The New Zealand fiasco

K. SRIKKANTH

I HAD said before the series that the Indians would be playing for pride in New Zealand. But, where has that pride gone?

In the end, the Indian performance in the Test series must go down as one of the poorest by the country away from home in recent times.

More than the defeat, what I am apprehensive about is that, soon we might all forget about all that happened in the Test series in New Zealand — a couple of one-day victories will be enough to serve that purpose.

As a cricketing nation, we have an extremely short memory and that is one of the reasons for our shoddy performances away from home.

There are several lessons for the Indians to be learnt from the New Zealand experience, and the foremost among them is that we have to field the right players for the right conditions.

But how will we find the right cricketers? It thus becomes important for us to prepare fast and bouncy wickets at home, so that our batsmen get used to these surfaces. Only then, will they be able to develop the right technique.

What we see now is a scenario where several young Indian batsmen make runs in tons on placid home wickets, but the same cricketers are found wanting when exposed to the most testing conditions.

So it is important for us to make a beginning at the grassroots level, and prepare pacy pitches at the smaller centres. Otherwise, the same story will be repeated.

Over the past few years, we have made a habit of winning on tailor-made pitches at home, where the ball spins viciously from day one. These wins give us false confidence, when little, in reality, has really improved.

Even at home, it has been proved that if we actually prepare better pitches we struggle. You could see an example of this in the Kolkata Test this year against the West Indies.

The Windies were brushed aside by the Indians on crumbling pitches in Mumbai and Chennai. But the moment the wicket got better, our bowlers struggled against the same West Indian batsmen whom they had dominated in the first two Tests.

Whenever a home series starts, everyone from the curator to the administrators are under pressure — "Let's play to our advantage, let's get them on a pitch that turns square" — is the refrain.

In the long run, this has caused enormous harm to Indian cricket. I am talking here of long-term consequences. All those home wins would count for nothing, if we continue to falter in seaming conditions abroad.

Things have reached a stage, when seeing the lop-sided record of our batsmen, opposition skippers like New Zealand's Stephen Fleming have started making sarcastic remarks. Fleming's statement before the second Test that Indian batsmen to be termed great should perform in all conditions was provocative, but there was more than a grain of truth in what he said.

From the series against New Zealand, it becomes obvious that India has only two genuinely world class batsmen in Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar, who are capable of scoring runs in all conditions.

Our bowlers can hardly be blamed. In fact — I have seen this in the past too — our pacemen have generally bowled well on green seaming pitches like they did in New Zealand.

We should encourage them by preparing such tracks at home. Zaheer bowled superbly all through the series, and he is one bowler who has come a long way. From the time I first saw him, he has improved with every season.

Harbhajan Singh showed it was possible for a spinner to bowl on these tracks, and had our batsmen showed more resolve, then India could have won.

Looking at some of the Indian batsmen appearing hopelessly inadequate, my mind went back to a few of Sunil Gavaskar's great innings in Test cricket. The amount of runs he made outside the sub-continent, the number of centuries he scored, and the manner in which he handled the pressure, match after match.

He took on the greatest of fast bowlers on pitches that offered them a great deal of assistance, but came up with masterly displays. That is why he is rated so high.

He faced the West Indian pacemen in the peak of their careers and won the battles, but now we find the Indians struggling against much lesser names in the New Zealand attack. I can tell you that Gavaskar worked extremely hard at his batting, and his dedication and commitment were exemplary.

Gavaskar's technique was impeccable, and I hope some of the Indian batsmen seek advice from him. I am sure, he would guide them in the proper direction.

Similarly, my childhood idol, Gundappa Viswanath made a lot of runs in very difficult conditions for batting. He was such a natural batsman and could adapt so easily to the differing bounce in the pitch.

Viswanath did not merely defend, but could come up with amazing strokes on any kind of surface. It is when the conditions are favouring the bowlers that we can judge the true merit of a batsman, in how he copes with the situation.

Talking about Indian batsmen from the past who have excelled on juicy tracks, I have to mention the name of Mohinder Amarnath, one of the most courageous batsmen I have come across.

Now, Mohinder, an extremely determined batsman, would not give his wicket away easily. He would take blows on his body, endure enormous pain, but would stay at the crease.

He was fearless against the quicks, could hook and pull them, and made a name for himself as one of the best players of pace bowling. I have seen these men from very close quarters and I am in a position to talk about them.

I look at those fine batsmen, and then find that in the current crop only Dravid and Tendulkar would measure up to those high standards. There could be more, if we act now. Let's make a start by making an honest attempt to change the nature of the pitches in the country. The lessons from New Zealand should not be forgotten.