August 30, 2007

Multi-skilled Players A Necessity In Modern Cricket

By H Natarajan

It was with the concept of Total Football that the genius Johan Cruyff made Holland a dangerous team. The concept involved all players – barring the goalkeeper – switching with ease into any position. So, if a defender spotted an opportunity to launch and sustain an attack, the hole that he has created in the defense would be filled in swiftly by a midfielder.

What it also meant was that the game had evolved and players were asked to move out of their comfort zones to play an all-encompassing role. The concept made them to shed their territorial tags and show greater skills and commitment to the team cause.

The concept of totality has not come into cricket – not as yet at least. But who knows what the demands could be in future? Think of the many innovations, technological and technical, of today and you would get picture that is almost unrecognizable than what it was in the 1970s.

It would be safe to say that in the years to come the player with a solitary skill, unless exceptionally talented, would not find a place in the side. As teams bat deep down the order, oppositions would not like to risk going in with just six or seven batsmen.

The same goes for fielding, too. The game today expects far greater commitment levels from fielders, who slide and dive even on rough terrain and bloody their hands and bodies to restrict the run flow. Consequently, physical fitness levels have gone up, too.

One wonders if today’s cricket could afford to play those three magnificent spinners - EAS Prasanna, Bishan Bedi and BS Chandrasekhar – together. Neither of the three had fielding abilities to boast of and when Prasanna went in to bat at No 9, ahead of Bedi and Chandra, the India team got ready to take the field – so much for their batting ability.

If Dinesh Kartik gets into the Indian team, it’s because of his adaptability to field minus his gloves. If he was a misfit as a fielder, his ability as a batsman would not have been any good and he would not have found a place on the team.

With the game evolving, the changes have left its impact on the mindsets of bowlers with little or no batting pretensions. The Australians, not surprisingly, were prime examples of the evolution. Steve Waugh took it upon himself to improve the batting of a proclaimed No 11 batsman Glenn McGrath, which saw the paceman score a personal Test best of 61.

Shane Warne, who batted for the most part of his career at No 8, 9 or 10, was a vastly improved batsman in the latter part of his career. He had scores of 90 and 99 in this phase and he ended his Test career with successive scores of 43, 25, 40 not out and 71 – scores that a frontline batsman would not be too unhappy when quitting the game.

Jason’s Gillespie, another Aussie tailender who put a value on his wicket, has an unbeaten double hundred to his credit in his last Test innings 17 months back. Like Warne, Gillespie batted at No 9 or 10 for the most part of his career.

Brett Lee has a Test career average of 21-plus. The fact that Warne, Lee, Gillespie and McGrath made up the Australian tail shows why Australia managed some fantastic recoveries.

Englishman Ashley Giles never batted higher than No 8 in the order, yet his overall Test average is over 20 and in excess of 25 in the last three years of his career.

If there is one Indian lower order batsman who has shown thought and application toward his batting, it has to be Anil Kumble. For a long, long time Kumble did not do justice to his batting. For somebody who has seven first-class hundreds to his credit, he played 117 Tests without getting to the century mark. Kumble finally achieved that milestone when he scored an unbeaten 110 in the final Test at The Oval – a series in which no other Indian batsman got to three figures. It was a fitting reward for the sustained effort he has put in his batting which is evident from the fact that in the last three years he has averaged over 24.51, which is significantly higher than his Test career average of around over 16 till the year 2003.

Kumble’s batting is not exactly for sore eyes, but his attitude in showing greater commitment to batting at the fag end of his career is commendable. It’s something that others like Ajit Agarkar, S Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan would do well to emulate. It’s not that they don’t have the potential; Agarkar has a Test hundred against his name while Zaheer scored 75 at No 11 – the highest score by any batsman in Tests. It’s simply mind over matter. The days of the single skill cricketer is fast disappearing. Players with multi skills will be increasingly seen as a necessity than a luxury.