Floundering in alien territory

HARSHA BHOGLE

THE world belongs to those that can adapt and the Asians are falling short. Away from raucous crowds, turning pitches and spicy food, they are looking, and playing, like they do not belong. It is not good for them and it is not good for the game. The willowy, wristy style is coming unstuck and the oriental magicians have lost their wands. Like the Spanish who need their clay and their baseline, and who think grass is for the cows, the Asian cricketers are fast becoming slaves to their strength. The cricket world is the poorer for it.

There is a deeper malaise that I am not sure administrators in our part of the world are willing to look at. With each passing year, with each passing month, the game gets more organised. Analytical tools get more refined and the mind has actual data to back it. Players and teams are getting more prepared and while skill will always remain the greatest asset to possess, it is under attack. As with soldiers, so with cricketers; the best prepared rather than the most skilful win. Four weeks in New Zealand have done much to reinforce that theory.

And so the future will belong to the organised world. We in Asia salute talent because it stands out in the crowd that we live with. Like trees in a tropical forest, talent wriggles its way through to the top. It is the sole tree not the plantation that counts. In any chaos ridden system the individual will always separate himself from the team and that is what we have seen in our cricket as well. Individual stars shine, collective forces collapse. Instinct is the guiding force of the star, discipline the essence of the collective force.

You can see why Asian cricketers are strong on instinct. Surrounded as we are by chaos, milling crowds from school admissions to public buses, we learn to think on our feet very quickly because otherwise we won't survive. By definition therefore, anybody who has risen through our system has to be a strong instinct person. It is like our traffic, searching for the extra three inches, squeezing between two cars in a parking area, swaying out of the path of the emerging autorickshaw from a neighbouring lane. Instinct is invaluable here but in the more organised driving pattern in the west, it is only one of many abilities to possess. Look at Jayasuriya bat. Look at Sehwag. In terms of instinct, in terms of really native skills, they are peerless. But in situations that call for more organised cricket, where skill needs to be married to patience, they struggle. They are not alone. In the space of three days, Pakistan have been annihilated in South Africa, Sri Lanka have been bowled out for small change by Australia `A' and India have managed to make batting 50 overs seem like a 9000-metre climb. Three months ago, in the ICC Trophy, they were unstoppable.

India are probably the biggest enigma of all. They are a very lucrative side to invite because their supporters fill stands, their TV stations bring record rights revenues and their advertisers fill boundary hoardings. But they play poor cricket overseas and their averages, like their currency notes, do not buy too much. Here in New Zealand people feel particularly cheated and they have a right to. A poor product cannot run profitable businesses for too long.

Away from home India look lost but I am not sure they are keen to seek inspiration. Amidst the pride of being a performer, I am not sure there is enough of the student there. Education, whether cricketing or purely academic, has always been looked down upon in our cricket in much the manner the nerd is ridiculed by the athlete. Had our young minds been open, and willing, they might have asked themselves what Indianexpats did to become successful. In Silicon Valley, in Sydney and in London, expatriate Indians went from a similarly unsettled system and had to prove themselves in a more organised society. They succeeded spectacularly. What did they do? How did they merge the Oriental instinct within a Western work ethic? Did they adapt to the conditions without giving up their skill? Isn't there a lesson there? But is there an appreciation of that lesson? When cricket is the only thing that counts, it counts for very little.

As the leader of a gifted but stumbling side, Sourav Ganguly must grapple with these thoughts more than anyone else. Unlike his coach who represents the organised methodical school, he is a man driven by instinct. In the heat of battle, it is the greater attribute to possess for a man needs to be fleet of foot and fleet of mind. But I am not sure he is able to demand, and indeed to provide, more in terms of being prepared for battle. He is at his best when he is scoring runs for he believes it gives him the right to demand performance from his players. But a good leader needs to look beyond his form and it is here that Ganguly, who has actually managed that fairly well in the last two years, has struggled.

To some extent that is natural for once the ranks begin questioning the generals, mutiny is round the corner. The good general must fight but in situations where he cannot he must empower those that can fight. That is what separates the great leaders from the others, that is why there are so few great leaders. That is also why teams always target the opposition captain.

India, indeed all the Asian countries, have a battle on their hands. They cannot only win at home and lose overseas. New Zealand are third in the Test match standings and there is a message there. But I am not sure they are willing to learn it. The wait to come home can be long and fruitless.

Tailpiece

Did you notice that Australia sent out a night watchman when the going got tough in Sydney? And do you remember the much publicised announcement that they would not need one? The world looks much easier when the going is good. That is why this game is a great leveller.