Player poll is revealing

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THERE are some things Indian cricketers just do not like. Sponsor cheques with a zero missing, Australian fast bowlers and polls. In fact, they probably dislike polls more than Glenn McGrath.

The players are happiest when the "public" is watching but not thinking. Fans are encouraged to use the same toothbrush that players endorse, but when it comes to opinions, well then people must keep that for their wives.

Mohammed Azharuddin in particular used to be infuriated by silly newspaper polls that would ask a) if he should be replaced b) whether he should speak more on the field and c) should he have made a bowling change at 1.30 p.m. last Wednesday.

Of course, this is all light-hearted nonsense and Sourav Ganguly is not thinking of standing for parliament just because half of Bengal thinks he should be running the country.

However, the poll that crossed my desk this week is quite another matter entirely. Players, I promise, will take it seriously. Only because it reflects the judgement, not of fans but of their peers.

In a unique survey conducted at the recent Champions Trophy, 108 players from 10 countries responded to a questionnaire given to them by the Federation of International Cricketers Associations.

Questions on "The best" are should be handled first because India manages a honourable mention. Seventy-eight per cent of players voted Sachin Tendulkar as the Best Test Batsman, which should shut upsome critics.

Surprisingly, Brian Lara did not figure strongly, and neither did the spectacularly consistent Matthew Hayden. Instead, Steve Waugh, who scored his first century in a year this week, got 6% of the vote, Adam Gilchrist 6%, and the ever-improving Rahul Dravid 3%.

Tendulkar topped the Best ODI Batsman section too, but by less: he got 51% of the vote, Gilchrist 16%, Michael Bevan 16% and Andy Flower 4%. The gifted Virender Sehwag has some way to go before convincing his peers.

Glenn McGrath is Tendulkar's equivalent in the bowling section. In the Best Test Bowler, 70% of players voted for him, 16% for Muralitharan, 5% for Wasim Akram and 5% for Shane Warne. In the Best ODI bowler, McGrath got 46% of the vote, Murali 39%, Shaun Pollock 7% and Wasim Akram 6%.

Two points even my grandmother could conclude from all this. No wonder Australia does so well, because its players figure in every section. Secondly, India's bowlers create havoc at home but have yet to convince their peers.

And to round off this Best Business, and prove that cricketers have no sense of occasion, in the Best Ground In The World section, Lord's gets 27% of the vote, the MCG 24%, Newlands 15% and the 'Gabba 7%. Eden Gardens doesn't even figure!!!!!

The rest of the poll is a series of statement to which the cricketers responded by indicating that they Strongly Agree/ Agree / Neither Agree nor Disagree/ Disagree/ Strongly Disagree. The answers reflect the opinion of all teams put together, though FICA has also provided the Australian team's response to each question.

The game's governing body may well treat this poll with condescension, especially since the first statement is "The ICC is doing a good job running international cricket," and only 20% think that's true, while 46% don't. The Australians, who have never thought much about authority anyway, are even more damning: 86% give the ICC the thumbs down.

In the Umpiring section, only 49% indicate that "The standard of umpiring in international cricket is of international quality,"which is a matter for concern. No wonder, 91% believe that "Both umpires should be neutral" in Test cricket, which presumably ends debate on that subject forever.

However, opinion is divided over the third umpire: 31% say more decisions should be referred to him, 45% are undecided and 24% say forget it. But technology itself remains an area of dispute, with players unsure whether human error is more acceptable than flawed engineering: 41% are in favour of "More technology in cricket" and 37% are not. Similarly, 40% believe "Technology should be used in lbw decisions" while 41% think it shouldn't.

What players have been complaining about for years but administrators have conveniently ignored is their hectic schedule. More than 60% believe there is "Too much international cricket", and 78% insist there should be a "compulsory annual leave period."

However, the absurd suggestion that "Test cricket should be reduced to four days" has been shot down, with 83% indicating it is a silly idea.

Player behaviour is a question best asked of umpires and fans, and predictably, 40% of players Disagree and 20% Strongly Disagree with the claim "Player behaviour is worse than it was five years ago." The much-maligned Australians are even more certain of that: 29% Disagree with that statement, and 50% Strongly Disagree.

Alas, the most gossipy section, a grading of the Worst Behaved and Best Behaved teams has been left blank. Still, some will have a chuckle when they note that 44% think the "six run penalty for unfair play (distracting a batsman, etc)" should remain and 21% say it should be scrapped, while only 28% of Australians think it should stay and 58% want it thrown out.

The section on Playing Conditions tackles a series of contentious issues, none more so than chucking, and predictably 75% agree that "Doubtful bowling actions are a problem." However, while 34% are in favour of bowlers continuing to play despite being reported and prior to a final decision on their action, 45% think they should be benched.

The Australians are even more vehemently against chuckers, with 65% insisting such bowlers shouldn't be allowed to keep going. No doubt when Murali returns to Australia this year for the one dayers, this debate will resume in earnest.

The Australian view also sharply differs in the bouncers per over debate, and well, why wouldn't it. It is one the silliest rules in an already batsman-dominated game. In short, 64% of Australian players don't believe in the bouncer restrictions in Test cricket, yet, unfortunately, that figure drops to 38% in the all-team poll. Evidently, many players still don't fancy facing Lee-McGrath-Gillespie.

Opinion on other playing conditions is not as surprising: 53% don't want two white balls in one-day cricket, 90% believe the standard in one-day cricket has improved over the last five years, while 72% say the same about Test cricket.

Exactly 51% want artificial light to be used in deteriorating light conditions, 83% (would you believe it) think 90 overs is a reasonable amount over overs to be bowled a day, and (this is even odder) 57% actually agree that players should be fined for failing to bowl those 90 overs.

Finally, it is evident the ICC-Players stand-off over sponsorship is still simmering, with 87% indicating the ICC must change the player terms for the 2003 Wold Cup.

But what is significant is the level of interaction between respective boards and their players. While only 46% in the all-team survey said that their governing body had notified them of the list of the ICC's sponsors for the 2003 World Cup, the figure for Australians was 93%.

In every way, they're a hard act to follow.