Cricket's learning game

INDIAN cricket is learning; what is questionable is the rate of change.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Bruce Reid, India's bowling coach, gives a few tips to Lakshmipathy Balaji in Queensland. Reid should have been hired at least during the TVS tri-series, so that he could have familiarised himself with the Indian bowlers, says the author. -- Pic. PTI-

INDIAN cricket is learning; what is questionable is the rate of change. Old habits are rooted deep in the culture, and hard to shrug off. Countries that are satisfied with progress rarely make as much headway as they should. Always there must be a striving.

A bowling coach, for instance, has been spoken of repeatedly, yet the team found itself in Australia continuing discussions that should have concluded long before their arrival. Bruce Reid should have been working with India's bowlers during the tri-series, not sitting at home awaiting a decision. This is not Bangladesh but Australia, the keenest of opposition, yet if Reid had secrets to impart to India's new ball attack clearly he was given insufficient time. Once again the team was victim to agonisingly slow officialdom.

Sport is about advantage, and here it was lost not taken.

Image, too, is something Indian cricket teams have not been greatly concerned by. But they should be. Especially, during tours of the West, where often perception of the subcontinent and its teams rarely moves beyond the cliched.

Australia rules the cricketing world and they are not shy of advertising it. Visiting teams are given a hard scrutiny, their weaknesses are filed for all to see, their manner is examined. Sourav Ganguly is not a favourite in Australia but then mostly he is a victim of a lazy stereotype. The Indians, as a whole, are viewed as gifted but disorganised, which of course is not wholly untrue.

Some of this viewpoint can be countered on the field through proud performances. Some of it is just plain public relations. Perhaps the notion of Indian teams being ambassadors is overstated, nonetheless it cannot be ignored.

After the second day's play against the Victorian team in Melbourne, the media awaited an analysis of the day's play. Who would meet the press, no answer was quickly forthcoming. The Australians were bewildered. Here everything is systematic. The media manager has a job and the team respect it. Players must be made available, questions must be answered, it is the nature of the sporting beast these days.

The Indian team was scarcely at fault, for Ganguly has more pressing matters to attend to, as does John Wright. But where was the media manager? There isn't one. It is absurd. No halfway-professional team travels without one, but the Indian Board apparently considers that irrelevant.

Days later it happened again. A Melbourne tabloid suggested that Ganguly, on being given out to a disputed decision in the game against the Queensland Academy, had "abandoned" the team and gone to the hotel, as if in a sulk. In truth, with the first Test looming he had gone to get his bat repaired. Eventually, newspapers will write what they wish, but it was an insinuation that could have been rapidly cleared up by a media manager.

Australian cricket is scarcely a perfect world; what works for them does not necessarily translate in the sub-continent, but neither should we be shy of imitating them when it suits us. Sentimentality, for instance, is not an Australian virtue; the individual, whatever his contribution, whatever affection he is held with, is a secondary ingredient. Team comes first.

Rarely has this been more evident than with Steve Waugh, whose retirement has been coloured by claims that he was pushed to make a decision. His feats as captain have entered legend, his batting prowess is lauded on every continent, yet Australia was mainly dry-eyed at his going. He had a good innings, they say, and leave it at that. He owns their respect but not their indulgence.

The absence of a media manager with the Indian team resulted in an insinuation in the Australian media about the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly. — Pic. JONATHAN WOOD/GETTY IMAGES-

India is some distance away from such hard-nosed practicality. The non-selection of Murali Kartik for some suggests that. Three spinners, Ganguly recently mentioned, was never really an option, which effectively meant if Kartik was to come Anil Kumble would not.

This columnist has been, and is, an admirer of Kumble: his work ethic, commitment and bravery are undisputed, so is the fact that at home Indian captains have tossed him the ball when in trouble and through the heat and dust he has delivered with relentless regularity. No one can say with any surety that Kartik would outperform Kumble here (who knows, Anil may yet prove a point) but if it was a decision made on sentiment, on past reputation, then the selectors have erred.

There is also too much talk in India of a fast-bowling revolution; indeed as a veteran Indian observer contended Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra themselves are not quite the definition of fast. Still, they have helped win Test matches for India, are young and exuberant, and carry all sorts of promise.

But two bowlers, however gifted, do not quite make a revolution. Ahead of India lies a long, hot summer, with the fast bowlers facing Hayden and Ponting and Langer and Martyn, and soon enough shoulders will be sore. It raises the prospect of injury, and the further fear of who exactly will replace them. Irfan Pathan (Jr)? L. Balaji? Bowlers yet to adequately prove themselves at home, forced to confront the most ruthless line-up in the world? India's stocks are thinner than we think.

During an interview in Australia, Sachin Tendulkar assured me this team was different, bound as they are by a keener spirit. Never will they need it more, rarely will it be as tested than this tour. A team's resolve is best viewed under pressure, and there will be much of that this summer.

To keep their heads up, their shoulders erect, even in the face of a grim Australian onslaught will count for something. To maintain commitment and not lose resolve even when confronted by defeat is a virtue not to be diminished.

This tour is not just about winning, but about progress. India may lose but they still may come some distance.