Need to look ahead and work in advance

WE are undisputed world champs in doing things later than the last minute. At some Test venues it is normal for chairs to be placed in the dressing room even as the visiting team is getting off the bus. In some countries, such frantic effort would cause cardiac arrests but in India this is routine, we struggle till the very last because this is the only way we work.

Unlike us, in other countries, people think ahead and plan, they put things in place and are ready for play before the bell goes off in the pavilion. Programmes are announced early, tickets are put on sale long before the event, enabling people to make bookings.

Let me give you two examples: The names of speakers at the official World Cup 2003 banquet in South Africa were decided almost 14 months back. During India's tour to England, a one-dayer will be played at Bristol on July 11, the dinner menu for which is not only fixed but displayed prominently on the notice board at the ground. Guests are informed that at 25 pounds per head they will get Apricot stuffed chicken breast as the main course, together with various salads/vegetables and Raspberry Pavlova (with a dark chocolate sauce and Blackberry Coulis) as the desert. Some planning, this! (Note: bookings can be made at www.gloucestershire.cricinfo.com)

Some unimpressed persons may question the need to look ahead and work in advance. How does it matter, they ask, as long as everything is in place when it matters? The answer to this is simple: It boils down to efficiency and avoiding screw ups, if you plan there is time to accomplish tasks properly. Moreover, when everyone is busy, you need to handle things methodically. So, bottom line: This is not for style, it is necessary for survival.

When different sports are striving for the same slice of talent/patronage and sponsorship it makes sense to stay a step ahead of competition. In England, football is pre-eminent, other sports are left to search for support and in this quest if cricket did not innovate and upgrade then there would be nothing but disaster.

Sensing this threat, cricket authorities are making serious efforts and one recent reform was to revamp county cricket by splitting teams into two groups of nine each with a provision of three up and three down each year. With this, better teams play each other, quality improves and games are more competitive. India is likely to introduce a similar two tier format for Ranji, hopefully this will commence from this October.

Apart from restructuring first class cricket, other significant changes are also on the cards. One suggestion on the table is to have a unique 20-over cricket shootout, which is not everyone's cup of tea and is seen as a concession to the marketing men. A two hour cricket contest appears revolting to purists who are yet to accept 50-over games despite their obvious benefits in terms of greater speed, athleticism and a welcome trend of producing results. But the introduction of the new tournament points to the desperate ground reality of cricket in England.

Important changes in the rules governing employment of overseas players are also being considered. Currently one outside pro is allowed but with more international cricket (and schedules in West Indies stretching into what earlier was off season) it is often impossible for top players to be available throughout the English season. To overcome this, counties are allowed substitutes in case of injuries or for missing pros on account of national duty. Under this dispensation Surrey had Azhar Mahmood filling in for Saqlain and Nottingham went from Chris Cairns to Lance Klusener to Nicky Boje in a matter of a few months.

But the problem runs deeper because even top English players, on centralised contracts, are forced to miss county games, they are given time off by the ECB. Faced by shortage of players - both English and overseas - counties are now pushing for permission to hire two pros, a move bound to raise questions once again about declining opportunities for local talent. Chances are, however, these concerns will be defeated because the injection of foreign players increases prospects of attracting sponsors.

English cricket is working overtime to upgrade cricket facilities as well. Sussex has lights, the only ground in England to have made the investment, while Bristol proposes to hire portable lights mounted on trucks for India's one-dayer. Leeds has put a large amount of money into a new stand but Lord's has converted its old press box into a bar, which the members felt was a vital requirement.

Trent Bridge, which had Sobers/Hadlee/Clive Rice and Dilip Doshi with them in the past, has just completed a 10 million pound renovation to become the best equipped centre outside Lord's. "We have not compromised on quality," said CEO David Collier, a justified claim in the context of the plush squash courts, physiotherapy unit, indoor nets, hospitality marquees and other facilities that have sprung up.

Most remarkable of these, however, are the mechanised ground covers which come on to cover the entire playing field, even the area between the boundary rope and the advertising boards. These giant covers, placed in a six feet deep trench near the boundary, are lifted by a motor and spread across the field within 20 minutes. Special machines suck the water off the covers and play is possible as soon as the rain lets up.

With every possible mechanical equipment available, Trent Bridge needs just five permanent ground staff to look after its ground and practise areas. Interestingly, the main wicket is used only for the Test, no other cricket is played on that track during the season.

Cricket has to fight competition from other disciplines by constantly evolving, and making itself attractive in the eyes of fans and sponsors. For this, effective marketing is the key, which is why the unending search for getting things right. On-field cricket is left to the coach/trainer and the captain, it is their job to deliver results and win. But equally important are men working in county offices - who locate cash to fund cricket and keep the club commercially afloat.