December 4, 2006
Roll out the carpet... the green variety that is
A month ago a little tidbit of cricketing news seeped into the national and international media that piqued the public's interest - a couple of local school lads went on to post 700 odd runs in 40 overs in a local game, breaking the record previously held by Tendulkar and Kambli, during their school days, by a convenient margin. The local media got positively elated, the national media was excited and the international media certainly took note. Not to miss any press and photo opportunities, the local politicians promptly felicitated the lads and anyone who is remotely related to the kids sang paeans about their prowess - Indian cricket's bright future is in safe hands, the second coming of Messiah spotted in Hyderabad and many such. Put this remarkable achievement aside to have a little something called perspective for a moment. How is that only batting records seem to be broken, rewritten and made only in the subcontinent? Why is that no records, that warrant the media going completely ga-ga over, ever seem to happen in any other regional competitions in, say Australia or South Africa or the West Indies? Or for that matter, even Pakistan or Sri Lanka? Ravi Shastri hits 6 sixes off Tilak Raj in a local Ranji Match, some no-name tops the number of runs that could be made by a human being EVER at a super-human rate with a mind-boggling average in Irani trophy during a calendar year. And then during the selection process, new names keep popping up every time some one from Guwahati made 800 runs in the Ranji Trophy with 4 centuries and 6 fifties, and some other from TamilNadu achieved similar distinction. A cursory view of these records, achievements and distinctions, all point to one indisputable and categorical fact that the pool of batting talent runs so wide and deep (much like the software warriors, one other thing that the country boasts about), that pull out a Tendulkar or a Dravid from the roster, thousands (ok, hundreds) are just waiting in the wings to fill in that vacuum to grab the spot and the limelight.
It paints a very rosy picture of the prospect of the game, when batting talents of great statures seem to pour of out every orifice and out of every nook and corner of the country, blasting their way into the final eleven, touting their centuries, double centuries and triple feats in the domestic season to their credit. If runs, averages and records account for actual wins, INdia should probably never lose a game, home or abroad, EVER. And then it happens...the veil is lifted and one gets to see if runs and records really amount to anything more than press fodder, if impossible averages really matter in tests of true character. All that it takes for such bitter truths to rear their ugly heads is to step out of the safe confines of home turfs and play at places, where batsmen are given credit only if they can spot a rising ball and maneuver it to safety - and if it is a scoring stroke to boot, so much the better. But if the batsmnn is trained (or got accustomed) to hoik, cut, pull, drive, play deliveries that rarely rise about the knee, for much of his formative years, imagine his surprise when he gets to hear chin music and chin music alone during the entire length of the tour. It is like discovering that the portions of the syllabus that he thought didn't pertain to his curriculum made it into the final examination question paper after all. So what is a batsman to do in such testing times - prod, poke, jab, snick, edge? Well, try everything that resembles catching practice for the slip cordon and just pray that it works. On rare occasions that it does work, he gets to live till the next delivery, if not, the misery ends, and the charade continues with the next batting legend in line, until there are no more legends left to play.
"Sack the captain", "Cut the coach in half", "Send the physio-therapist packing", "Change the entire team composition", "Get the left out players back in the team" - the knee-jerk reactions have become as predictable as the fates and fortunes (if there are any, even) of the Indian team leaving the safe shores of the subcontinent to places where batsmen get stepped on more than the doormat. Take any foreign tour to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and to lesser extent England or the West Indies (and as misery springs a suprise once in a while, even to Zimbabwe), the result is pretty much the same in terms of the number of losses and the staggering margin of each loss. The press, public, fans and commentators never seem to get tired of hurling the same accusations, reasons for failure and calls (clamors) for resignations and replacements. It is as though the silver bullet is replacing one set of players with another set and that is supposed to stem the tide and magically reverse the trend. Hope is certainly a good thing, but delusion masking as hope is truly dangerous. It conveniently sweeps away the glaring inequities, in terms of the strengths and weaknesses, under the carpet and prepares for a fresh disaster all over again. The team has been lulled into a comfort with a string of subcontinental victories, so much so that it completely forgot that it has problem with pace in the first place. A few years ago when the same South African team visited India under Hansie Cronje, he picked a pace battery on an absolute turner and battered and tormented the homr side with unrelenting pace, even on a placid pitch, for total submission and a test victory.
Steve Waugh always stuck to his guns of confronting the Indians with pace and achieved great success with that strategy more times than not, on Indian soil. And the little said about the home team's batting records the better - a billion runs with a million centuries reads one record, blitzkreiging assault without any show of mercy reads another. The team is packed with record holders, record makers, wunderkinds, walls and other such explsive-laden adjectives. Like the statutory warning labels on harmful products or the disclaimer pieces that warn about getting the hopes up, Indian teams always come with a caveat - "Applicable only in the continental mainland, Not valid outside the Indian boundaries", "High expectations are strictly prohibited". The sand thing about this dismal state of affairs is, not a thing is done (and would be done) to improve this situation. And the solution is so simple that is quite amazing that not a thing has been done so far, considering the irony, that the Indian board is the richest among the lot and could throw men, money and machinery to tackle this problem, if it so wished. In the good old days, Kanpur was the only pitch that was a little pacer friendly in the country, and the rest, either assisted the tweakers, or spelt death knell to bowlers of any persuasion. Nowadays, whatever little grass that Kanpur had on its pitch is completely shaved off, portending the plight of Indian fortunes on pacer-friendly pitches abroad. So why is the grass green only on the other side, why is growing grass here such a big crime? Sure, there would be no 700 runs in 40 overs record to boast about, there would be no batting maestros, who would wield their willow to cut the opposition in half (**Disclaimer** - under standard conditions of temperature and pressure, and substandard conditions of neatly shaven pitches), there would no endorsement deals of pocket book super heroes charming a bevy of beauties, enticing the drooling consumer into buying his brand of shaving cream, there would be no more legendary battles to write home about (Warne vs Sachin, Draivd vs McGrath) - but aren't they all worth than a 4-0 drubbing?
Until there is no conscious concerted effort of working at this perennial problem against pace, by digging up the existing pitches completely and laying them with hard concrete, right from the club level till all the way to the top, history would have a merry time repeating itself over and over again, and the same stories of accusations, finger-pointing and blood-letting seems to find a place in the team, without fail on foreign jaunts, regardless of whoelse makes the final cut. Funny, how clockwork consistency can go so wrong sometimes!
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article
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