The state of the game in India

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Sourav Ganguly and John Wright are still feeling around, looking for a consistent winning formula.-PTI

FORGET the pitch, even a green outfield is enough to rattle the Indian cricketers overseas. Harsh but true. Indian cricket, by the end of the year, was back to where it had begun, not able to shake off the ghost of inconsistency. It must also be said that Indian cricket is certainly mediocre when faced with a challenge, as we saw in the two Tests in New Zealand.

At the outset, one must accept the fact that this bunch of Indian cricketers can revel only in favourable conditions. Funny isn't it, that whenever a dicey pitch comes up, it is India which ends up loser. Be it Bangalore, Kingston or Wellington.

Reflecting on the year 2002, there was hardly any progress or gains in the real sense for India. A Test series win overseas remained a dream despite the tall claims of coach John Wright. He still has not been able to identify the weak areas and continues to talk about the great passion for the game in India and the need for the players to perform for the benefit of their countrymen. As if passion in the stands and streets alone would help India win their contests on the field.

The captain just loves to crib. If not over selection, he cries over the playing schedule, pitches, lack of this and lack of that. Even as he raises his army for the World Cup, Sourav Ganguly needs to thank his stars that he continues to enjoy the support of the National Selectors.

When asked to analyse the state of Indian cricket at the end of the home series against the West Indies, Ganguly had told The Hindu, "The biggest improvement has come in the work ethics of the team. And in bringing about a sense of togetherness. When I became the captain, I had put emphasis on performing as a team and on picking the right players. Every player should get a fair chance.'' Well, Murali Kartik, Jai Prakash Yadav and L. Balaji do not figure in this scheme promoted by Ganguly, all buried without a proper trial. And everyone seems to have forgotten S. Ramesh and Hemang Badani, who were both rated very high by Wright.

The year once again highlighted the fact that Indian cricket could be divided into two segments. Brave at home and timid overseas, with the glorious exception of Rahul Dravid, who emerged India's best batsman in all conditions. Unsung despite all his grand achievements, Dravid, with his impeccable technique, showed the benefits of good footwork as he batted even better overseas than at home.

Talking of footwork, and form, some of the Indians were an embarrassment in New Zealand. Watching Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh, one failed to see any difference between the two _ both backed away and both looked like tailenders every moment of their stay. But sadly the `wise' critics, including those biased men in the commentary box, saw flaws only when V.V.S. Laxman batted.

Rahul Dravid has established himself as the batsman for all surfaces.-N. SRIDHARAN

There was no talk of footwork when the likes of Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Sanjay Bangar and Virender Sehwag got out like novices. If footwork was the sole criterion for selection, many in this team would not qualify. Indian cricket would be better off without the contrived analysis from some of our former cricketers, especially this juvenile `expert' on the television, who changes his tracks at the drop of a hat. Even the players have become sick of his silly arguments.

Statistically, India did not fare badly in the one-dayers, winning 19 of the 35 matches, 10 of them overseas, including the grand finish at Lord's in the NatWest Trophy final, which prompted a cheap reaction from the captain of the Indian team. Strange that such abominable behaviour was described as a "show of passion'' by some former stars. The team also did wonderfully well to make it to the final of the ICC mini World Cup for the second time in succession.

To talk of positive things, Dravid's stupendous batsmanship _ four Test centuries in a row, including a double hundred in England _ was the highlight of the year. Flawless in technique and strong in temperament, he made great strides as India's most reliable batsman overseas. He was only performing to expectations and setting high standards for himself. Dravid indeed was a glorious exception to the mediocrity that afflicted the Indian team. His aggregate of 1357 in Tests and 913 in one-dayers established him at the top.

Tendulkar, by his standards, was a disappointment, failing to produce the innings that mattered even though he aggregated the most runs in Tests for the year. His dismissal at Kingston, triggering off a collapse and ultimately a defeat, did not project him in good light. In that one weak moment, he looked quite ordinary, evoking sharp criticism from even Gavaskar.

Ganguly compiled 945 runs in Tests but often failed on big occasions. To Ganguly's credit, he made good use of the flat pitches whenever the opportunity came his way to aggregate 1114 runs in 30 one-day innings. Until the dreadful moment on a lively track at Napier, he led the list before giving way to Sehwag, who also happened to excel only on flat tracks. At the end of the match at Napier, Sehwag, thanks to his knock of 108, placed himself at the top with an aggregate of 1130 runs. Some respite for Tendulkar, who took a break in the home one-day series against the West Indies, played 11 innings less than Ganguly and finished with an aggregate of 741 runs.

There has been criticism over Dinesh Mongia's selection for the World Cup but he stood at fifth place with 740 runs from 25 innings. His unbeaten 159 against Zimbabwe was an outstanding piece of work but not his selection in place of Laxman, whose class was proven.

The gentle Laxman, on trial eternally, deserved better treatment from the selectors, and from Ganguly, who ought to have remembered Laxman's potential after that epic innings at Kolkata which helped him (Ganguly) to keep his captaincy and subsequently his place in the team. Ganguly suffers from short memory.

Among the bowlers, Harbhajan Singh, with whispers about his action gaining momentum at home and abroad, distinguished himself with a tally of 39 wickets in one-dayers and 63 in Test matches. Once again, he was good only at home, on helpful tracks. If there was a gain in the bowling department, it came in the shape of Zaheer Khan assuming the role of a frontline bowler with distinction. Even though he still has a long way to go as a matchwinning bowler in Test cricket, the left-armer from Srirampur near Shirdi was one bright spot on the horizon.

There were some dark spots too, like the stars keeping away from domestic cricket to attend to the demands made by their agents. When Delhi was engaged in a Ranji Trophy match, Sehwag was busy playing a match organised by one of his sponsors elsewhere while Ashish Nehra was `resting.' Ganguly was involved in some charity work but Yuvraj Singh had no business to skip Punjab's Ranji Trophy engagements to stay by the side of his skipper in Siliguri. Shockingly, no questions were asked of these stars by their respective associations. Compare this with Tendulkar's attitude when he played for Mumbai despite a hectic international schedule a few seasons ago.

Harbhajan Singh was the most successful bowler for India in both the Tests and the one-dayers.-N. SRIDHARAN

The following is a list of top five Indians in Tests and one-dayers for the year 2002 :

Tests:

Batsmen: Sachin Tendulkar (1392 runs), Rahul Dravid (1357), Laxman (984), Ganguly (945) and Sehwag (637). Best in the world : Michael Vaughan of England (1481 runs).

Bowlers: Harbhajan (63 wickets), Zaheer (51), Anil Kumble (49), Nehra (23) and Javagal Srinath (20). Best in the world : Shane Warne of Australia (67 wickets).

One-Day Internationals:

Batsmen: Sehwag (1130 runs), Ganguly (1114), Dravid (913), Tendulkar (741) and Mongia (740). Best in the world : Yousuf Youhana of Pakistan (1362).

Bowlers: Harbhajan (39 wickets), Zaheer (38), Agarkar (38), Srinath (20) and Kumble (19). Best in the world : Shaun Pollock of South Africa (54).

The best team in the world happened to be Australia _ winning 10 and losing one of the 11 Tests it played. In one-dayers, it won 19 out of 29 matches.

There was much to debate when the National selectors picked the side for the New Zealand tour-keeping out Mongia and picking Rakesh Patel out of the blue, sacking Kartik even without giving the Railway spinner an opportunity to fail.

The selectors had their own agenda even though they were driven by the whims and fancies of the team management, where Wright and Ganguly, continued with some weird experiments. Thankfully, they were put to a stop by the selectors who identified the 15 who could win the Cup on the bouncy tracks of South Africa. There is hope as long as the pitches are not green and the sponsorship controversy involving the Indian stars and the International Cricket Council gets sorted out in time.

As Gavaskar said the other day, whatever the merits and demerits of the selection and the state of Indian cricket, the team picked for the World Cup needs the backing of everyone who loves the game. On that encouraging note, the year ended with Indian cricket once again embarking on a journey of hope in the new year with the wishes of millions of passionate supporters at home and overseas, with the team deriving its strength from the "togetherness'' forged by the enthusiastic Ganguly.