Fear lurks in the mind

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST

INDIAN cricket has its own version of the chicken and egg problem at the moment.

Till they win a final, they won't be able to get the ghost of defeat off their back. But till they dislodge that ghost first, they are not going to win. And that ghost has got his neck around the Indian team at the moment. There is almost an air of deja-vu when India take the field in a final; almost as if everyone is anticipating the same result. When that fear lurks in the mind, it often drives you towards the destination you fear.

There is another strange paradox that lurks within the Indian dressing room. The more you see it the more you are convinced that India's great opening pair of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly is its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. When India wins there is, invariably, a contribution from either or both and that leads to a perception within the side, unsaid maybe even unfelt, that they are a necessary condition to victory. In times of weakness, everyone turns towards them.

This is the theory on which all opposition teams work. They know that Rahul Dravid is a feeder, a playmaker, not a striker; that he bats well with a striker around him and that conversely people bat well with him around. But he does not win too many games off his own blade. That role necessarily belongs to Ganguly and Tendulkar. The pity is that those two know it as well.

In such a situation, even the best strokeplayer takes a breath or two; curtails his freedom a bit. Often that is the little path that top players need. With teams like Australia and South Africa, and lately Sri Lanka, they realise too that both batsmen like to score boundaries early on to take the pressure off; that if they cut off as many normal shots as possible, they are setting the scene for the contrived shot. That then becomes a 50-50 situation. At Durban, the very shot that had got Ganguly loads of runs let him down. It wasn't a classical Ganguly off-side shot but a step-away-and-slog shot. Such shots are bound to be intermittent in their service and the South Africans, through their brilliance in the field and with the line they bowl, drive a side towards making such shots their staple.

That is why for India to win consistently, the contributions of these two must actually get smaller. The tour of Sri Lanka was an ideal opportunity to test that out. The failure to produce a back-up match-winner, Sehwag seems like he can walk on that road, was the real failure of that tour. V. V. S. Laxman might have been that player but currently he is a bit like a vegetarian served a sea-food platter in the one-day game. His record does his ability no justice at all.

That is why India need to empower more players. Empowerment is a very powerful phenomenon because it spreads skills widely and makes it difficult to target one opponent. Empowerment comes with confidence and opportunity. It needs to be fed one level below the national team and then injected into the national side. We do not have that level and so we are actually short of the third arm of empowerment, which is ability.

That is why India are a poor one-day side. In terms of the traditional five-day skills, batting and bowling, we might get by but in terms of the modern one-day skills we are barren. The modern one-day game demands peak fitness because at least 25 per cent of matches are won in the field. To my mind, a further 25 per cent are won because of the support of the field, for that makes the bowlers and the team, as a whole, look better; by forcing the batsmen to make shots they should not be making.

Carry out a little exercise to confirm this. Look at the number of sixes that Sourav Ganguly hit, or rather had to hit, and then compare his strike rate with that of Gary Kirsten. The truth is that Ganguly had to hit sixes, often low percentage shots, because the opposition fielding wasn't giving him another option. Kirsten, on the other hand, was going freely through the in-field. Three twos are as effective, and much easier, than a six.

The third arm of the modern game, the next 25 per cent, is batting depth. If you are going to play six batsmen, a wicket-keeper and four bowlers who don't bat then you cannot afford to lose more than five wickets in a game; especially if the wicket-keeper doesn't bat either. That will happen in no more than 50 per cent of the games and that means, straightaway, that teams like India can have at best a 50 per cent record. It is a tribute to this team that, under Sourav Ganguly, they have that kind of record but it is important to remember that by its very composition, and movements in the field, India cannot win more than that.

It is probably too late already to mount a challenge for the World Cup because the two biggest weak links cannot be filled in that period. There is no wicket-keeper in sight, Rahul Dravid cannot do the job again, nor is there an all-rounder. Good teams will have all-rounders of varying proportions from numbers six to nine; from a batsman who will bowl 10 overs through a wicket-keeper to two bowlers who will bat. We do not have even one and such players do not emerge overnight, especially if we make no effort to find them.

The lesson from the one-day games is that India are not contenders for the World Cup; not if they field like this and not if this is the balance of the side. And certainly not if we continue to do nothing about grooming younger talent.

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