On the sidelines

L. Balaji... the longer he stays out of the game, the road to rehabilitation gets increasingly uphill.-V. GANESAN

Nowadays, considering the structure of the game, with tournaments from under-13 to Ranji, the emphasis is squarely on playing, competing and performing, and this leaves little time for cricket education.

When Delhi played Tamil Nadu at the Kotla, the setting looked bizarre considering this was an Elite game and many quality players were on view. Shikhar Dhawan battled Yomahesh on a wicket that was traditional, so low and slow that the 'keeper stretched to collect the ball in front of his shoelaces. But this was neither surprising nor strange and the dull track was just another reminder of the neglect of India's domestic cricket.

If further evidence was needed to establish that Ranji is not high on anyone's agenda it was easily available. The ground was in good condition but there was little else to suggest this was not another Vijay vs Tigers `B' grade club game. There were no spectators, no advertising boards, no intensity, bustle and noise usually associated with cricket.

The incomplete stadium added to the overall picture of inadequacy and reinforced the view that Indian cricket is driven only by big games that bring in big money and provide big opportunities to network and connect. The Kotla Stadium presently is a half-complete construction site abandoned by workers and activity will recommence here once another international match is announced.

Though the stage was imperfect, cricket was interesting as both sides competed to gain control. Badrinath stroked a cultured and composed century and later Rajat Bhatia and Vijay Dahiya (back in the team after a break) hit hundreds for Delhi.

While the players performed in the middle, activity along the sidelines was no less interesting. On a cool wintry day, under a pleasant sun, walking around the boundary were different sets of people. Former selector V. B. Chandrasekhar was with L. Balaji, who was forced to sit out owing to an injury.

It is a huge pity because, after a brief return during the Irani Trophy, Balaji has hit another phase of frustration and disappointment. Injuries are professional hazards, as much part of cricket as bad decisions, and Balaji, a star yesterday, is waging a lone struggle to revive his career.

He has no contract and no security cover and the longer he stays out of the game, the road to rehabilitation gets increasingly uphill. Selectors Sanjeev Sharma (Chairman of the junior panel) and Bhupinder Singh (member, senior panel) kept a close eye on Yomahesh. Both think the youngster is very promising, as is Ishant Sharma, Delhi's lanky debutant.

However, they wished the wickets would improve to have more bounce and carry since this would do a world of good, both to the bowlers and the batsmen. Success for medium-pacers in Indian conditions, in their opinion, depends on using the old ball intelligently.

It is essential for the bowlers to hit the deck and reverse once the initial shine and swing disappear.

Sanjeev and Bhupinder may not talk smart like Greg Chappell, they can't lecture on processes, systems, strategy or buying into team goals. Yet, their cricket antenna is up, they are connected with ground reality and can recognise a genuine article when they see one.

While Shikhar Dhawan marched towards an impressive hundred, former selectors Madan Lal (Delhi coach till last season) and Yashpal Sharma were on the commentary team, and with them were Atul Wassan and Nikhil Chopra, two of Delhi's current selectors!

W. V. Raman, the Tamil Nadu coach, paraded round the far end of the ground, completely engrossed in the proceedings.

Between offering advice to Sharath, standing at third man, and shouting instructions to Satish, Raman spoke about his job. He said he was happy to work with youngsters and enjoyed the challenge of making a positive contribution.

Raman, in his second innings as coach — he was earlier with Bengal — thinks that the young Ranji players need to draw on the experience of senior pros. Nowadays, considering the structure of the game, with tournaments from under-13 to Ranji, the emphasis is squarely on playing, competing and performing, and this leaves little time for cricket education.

Players neglect skill formation and don't work on technique, feels Raman. In contemporary cricket there are other changes as well, some of them positive.

Raman finds the current players to be more aggressive and ambitious. They consider cricket as an instrument for instant social and economic mobility.

And though jobs are scarce (replaced by contract appointments) players know that a couple of good knocks can fast-track them to fame and fortune. Everyone, he says, is in a hurry.

On the prospect of imported methods working in Indian conditions, Raman is skeptical. "I don't favour blind acceptance of ideas from other countries," he says.

"Everything must be customised to Indian conditions, wickets, weather and our physical shape. Cricketers must be athletes but perhaps we are overdoing the physical aspect of cricket — aren't the Aussies using yoga as much as gym sessions?"

The weaknesses of Ranji are well advertised. We know there are too many teams, too little quality, the conditions (umpiring and wickets) are pathetic and that it suffers from general apathy and neglect.

But there are signs of positive change with better financial rewards encouraging players to work hard and improve performance. India's first-class structure is like a B-grade film with players no more than small time actors.

But, whatever the quality, Ranji is the basic building block, it is the only road to the top, the only stage for youngsters to perform on — and hope they make the major box-office strike that will open the doors.