April 21, 2005

Mission 2007 World Cup: Time for tough action

By H Natarajan

The Indian cricket team is in tatters. The coach is gone; the captain is banned amid concerns over his very future in international cricket and the biggest blue chip (Sachin Tendulkar) is unable to arrest his sliding worth to add to the mounting woes. Indeed, the famed batting line-up is suffering from a collective slump while the bowling looks much worse than ever, with Irfan Pathan losing much of his skills and, in turn, his place in the side.

India cannot afford to take an Ostrich-like stance anymore. It's time to take action – tough action. Failure to do so now will delay widen the fissures and directly impact its chances in the 2007 World Cup. The choice of a new coach has to be No 1 on the priority list. And quick. I have no doubts in my mind that it has to be a foreigner. Not because I think anything firangi is tops; the best in India may not be interested in the job or may not have the temperament to coach or not have the man management skills. Those who have the skills and the temperament may not comply with modern international standards or may not find support within the team. And the support factor is integral to success. Because it has to be a foreigner, he needs time to adjust; coaching India is much different from coaching other teams considering the political machinations within the BCCI and the extreme reactions of the masses. It will require a mindset change and that needs time.

This Indian team does not have the kind of prima donnas one has seen in the past nor does it have the divisiveness and parochialism that plagued pre-John Wright era Indian teams. And that’s because the outgoing coach and seniors like Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid set fine examples themselves. They jelled as a unit and rejoiced in each other’s success, irrespective of geographical roots. It’s important that this quality remains with the team in the post-Wright era. I am certain the team realises that and would have expressed their collective thoughts of who, in their opinion, should be the next coach. Let’s not forget, it was player power that ensured Wright stayed in his job when powerful forces within the Indian board were hell bent on giving him the pink slip.

If am not mistaken, John Buchanan’s two-year deal to coach Australia ends after the 2005 Ashes series in England. It would be great for India to get his services. India’s next series is against Zimbabwe in October, by which time the Ashes series would be over. One wouldn’t know if Cricket Australia would like to continue with Buchanan, or if Buchanan would like to continue coaching Australia or coaching any team at all. But it would be worth exploring.

Ganguly still has in him to be there as a one-day cricketer, at least till the next World Cup. But he should consider himself fortune’s favourite child if he has to retain his place on the team should he suffer another poor series. It will, in all probability then, be curtains for him, which means Dravid taking over as the next captain.

It’s not a discreet and respectful murmur anymore. It has to be said that Tendulkar lacks the confidence of yesteryear and that has seen a genetic change in his aggressive and authoritative batting. The crisis of confidence is evident in his relatively laboured approach that consumes precious overs. The tough decision to send him down the order has to be taken. Batting lower down will enable younger and fitter men move up the order and at the same time also force Tendulkar into rediscovering his lost aggression. Unproductive overs and surfeit of dot balls lead to pressure building up, not only on him but the rest of the line-up as well.

It would probably make more sense to have Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a floater in the line-up One who can be sent up only if the need be. He may be more dangerous taking apart a tiring bowling coming in at No 7, though there are still questions about his ability to tackle swing. And one should expect reverse swing late in the innings against qualitative opposition.

We need to unearth all-rounders and infuse in them the confidence by persevering with them. The team is also woefully short of penetrative bowlers. At present we neither have men who can bowl really quick like Shoaib Akhtar, fast-medium bowlers who pose a persistent threat like Glenn McGrath, nor do we have spinners of the calibre of Muttiah Muralitharan or Shane Warne. We need 10 overs from a bowler who batsmen will not fancy taking chances – someone like Murali. If a team has even one bowler like that, it gives a big advantage to the other four who bowl the remaining quota of 40, as they are the ones who batsmen will go after.

In a country as vast as India we surely will have enough talent. The board has to appoint talent scouts with high integrity who could also interact with the junior Indian team coaches to form a talent pool that will serve as a feeder for the Indian team.

It’s time to look beyond VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble. If they are slow on the field now, they will be much slower in two years time when the World Cup dawns on us. One-day cricket demands top class athleticism and the two old warriors are far from athletic.

Guys like Harbhajan, Zaheer will have to be told to put in extra effort in their batting during the off-season so that there is meaningful depth in the batting. Harbhajan’s batting can be entertaining when it clicks, but it tilts too much towards risk and adventure which is likely to fail more often than not. Pathan and, in two years, time has to be ready as a meaningful all-rounder. Balaji, too, can be moulded into a much better bat than he is today.

But the need of the hour is accountability. Indian cricket, like other major international sports like golf and tennis, is not merely a sport that involves just national pride. It’s a multi-million dollar business that finds an echo in corporate boardrooms because of the mega bucks at stake. Unless a co-relation is established between team-related performance and compensation, there will be no great urgency in taking remedial action by the players. Corporate culture has to be injected into the team. And the time is now.

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