance, fearful of failure, almost scared of success. Instead of being spurred by winning, English cricket is gripped by a disease where it is preparing grounds to explain its reverses, thinking of new excuses to offer to the media at the next press briefing.

In this negative atmosphere players compete in a mechanical manner, success does not figure high on their agenda, they look happy just putting up a good show to avoid disgrace. Is professionalism a curse because self protection and security overtakes performance as the main objectives of the team? The overriding philosophy here is: Keep your jobs mates, that's most important, the rest is peripheral. Think about that later.

Cricketers from the subcontinent, not so burdened, display a free spirit and a pleasing, unfettered attitude which is good because cricket conveys enthusiasm and joy. But the flip side is that all the gifts in this world, and natural talent, are worthless unless allied to discipline. Kapil, Akram, Imran, Jayasuriya are awesome because they are instinctive, but they wouldn't be half as good without hard work and self control. Similarly, Dravid is what he is because he values method, he has carefully subdued flair and understood that, in cricket, a stout will and resilience count more than God-given magic.

In a way, the cricket style of a country reflects its cricket structure. Australia and South Africa have a system which favours collective effort but does not discourage individual flair. England, in contrast, is rigid, its cricket depresses innovation and initiative. Indian cricket could do with modern inputs but some key elements (specialised coach/trainer/physio) are now in place and we are on the right road as far as fitness and work ethic go. Which does not seem to be the case with Pakistan as it continues to function through organised chaos. Every few months someone gets sacked summarily, there is constant turmoil and much off-field excitement. All this may baffle modern management experts but is hardly surprising when you realise that when Generals are in control, and call the shots, mere cricket captains cannot stand a chance.