Greg gets cracking

Mohali has to be among the foremost cricketing venues in the country. Everything is done with great care, taste and style here. Pictures of former cricketers adorn the walls of the clubhouse. Achievements of the past are rightly remembered and celebrated. The relaxed ambience at the stadium is suffused with cricket.

S. DINAKAR

Brave new dispensation. Brave new India. Aiming high are skipper Rahul Dravid, who has shed the stand-in tag, and the eternally inspirational Sachin Tendulkar. Their ultimate destination is World Cup 2007.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

ANY ODI series in India is a great road show and Nagpur is our first stop. The central Indian city has a cricketing culture. The game is very much the topic of discussion as the sides converge on the city. The facilities at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium do not match Nagpur's passion for cricket. The press box, for instance, can do with improvement. It's spacious, but it is open. In such a dusty place, the journalists' equipment is at risk. The seats are cramped and there is hardly any space to move around. The VCA is constructing a new stadium. Will that structure be ready before the India-England Test later this season?

My colleague and I go through a horrendous time. Somebody slithers into our room at night — we stayed in a hotel that is a stone's throw away from the stadium — and slips away with a mobile phone, a voice recorder and a wallet. Our attempts to retrieve the stolen goods prove futile. We had it coming though — we were staying in Room No. 111. Nelson can strike off the field as well!

Team India has better luck. It canters to a momentum-gaining victory. And Sachin Tendulkar is back.

Great facility: Mohali has to be among the foremost cricketing venues in the country. Everything is done with great care, taste and style here. Pictures of former cricketers adorn the walls of the clubhouse. Achievements of the past are rightly remembered and celebrated. The relaxed ambience at the stadium is suffused with cricket.

The PCA president I.S. Bindra deserves credit for his efforts to create a facility that soothes the senses. He himself spends time in the media enclosure as the teams practise. While the BCCI politics keeps him occupied, his love for the game has remained.

Chappell's way: At the nets we get a glimpse of the Greg Chappell method. The coach provides individual attention to Yuvraj Singh. The Punjab left-hander is made to sweat as Chappell works on his front-foot play. Chappell, who bowls himself, exhorts the southpaw to get to the pitch of the ball with a still head. There have been times when Yuvraj has been sluggish in his footwork to slow, tossed-up deliveries.

Chappell, his voice booming, tells the young batsman to not just get his foot upfront but be balanced as the willow meets the ball. Chappell is an influential coach. You cannot miss him at Mohali.

A way of life: Cricket remains a way of life for Intikhab Alam — whether captaining Pakistan or coaching the Punjab team across the border. The stocky, former all-rounder, who specialised in legspin, has managed to turn things around for the State side. Punjab, in the dumps before Intikhab took over, finished runner-up last season in the Ranji Trophy. The Pakistani's skills as a motivator of men are well known. He is deeply dedicated to his current job. Even as he speaks to The Sportstar, he monitors the performance of the Punjab under-22 boys. "I have to keep track of these boys. This is a place where sifarish (recommendation) will not work. Players will be picked only on merit.

He also feels that the captain-coach combination of Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell is the right one for India. "I see a healthy professional attitude in the team. Some promising juniors have come into the squad and this will put the seniors under pressure to perform. If the seniors feel the heat, they will not remain complacent."

Muttiah Muralitharan can spin a web around hapless batsmen. The Lankan is a chirpy character outside the arena. He has eyes that laugh and a sense of humour that reflects the happiness within.-AP

He believes Dravid and Chappell should work together at least until the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. "You cannot make changes for the sake of making them. You have to provide the men chosen, time to implement their ideas. Intikhab thinks highly of Dravid — "he is very focussed and disciplined. I think he is leading the side with purpose. He is also a gentleman cricketer. But being so does not mean he lacks aggression. I think he has led the side competently so far. Chappell is also taking the side in the right direction."

The Pakistani is delighted with Tendulkar's return to form. "Players like him come once in a lifetime. Even if he does not score runs, his mere presence in the dressing room lifts the morale of the side."

Intikhab does not favour Ganguly's inclusion in the side, for the time being at least. "What happened between him and Chappell will not go away fast. Ganguly should stay away for a few months. Time is a great healer of wounds. He should score runs consistently and over a period of time in Ranji Trophy."

A happy man: Meanwhile, Dravid, on the way for practice, spots us. His warm smile indicates he is a happy man. India romp home, and Irfan Pathan who has cut a birthday cake a day earlier is quite the toast for swinging the match the host's way.

But the cops come under the scanner for their rough behaviour with those seeking to enter the stadium and a section of the media. The second ODI was a well-organised contest in a pretty town, but the PCA should restrict the number of non-journalists entering the press box; this is a security hazard.

Dhoni's fireworks: The cricket caravan moves to Jaipur, the Rajasthan capital of forts, sand, palaces, precious stones, pink coloured buildings and tales of bravery. In the aftermath of the Delhi blasts, the security is tight. The courage of the people shines through. This is Diwali time and almost the entire city is illuminated. The Jaipur folks celebrate the days leading to the festival of lights in style. And the fireworks are provided by Mahendra Singh Dhoni. His massive blows keep the crowd at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium dancing and exercising their vocal chords. The Rajasthan Cricket Association President, Lalith Modi, is quick to announce a reward of Rs. 10 lakhs to Dhoni.

Commercially, the third ODI is an unprecedented success. The Stadium has received a face-lift, and there is a new air-conditioned press box. There are minor hiccups for the journalists in the morning, but they are quickly sorted out indicating there is someone following up things.

Essential Murali: Muttiah Muralitharan can spin a web around hapless batsmen. The Lankan is a chirpy character outside the arena. He has eyes that laugh and a sense of humour that reflects the happiness within. At a party hosted by the PCB in Chandigarh, he has the audience in splits. When a group of policemen in Jaipur desires a picture with him, he actually puts an arm around one of the cops. And when he runs into the Indian scribes at the Mumbai Airport, Murali is quick to question, "What are you all doing here? You are not going home for Diwali? You are following the teams to every city!"

When one of the journalists replies that journeying back for the festival is not possible since the matches have to be covered, Murali offers him a simple solution. "Well, you can watch the television and write a report from the drawing room." Muralitharan is teasing the media with his way with words, much like how he torments the batsmen with his flight.

One of the scribes jumps down the track with the query — "What about your own Diwali celebrations, Murali? And this is your first one after marriage?" For a change, the off-spinning wizard has to cope with a doosra himself. Initially, Murali is stumped for an answer. Soon follows a honest response, "That's a big problem man."

Murali is married to a Chennai girl, from the famous Malar Hospital family. For the Tamils, the first Diwali after marriage is an auspicious occasion. Cricketing demands have meant that he will now miss a traditional function. A brief moment of introspection over, Murali is smiling again. This is the essential Muralitharan for you. A blithe spirit and a great cricketer.

The Indians land in Pune. Soon, skipper Rahul Dravid with some of his men and the pleasant new media manager, Wing Commander M. Baladitya, pay a visit to the National Defence Academy. Dravid finds a seat in an aircraft. The new Indian captain is piloting Team India to new heights.