'I want more involvement of former players'

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

A FAST bowler of exceptional merit with 259 Test wickets, 881 in first-class cricket. He was circulation manager of a newspaper in Bridgetown and later a technical officer in the Ministry of Sports and now a National selector. Joel Garner has been leading a versatile life. An asset to West Indies cricket as a player and an official and a citizen worthy of all the adulation he gets from fellow Barbadians.

The West Indies Cricket Board, under the guidance of Wesley Hall, has launched a programme which is aimed at reviving the image of the team, now languishing at the near bottom of the international league. Garner, having been part of the team which once was on top of the cricketing world, has taken the job with all sincerity.

Joel Garner with Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan. "I don't get carried away by pace. Bowling fast is one thing and bowling well is another. Bowling fast doesn't necessarily mean bowling well," says Garner.-V. V. KRISHNAN

At St Lucia, he was involved in the match deeply, passing on instructions to keep the pressure on the Indians and then spending a long time with the Busta XI players at the end of the day's play. Nothing could have motivated the aspirants more.

Garner has come to accept and enjoy modern cricket, with all its emphasis on technicalities - in depth analysis, constant monitoring of the players. It is all part of the game. Where does it leave the bowlers then? "We also had such analysis 25 years ago but then we must realise that the rules have always favoured the batsmen. The cricket structure as such favours batsmen. And to me, the fun of fast bowling was gone when restrictions were put on bowling bouncers. This restriction on short ball is not good. If you had taken away the bouncer rule from the West Indies, you wouldn't have had Sobers, Lloyd, Richards. It's a joy to watch the batsmen hooking."

But lamented Garner: "It's no more 50-50 cricket because everything is geared towards the batsmen. So the bowlers have to think a lot and work a lot to get their wickets. It's always been so." The state of pitches came in for discussion. Garner was convinced that this was the key factor in shaping the course of the game. "The pitches have not remained the same. They are flat or helpful to the spinners. You have to have 50-50 pitches to have good cricket. It should truly be a battle of skills."

Even as the talent spotters in the Caribbean look for bowlers with the intent to bowl fast, Garner has a balanced view on the subject. "I don't get carried away by pace. Bowling fast is one thing and bowling well is another. Bowling fast doesn't necessarily mean bowling well."

Garner also disagrees that the standard of bowling has deteriorated in recent times. "If you ask me, the general standard of cricket may not be as high as before. You can say so but it's not true in every area of the game. Certainly not in bowling. You may have lost one or two fast bowlers but then you got some fantastic spinners. You got Muralitharan, Harbhajan. you have the spinners now taking the place of fast bowlers as the leading performers but the standards of bowling have not fallen really."

Garner did not want to be drawn into any controversy regarding the bowling actions of certain bowlers in contemporary cricket. "The ICC makes the rulings and it has decided these fellows can play."

What then inspires Garner to spend hours on the cricket field? "It's always a pleasure to work with the youngsters. It's a responsibility I've been enjoying. We need to talk to them and impart knowledge to them. We need to talk about cricket, talk about life with the younger players."

Being a selector is tough, he admits. "As a selector, our job is to pick the best. You can't play for them. They have to go and do their work. We can only select the best."

In the West Indies, Garner assured, the process of selection was fair. "There's no partisanship or politics in selection, There are 90 people playing in local competitions and they all get a fair chance to show their mettle."

But what of the growing criticism regarding certain selections and omissions for the current series? Garner was composed as ever "everyone is free to have an opinion. I'll not point fingers. For me, performance is the criteria. There is no other criteria involved when we select the side and we can't please everybody."

In Garner's opinion, most of the problems in West Indies cricket came from lack of fitness. "If you are not physically fit you can't concentrate for long periods of time. People have talent but I don't think the players devote the same time to look after their fitness too. Training is necessary. Maybe they think they have the talent so they can just come and play. You have to make sacrifices to stay at the top."

The former fast bowler, who made life miserable for batsmen as he often extracted awkward bounce because of his height (6 feet 8 inches), dismissed the suggestion that playing too much cricket was being cited as the main reason for players breaking down constantly. The talk of burn out factor, in his opinion, was nothing but excuses for lack of commitment. "We played county cricket for ten years. We would drive 15000 miles a season besides playing Test cricket and one-day matches. If you're a professional you'll have to work hard. I don't understand how can a professional not be able to play 10 Tests and 20 one-day internationals in one year."

Another area which Garner thought was responsible for the West Indies' poor run was the attitude of the administrators towards the former players. "We didn't have many former players involved in West Indies cricket. There seemed a reluctance to involve them and I don't really know why. I look at it this way. If you need medicine you go to a doctor; if your car breaks down you go to a mechanic. You don't have a surgeon come down to repair your car or a mechanic to perform surgery. But things have changed now. Former players are getting involved in helping the West Indies to get back to their feet. Cricket needs people who know about the game, people who have the expertise, and that's why I want more involvement of former players."

How would he rate the current crop of players? "You are judged by the standards you achieve. We're very critical of people who do the job. We should allow them to do the job effectively. We do have youngsters with potential. But they need guidance, need to be taught how to be a professional. They have to be taught how to play as a team. We must know how to get the best out of them."

On the steps being taken to strengthen schools cricket in the Caribbean, Garner explains "It differs from island to island, In Barbados, we have 105 schools with 75 of them taking part in competitions. It's a good number of participation by any standards. The problem doesn't lie in people not playing. There are other areas which need our attention."

How much does experience count when rebuilding a side? "Age should never be the criteria. One should play on performance. We lost a few people for other reasons. As long as he is fit, as long as he is performing, any player is fine. It doesn't make sense to me talking about age when someone is performing. Who do you blame for this change in attitude? We need to examine ourselves. Times have changed. People are different. Lot of people have different attitude. We must learn to manage the talented youngsters and get the best out of them. We need to look after them."

Does he indeed see a ray of hope? "Let me tell you. It'll be difficult cricket but we got to be consistent. Nothing is for ever. Remember that. Good times will follow.