No magic or mystery in nets session

Virender Sehwag tries his hand at golf.-V. GANESAN

IF the Indians are doing anything different under Chappell it is not evident on the surface. They are training in the practice area at the Harare Sports Club, which is just behind square leg, a big hit from Blignaut almost lands in the middle of the bowlers' run up. Players go through the usual stretching and physical exercises, after an elaborate warm-up the group breaks into two teams and begins a game of volleyball — this has been the norm for years under John Wright. Later, there is fielding practice, slip catches followed by skiers for fielders in the deep. Everyone is made to throw at the stumps — practice for run outs — and then the nets begin. Top batsmen take turns to play seam and spin separately, fast bowlers bowl longish spells before non-regulars (even Dhoni), are given a ball and told to run in hard because the quality of local net bowlers is not up to scratch.

Every team practices this way, there is no magic or mystery to a net session, but maybe others show more intensity in their efforts. Chappell keeps a close eye on the proceedings, monitors bowlers to see they do not over step, has a word with Yuvraj as he takes off his pads after a longish session, talks to Agarkar to ensure he does not slide down leg. This done he takes aside batsmen into a net, throws short balls at them from ten yards, does this for so long there is concern that his shoulder will get dislocated.

Sourav and Sehwag are running a mild temperature but choose to join the team for practice. "There is nothing to do", says the captain adjusting the three grips on his bat and testing the willow for balance. Also, he asks, "how much can you sleep in your room".

Gaps between matches allow others to visit the golf courses that dot Harare. Sehwag, a new convert, hits a pretty solid ball, his uninhibited swing and exquisite timing sends the ball soaring down the fairway. But the problem, he complains like every golfer, "is direction". He slices shots off the tee, the ball flies away in the direction of extra cover!

Ravi Shastri, more experienced, does not have such problems. One lazy afternoon at the Chapman course he makes four pars in the first nine and is thrilled to bits. "This is awesome", he exclaims in his usual exuberant style. Ravi has taken to golf with seriousness and passion; competitive by nature, he is in a hurry to bring his handicap down to a decent 14. Gives the ball a good whack, puts his considerable weight behind the drive and has an instinctive talent for reading the game. "I am ok with woods but must learn the craft of playing smartly round the green", he says. Which means more control over chipping, moving carefully around sand traps and putting only after carefully reading the line on undulating greens.

In some ways, golf is not dissimilar to the batting style of a hard-hitting striker. It is one thing to come in and slog, clear the boundary and go over the head of long-on with a massive strike. But to be successful a different talent is also required — the batsman must drop the ball and run, squeeze the ball into gaps, push it away from fielders in the 30-yard circle to steal singles.

The golf bukhaar has affected others too, notably SMG. There he was crouched over a ball in the fairway, head nicely still, knees bent at the right angle, the body aligned sideways. He sorted out the essential technicalities in no time, adjusted his stance/grip/followthrough, but his enthusiasm for the sport is somewhat dimmed. "I can't see myself playing a five-hour round", he says, then adds hastily, "as befits a mature person who is now a grandfather." Who knows? Vishy is a great enthusiast. He gets up at 5 a.m. which he never did when playing active cricket .

For players, past and current, there are other attractions besides golf in Zimbabwe. Arun Lal is awed by its natural grandeur, the magnificent trees, the open spaces, the beauty of the flowers. The wide range of handicrafts points to the traditional skills of the people: the wonderful masks made of ebony and teak, the ear-rings/bracelets/ necklaces/strings of different stones, the amazing variety of leather products from elephant/ostrich/buffalo and crocodile. Ivory, banned in most parts of the world including India, is freely available, so are zebra and leopard skins.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe cricket is gripped by another round of turbulence. The players want a better deal but the ZCU feels their financial demands are exaggerated, unjustified and inconsistent with performance. "The issue," explained one official, "is players have a big-fish-in-a-small-pond mentality with performances not matching up with what they feel they are worth. We, `he said with withering sarcasm,' are dealing with people who have not exactly set cricket fields on fire. We are not talking of Tendulkars."

Zimbabwe cricket, at least at present, is indeed a small pond, the pool of players at the first-class level is growing but only slowly. Provincial teams play one 4-day tournament, there are plenty of limited-overs competitions but finding funds, talent and sponsors is an uphill task. Football is the main sport, Zimbabwe's FIFA ranking is an impressive 51 compared to India's 131.

But Peter Chingoka, the Chairman, is looking at the future with optimism. He talks about more young black kids playing, about the strong schools competition, about the financial support received from different quarters, including the newly-formed Asia/Africa cricket body which enables them to fund development programmes. The ZCU has made an impressive beginning by setting up a cricket academy, the administrative structure under a CEO is also geared to meet the challenges of modern sport. So if glitches about players' contracts are sorted out there is hope for improved results in the future.