Creating champions

TO AN EXTENT Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj Singh are products of the cricket structure, they have surfaced by going to coaching camps and working their way up through junior tournaments.-AP

For Indian cricket to acquire Australia's sturdiness, the mindset of players, officials and followers needs an urgent makeover.

In Melbourne, it is easy to understand why Australia regularly manufactures sporting champions. Every evening, the jogging track adjoining Linlithgow Avenue and the Royal Botanic Garden not far from the MCG has hundreds of athletes doing their routine. Some are ordinary fitness freaks desirous of shedding weight and shrinking their waistline. Others, more serious, are competitive athletes there for intense training.

The latter run briskly on the soft track, some with weights attached to wrists, I-pods strapped round ears, heartbeat monitors in place to study aerobic strain. In the lawns that circle the jogging area are coaches/trainers/physios and other experts with watches in hand to, literally, keep a close watch on their wards. Nearby, in the river running round the area like a silver ribbon, schoolkids are busy rowing. Elsewhere, at the tennis complex, the courts are packed with players thrashing balls aggressively.

One remarkable aspect of this is not just the level, depth and extent of participation but the intensity and focus. In Delhi, Lodhi Garden is also packed, there are so many people that police might have to install lights to regulate pedestrian traffic. But the mood there is relaxed, people come not so much for exercise but for a leisurely walk, for social bonding and networking. Melbourne, in comparison, is serious — this is the stuff that produces champions.

Evidence that this actually happens, more effectively than controlled coaching camps or some official scheme, is available in plenty. The level of competition, and the quality of play, can be assessed from the fact that though Australia is the top cricket side in the world, apart from Ponting, Shane Warne and Brett Lee all others are fighting for their places in the eleven. The struggle for slots is so hot a player who scored an unbeaten 94 on his one-day debut had to sit out the next game!

Martyn is currently out of the Test team, Clarke cannot get a look in and McGrath is under pressure with everyone pointing to his age, declining speed and absence of wickets. The underlying thing is individuals are important only to a limit, what counts is the team, and anything that enables the team to win must be done. The system works on performance and professionalism, there is no allowance for emotion or sentiment.

Indian cricket, however, obsesses with individuals. Sourav's selection/non- selection/re-selection/ re-non-selection created an unprecedented public uproar, led to angry demonstrations and even a debate in parliament. This drama shows cricket can stir the country, also puts in perspective the clash of cultures between India and Australia. In India, cricket administration is complex and round, like a "jalebi"; in Australia it runs in a narrow, straight line. So either the coach should learn Indian methods, or we should import and adopt his way of working.

The trials for picking Australia's Commonwealth Games swimming squad provided further proof of Australia's awesome sporting depth. Ian Thorpe had to stretch to keep his name on the team list and in the women's section the meet threw up three world records, all of them in the heats! The buzz at the trials (incidentally, tickets were sold out for this event in advance!) was the quality on view was higher than the actual Games in March because the field has more talent, it is easier to win a medal there than get into the Aussie squad.

In India, the sports system is weak, we grapple with the task of producing sporting champions and setting up a system that promotes talent but despite endless discussion and debate there is hardly any movement. We are like a tired runner trapped on a treadmill who is barely able to keep pace with the belt moving under his feet.

If talent still surfaces it is only from personal initiative of the player. Gifted individuals overcome all manner of obstacles to make the journey to the top. Almost all our cricket legends are self created, they were not manufactured by a system (like athletes were in East Europe, or are still done in China) but sprouted with little assistance from anyone. This they did on the basis of their talent, self belief, and loads of toil.

To an extent Kaif, Yuvraj and Irfan are products of the cricket structure. They have surfaced by going to coaching camps and working their way up through junior tournaments. All have taken advantage of the elaborate tournament structure of the BCCI, performed on the platform provided to them, and climbed the ladder.

For Indian cricket to acquire Australia's sturdiness, the mindset of players, officials and followers needs an urgent makeover. More must be demanded from players, in a way that a bright 40 is not applauded but considered a wasted opportunity for making a hundred. Fitness and fielding can't be compromised, nor should commitment to the team ever be an issue — anyone not measuring up to these counts should not be alowed entry into the Indian dressing room.

Perhaps there is another underlying difference in the manner India and Australia approach sport, and cricket. Australia is accustomed to winners, it doesn't accept the second best.

We, unaccustomed to winning, are comfortable with mediocrity, hence we easily accept the second best. And as success is difficult to handle, we are happy dragging people down than rising to their level.