'We did not groom replacements'

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

THE month was December and the year 1974. It was a typical wintry morning in Delhi and it was quite cold at the Ferozeshah Kotla. We prayed in the stands. Tickets to the match had been secured after an overnight struggle in a queue outside a bank and our young brigade was least affected by the cold. We kept ourselves warm with the thought of watching the great West Indian team with our own heroes raising hopes of a lovely contest.

V. V. KRISHNAN

The sun broke through the clouds and the Test commenced. The West Indies had the mighty Andy Roberts and Keith Boyce, and this left-armer, who was a character. He had a very relaxed walk-back to his run up and then a sudden burst when he turned to bowl his crafty seamers.

"His name is Bernard Julien," a well-informed colleague of ours revealed. He had not played in the preceding Test at Bangalore. He broke our hearts by bowling the dashing Farrokh Engineer. Our day was spoilt but the name Julien stuck - an athletic figure of a seamer full of verve and energy. I watched him in awe from beyond the boundary that wintry day in Delhi.

The other day I saw Julien again, at the practice area at the Queens Park Oval in Port of Spain. He is now a shadow of the Julien I had seen 27 years ago. The spring in his walk has gone and he looked tired. Time had taken its toll and as I learnt during the conversation with him, life had not treated Julien well.

Julien appeared in 24 Tests, took 50 wickets and scored 866 runs, including two centuries, one of them at Lord's. Once he stopped playing, the cricket authorities in the West Indies forgot Julien. "They forgot us totally. I was home for four years, living out of my savings as a player. Even that finished. I had a hard time. And then came this offer to go to South Africa. I went because I wanted money. I was blacklisted for what I did," he said.

Julien was banned for life, did not even play club cricket and was granted pardon much later when he apologised for going on that rebel tour to South Africa. He worked in the Ministry of Sports for eight years, was national coach for one season, and today, he is employed as head coach at the Queens Park Oval.

It was natural to probe Julien on the current standards. He was candid "Very mediocre cricket. There should be no comparison. These days players retain their places quite easily. There seems to be no pressure on them. If there were enough players to push you, I'm sure no player would take it easy. To keep your place, you got to take wickets and got to make runs. Today, taking three wickets or scoring a 50 would get you a place in the West Indies team."

Julien sounded bitter. But who would he blame for the present state of affairs? "I think the cricket authorities must take the blame for not putting things in the perspective. We didn't groom replacements for Ambrose or Walsh. The situation in the bowling department is very poor. The bowlers lack penetration. Difficult to imagine the West Indies bowling out the opposition twice."

But Julien has admiration for the way the game is progressing. "It's a different ball game altogether. Lot more science in it. Areas of development like academies are very good for the game. Any sore spots? "The helmet, the arm-guard and the restrictions on bouncers which is lot of rubbish anyway. It eliminates the pressure from the game."

Reflecting on the quality of coaching, he noted "There is consistency in coaching methods. There is purpose in telling the players about nutrition. We ate almost everything without knowing what harm it would cause. The training sessions today are far more organised. The use of videos to improve is good."

There were no videos in Julien's playing days. Did he regret playing in that era. "Absolutely not. We still got batsmen out. We relied on our abilities. It was 80 per cent reliance on abilities. We also had team meetings but not the long work outs. We did not spend time in discussing the opponent. Today, after studying the video, I may have two gullies for Lara because he gives you a chance there. In our times, we would only think of bowling on the off to a batsman with that weakness."

So, he thought the coaching standards have improved? "I would think so. Coaches these days study the opposition a lot. Videos help a lot. When you watch your mistakes you can work on erasing them. These details of working out a batsman and studying your own shortcomings are something different from our era."

Again, Julien went back to the protective gear of modern cricket. "With the helmet on their heads, the batsmen tend to relax because they know they won't suffer any serious injuries even if they get hit. Lot of players do not rely on good technique because of the helmet."

What else was different? "Well, we used to think a lot when bowling. None of us made the captain look an idiot by spraying the ball. No captain can set a field for bad bowling. Today, I suspect there's not enough determination. The players are not finishing the tours. In our times, we would finish the tour and return without injuries. Today, you just hear them sent home, despite the physiotherapist, doctor, coach, nutritionist attached to the team."

He was not pleased with the lack of commitment of present day players. "They don't seem to understand the meaning of representing the country. Not everyone of them but most don't realise it. They've to show more commitment, discipline and develop the winning habit. We once dominated the world scene and this situation is very disturbing for us."

Julien struck a note of caution when he disclosed how cricket was losing out to other sport in the Caribbean. "We're losing players to basketball. It's a reality we have to accept. We're losing the taller boys to basketball, athletics and soccer. They find it easier to pick up lessons in basketball and soccer where speed is the exciting factor than spend long hours learning the rudiments of cricket. They find it too time consuming. Around our region, I've seen the level of cricket falling rapidly.

"The best way to wean these youngsters away from basketball and soccer was by preparing excellent playing conditions in the Caribbean," observed Julien. "You need good wickets to encourage youngsters to take to cricket. It's a very significant aspect of the game. If you don't get bouncy pitches you're not encouraged to bowl quick. The pitches were different two decades ago when you would get a good quick bowler, a good swing bowler. If you don't move the ball you could be in trouble on a placid track. You have to think the batsmen out. I used to work the ball and make the assessment in the middle."

Going back 27 years, I ask Julien about his relaxed attitude when bowling, at times humming a song when he walked back to his run up. "It was my way of self-motivation. It used to help me concentrate on my next ball. My objective was to get the batsman out. It may have given the batsman the wrong impression that I was relaxed. I used to bowl to the best of my abilities and I always played the game hard."

Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar are classified as "greats" by Julien. Being a bowler who excelled in outwitting his opponent, what tactic would he have adopted. He laughed

"I won't like to bowl to them. At best, I would just stick to a decent line and length and pray they make a mistake. They are great players. We've to wait a long time to see players like them."

A parting shot was to ask Julien about his most memorable dismissal. He did not lose time "Mr. Boycott."

What was it. "Ask Mr. Boycott. He still talks about it. I got him at 99."

I probe Julien more. "Mr. Boycott really believed he was going to get that hundred. I had him caught behind. He tried to clip me and the ball came back. Deryck (Murray) took the edge on the legside."

As Julien takes leave, I return to my memory of that Test in 1974, of a supple left-arm swing bowler on a wintry morning at the Ferozeshah Kotla.