November 24, 2005

Wanted: Mindset, approach of an all-rounder

By H Natarajan

The absence of a quality all-rounder in Indian cricket – someone like Andrew Flintoff or Jacques Kallis or even Shaun Pollock and Chris Cairns - is a lament heard since Kapil Dev exited from the game.

Maybe, it has to do with the mindset and approach of some of the players as one finds there is a strange reluctance to wear the all-rounder’s tag. Some of the recent statement made by Ajit Agarkar and Irfan Pathan - two men eminently capable of being all-rounders – strengthens that belief. It’s not that they do not want to perform as batsmen, but it’s just that they prefer doing it without the pressure of public expectations. It’s maybe a clever ploy, but a positive way of going about it is to take the opposite route and raise one’s own level. Unless there is an overwhelming desire that manifests in both thought and action, it’s difficult for a player to attain the desired consistency to gain wider acceptance as an all-rounder.

It does not require an Einstein to appreciate that a genuine all-rounder has to work twice as much harder as the specialist batsman or the specialist bowler. It’s easy for the more established players to halve that work load by concentrating on the stronger of their two skills to hold their places on the team. Such mindset puts personal preferences over team interests.

Sourav Ganguly makes interesting an interesting case study in this regard. He went about re-discovering himself as an all-rounder in domestic cricket in a desperate bid to regain the confidence of the national selectors. In the last eight ODI series he played, he bowled fewer overs fewer than in one tournament in 1997-98 - the Sahara Friendship Cup against Pakistan where he got 15 wickets at under eleven apiece. Instead of riding on that high to greater heights, he chose to bowl sporadically and remained more of an emergency bowler. The sudden surge now in bowling more overs is purely need based – personal need.

Ganguly, however, is no exception. Indian cricket has seen quite a few instances of players who just did not feel the need to take their bowling seriously because their batting skills were an assurance in keeping their places in the side.

In the 1987-88 Reliance World Cup, Mohammad Azharuddin was used very profitably by Kapil Dev. Azhar took five wickets in the championship at an impressing 21.80 apiece. Though Azhar was a captain for a long time in the years that followed, he did not utilise himself much as a bowler. In the next eight years of his ODI career following the Reliance World cup, Azhar bowled just 15 overs as against the 23.5 overs he bowled in the Reliance World Cup. It’s a pity he did not give much thought to his bowling because I vividly recall Chandu Borde telling me he rated Azhar highly as a leg-spinner in the days before he came into the Indian team. As a leg-spinner who got 52 Test wickets, Borde knew what he was talking about.

Another case in point is Krishnamachari Srikkanth. In the 1988-89 three-match ODI home series against New Zealand, he took 5-27 and 5-32. He did reasonably well in the Wills Asia Cup that followed the series against New Zealand, but though he played another ten more ODI series, he did little of note as a bowler in those games.

The Chappell-Dravid combine is infusing freshness of thought in making players multi-dimensional. Pathan’s approach and attitude to batting has been more batsman-like than a tailender. Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s batting has given a new dimension; he has shown that he can play the waiting game as effectively as he plays the role of a bludgeoner. Pathan and Dhoni have given India greater a depth in the order and a new respect in world cricket. Hopefully, the team management can get Agarkar and even Harbhajan Singh to raise their batting profiles.

One of India’s poorest shows in ODI history came at Sydney in 1981 the match was over inside one session. Australia won by nine wickets after India were shot out in 25.5 overs for 63. Though the Aussies attack was powered by Dennis Lillee, Rodney Hogg and Len Pascoe, the man who did all the damage was one Gregory Stephen Chappell with figures of 5 for 15. Chappell was Australia’s premier batsman, but he never abdicated his role as a bowler.

If there is one top player in the Indian team who is a glutton for hard work, it’s Sachin Tendulkar. After being in the circuit for 17 years, after playing Tendulkar close to half a thousand internationals, after enduring surgeries and breakdowns, he has still retained the boyish enthusiasm for the game that he showed when he first came on the scene. He loves to take additional responsibilities without bothering about the expectations on him.

He likes to be in the thick of action. After failing with the bat, he turned in a match-winning bowling performance in the 1997-98 Pepsi Triangular at Kochi by tearing the Australians apart. He got Michael Bevan, Steve Waugh, Darren Lehmann, Damien Martyn and Tom Moody to finish with figures of 5 for 32. It was Kochi again, earlier this year, after another batting failure he got another five-for – this time against Pakistan. His wickets included three of the most dangerous batsman in the line-up, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq, besides top scorer Mohammed Hafeez.

He actually loves pressure situations – the hallmark of a true champion. Remember the Hero Cup semi-final? India were staring defeat in the cauldron of Eden with South Africa needing just six to win in the final over. Skipper Azharuddin had the option of bowling any of his frontline bowlers – Kapil, Javagal Srinath, Manoj Prabhakar, Salil Ankola and Anil Kumble. Even as the team was debating on the brave heart to bowl the last over that had the potential to make him into an instant villain, Tendulkar grabbed the ball. And what an over he bowled! He gave just three runs and bowled India to an unforgettable win, which energised the team into raising their game and winning the final.

Coach Chappell should get Ravi Shastri to address the team on self-belief and what it takes for a bowler to raise his game to be counted as a batsman of merit. Shastri is an ideal pontiff to preach on the subject as he worked his way up from batting No 10 in the order to emerge as one of the gutsiest opening batsman. For a man with limited ability, he proved a lot can be achieved when he went on to become the “Champion of champions” at the Benson & Hedges World Championship in 1985.

If a captain has the option of a reliable sixth or a seventh bowler to bowl 10 productive overs, then the pressure on him and the team is greatly lessened because of the back-up support at his disposal. This is where Sehwag and Yuvraj could be huge assets.

It’s value as a bowler that helped Sehwag retain his place during his lean ODI patch as a batsman and it is success as a bowler on the domestic circuit that has ostensibly forced the National selectors in giving Ganguly another chance (against Sri Lanka) to save his Test career. If Sehwag and Yuvraj can enhance their bowling credentials and Agarkar and Pathan do likewise in batting, then India, with the multi-talents of Tendulkar and Dhoni should be one of the favourites in the 2007 World Cup. One just needs to look back at the 1983 World Cup at the role of the bit and pieces men, right till the final.