Performance is the new motto

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

IT was a year of renaissance for Javagal Srinath, V. V. S. Laxman and Harbhajan Singh. There was a welcome return to form for Anil Kumble, but it was a testing time for Indian cricket as it continued its search for matchwinning bowlers. Selected and then discarded were Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan. By the end of the year Tinu Yohannan and Iqbal Siddiqui too had joined them.

Javagal Srinath has found new zest for bowling and that's good news for Indian cricket.-N. BALAJI

The rediscovery of an incisive Srinath was easily the biggest gain of the year that went by for Indian cricket. Of course, the return of Kumble and the success achieved by Harbhajan and Laxman were also the high points but the team continued to disappoint. After seeming to make some strides in the bowling department, the team once again fell back on the seniors.

Ten years of international cricket may have given Srinath the look of a hard professional, but he remains an under-achiever. For a fast bowler always rated high by opponents, his haul of wickets does not quite match his potential. And he blames himself for not being able to win more matches for India.

In the twilight of his career he has chosen to make a few points, settle a few scores and for once, do justice to his skills. "I looked a bit jaded initially," he admitted but did not agree that he was not giving his best. "Justice to potential is not the right expression. I've always worked hard and believed that maybe my approach could have been different. I may not have won a few games for the team which we ought have and that is what matters in the ultimate analysis. How many matches have you won? As far as the team is concerned, it does not matter what an individual does. It is victory that counts and we have faltered when it mattered," he was honest in his self-criticism.

The South African tour brought back memories of a battling Srinath. He concentrated on line and length all through and emerged as a bowler to reckon with. "It was an important tour for me because it helped me get my rhythm back. Getting to the 200-wicket mark in Tests was satisfying but it would have been memorable if we had won a few more matches."

How was he going to plan his cricket now? "I think I'll look at things series by series. I need to see how I go about my job in the next couple of months. To achieve my best I must bowl consistently well. I have to have a better line and length than what I had in the past and most importantly I might have to compromise a little on my pace. But please remember that it's not always possible to give your best. Look at Allan Donald and see how he is struggling to keep himself focussed."

Srinath's tally of 33 wickets in his last eight Tests at an average of 27.73 was impressive indeed. On three occasions he took five or more wickets in an innings and it was creditable that he was willing to bowl long spells. "I was inspired in the presence of some youngsters," he said.

Srinath had lavish praise for the two left-arm seamers, Nehra and Zaheer, but both failed to hold their places even before the year ended. Nehra, the find of the Zimbabwe tour, did not even figure in the home series against England. Neither did Zaheer, who had been described by skipper Sourav Ganguly as a "tremendous" talent. Only the selectors know the reasons for keeping these two bowlers out. Even as the new year dawned on them, Nehra and Zaheer were furiously engaged in keeping themselves fit.

"I have been working hard on my fitness. The year taught me quite a few things and the tour to Zimbabwe was the turning point for me. It was nice of Srinath to teach me a few tricks and his encouragement came as a big boon to me and Zaheer. Our learning process was set in motion by Srinath who told us the importance of line and length. It was a great experience to be bowling in his company and there was so much for us to learn from watching him from such close quarters," said Nehra.

Anil Kumble has come back strongly after a debilitating injury.-V. V. KRISHNAN

The Indian bowlers did feel the pressure of coping with the expectations. Zaheer and Nehra promised a lot with their eventful beginnings, but could not maintain the level of consistency. "One learns from experience," Zaheer had said on the Zimbabwe tour. It was a point which was supported by Kumble.

"It helps a few individuals if the expectations grow. It has been an enjoyable experience for me. It's an honour to know that people expect you to perform everytime. You may not achieve success all the time but it is important that you try your best and that is what your supporters expect from you. I've learnt to live with the pressures," said Kumble, who also revels in excelling when faced with challenges.

Talking of pressure, none would have felt it more than Harbhajan Singh. At 21, he went through a turmoil on all fronts and came out a champion bowler. It is another matter that he now has to meet the growing expectations of his fans and mates.

Harbhajan is expected to skittle the opposition out everytime he bowls. "It's not possible and I hope people understand it fast. Not that I get perturbed with such pressures but it is worrying during times when you bowl well and yet don't get the desired rewards," said Harbhajan.

Having scalped 32 Australians in three Tests, Harbhajan finished with a tally of 60 for the year at an average of 25.95. "I never thought I would even get to play against the Australians, leave aside taking so many wickets. I knew I had to bowl at my best but once I started getting wickets I knew it wasn't going to be that difficult. I was bowling against the best team and I was aware that I had to bowl at my best," he said.

How did Harbhajan motivate himself? "Well, I had this feeling within that I was bowling well. It comes to any bowler naturally. He knows when he is bowling well. I realised the ball was coming nicely out of my palm. It was all a matter of getting my rhythm right," he added.

Harbhajan emerged a mentally strong lad at the end of the year. His skipper backed him all the way. "He brought me back to cricket after I almost gave up playing. He always wanted me to do well and I am glad I lived up to his expectations and that of the selectors. Mr. Madan Lal (zonal selector) also encouraged me in my difficult times," said Harbhajan.

What struck Harbhajan most was the involvement of the seniors. "My seniors (Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid, Srinath and Laxman) all guided me. In fact, they rejoiced more in my success than myself. I am really indebted to them. They say I'm a champion bowler and I would be happy to keep them happy," said Harbhajan, the bowler whom Kumble holds in high esteem. No spinner, other than Venkatapathy Raju and Narendra Hirwani, has claimed five or more wickets in an innings since the arrival of Kumble. Raju and Hirwani have done it once each but Harbhajan has done it on more than one occasion.

The year 2001 meant a lot to Harbhajan. He grew a lot in that one year. "Cricket gave me a good life and the year was very significant. It gave me pain and joy. In one year I grew from a boy to a man," said Harbhajan, who went through difficult times on and off the field. Thankfully, he signed off the year on a happy note, having established himself as a key bowler in the team's scheme of things.

Among the batsmen, Tendulkar was, as usual, focussed on his job. "I enjoyed my batting but would have been happier if we had won a few more matches. The defeat in Zimbabwe was a sore point. But we had quite a few happy memories," he observed. In both forms of cricket, he topped the aggregate (1003 runs in Tests and 904 in one-dayers) at an average of 60 plus, quite justifying the tag of being the best batsman in the world.

For Rahul Dravid, the home series against England may have been a personal let down, but he did a decent job on the overseas assignments. Second to Tendulkar in Tests (935) and behind Tendulkar and Ganguly in one-dayers (740), he may not have played the big innings more often but he was not short of commitment.

Dravid termed it a year of mixed fortunes. "We had some lovely moments and some not so memorable. The victories against Australia were obviously the high points, but what rankled was the defeat against Zimbabwe. We should have won the series in Zimbabwe and drawn against Sri Lanka. That would have been a fair assessment of our strength. Not winning a one-day final was a disappointment, but then you'll have to consider the number of players who were injured at some point or other. I think we played some good cricket and that's what I remember the most," he said.

On the personal front, Dravid agreed that he could have possibly done better. He emerged a great team man when he volunteered to bat at any spot the team thought it fit. "You've to look at the situations, the need and requirements of the team. Injuries to players meant that some adjustments had to be made. It was not ideal but it is something one has to learn to accept as a part and parcel of the game."

What would Dravid like the team to imbibe in the new year? "We've to look at becoming a tough team. We must learn to win the crucial situations. There are phases which we need to understand are crucial in a game. There are certain defining moments and we must learn to win those moments. That's the difference between a win and a loss," said Dravid just before leaving for South Africa for treating his injured shoulder.

It was an eventful year for Laxman, too. And quite a mixed experience it was. From the high of Eden Gardens, to the disappointments in South Africa, Sri Lanka and at home, it was an arduous journey and at the end of the year quite unfairly he was left with more critics than admirers.

Laxman agreed the pressures increased everytime he walked to the middle. in 16 Test innings, he had 869 runs. An average of 54.31 should have silenced his critics but they still gunned for him. He was accused of only playing for his place. In the current insecure atmosphere that dominates Indian cricket, why should Laxman alone be held responsible for the debacles of the team? The same critics viewed Ganguly's failures differently.

Not that it mattered as far as Laxman was concerned. The humble Hyderabadi took all the criticism in his stride and most sportingly vowed to hit back through his bat. "It was not that I was playing reckless shots and getting out. I agree I ought to have contributed more, but believe me at no stage was I being complacent or careless. I have enjoyed the responsibility of being considered one of the main batsmen and I am working at improving my record," Laxman said.

His resolve for the new year was simple. "To fashion more and more wins for India. I have realised the need to curb certain shots and also the importance of form. One must make full use of good form. At no stage have I been complacent and I would like to assure my well-wishers that I am as focussed as I was at the start of my career. I have learnt a few crucial things and would like to build upon my experience of this year," said Laxman, who has not allowed the success to influence his simple approach to cricket and life.

Amidst this galaxy, there was one individual who was keen to maintain his newly-attained status. A star in his own right but down to earth in his attitude - Virender Sehwag. His presence lent solidity to the middle-order and he was delighted to be a part of the team. The controversy in South Africa may have put him in the limelight for the wrong reasons, but he has not allowed it to affect his resolve.

Maintaining his strict training schedule, practising with his mates at Delhi's Modern School ground, Sehwag came across as a very confident man. "I learnt the most crucial lesson of my cricketing career thus far in Sri Lanka and South Africa - it is performance which matters and nothing else. You may be the best in domestic cricket but it counts only if you do well at the international level. A hundred obviously is better than a fifty and that is what propelled me," said Sehwag.

Sehwag had to make a few changes in his approach. "Thanks to Sachin, I was made to realise the difference in pace at the international level. It can't be compared with what we face regularly in domestic cricket. I'm glad I could adjust and adapt quickly," said Sehwag who also made an earnest request. "Please don't compare me with Sachin. There can be no comparison," said the modest Sehwag, who is determined to emulate the Mumbai master's concentration and consistency in the new year.

Indian cricket may have remained stagnant in 2001, but it promises a vastly improved performance in 2002. The cricket canvas expects a refreshing colour from the players who have a combined motto for the season : PERFORMANCE. We shall see in due course how the year unfolds as West Indies and England beckon the team after a home series against Zimbabwe.