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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
    CURRENT ISSUE August 01, 2005
 
   SPORTS: CRICKET
 
The Pitch Turns

A new coach for the long term, a new captain for a start, lessons in lateral thinking. The Indian team hopes to shake off its blues from last season with fighting talk and spirited deeds.
 

Most of the questions in Indian cricket these days are about hats. At the pre-season camp in Bangalore, TV reporters hollered down the phones, "Aur aap dekh rahe hain ki Yuvraj Singh ne neeli topi pehne hui hai (Now you can see Yuvraj Singh has worn a blue cap)." Surely Virender Sehwag's must be red? The players sighed and explained to the mass of befuddled media people that these were not white floppies or baggy blues being talked about but metaphorical concepts. If at the start of the season, jocks give journos lessons in lateral thinking, who knows what more surprises await us?

  PICTURE SPEAK
GREG'S DHARMA: Chappell (extreme right) with the team

They had better be good ones because Indian cricket has absorbed enough bad news last season. Its one-day form went from patchy to lamentable (9 wins in 23 matches) and at home, the team won one Test series in three. Yet as the team sets off for its first engagement, there is much optimism. A new coach has taken over, a new captain will lead the team in Sri Lanka and two new batsmen have been drafted.

The Indian cricketer is in with the new-and not just in hairstyle or gadgetry. The players discuss Fartlek drills without giggling at the word, absorb Edward de Bono's idea of "po" (short for possibility) with po-faces, dive into pool sessions, lift weights, run laps, refuse rasmalais, the works. Burn all the old footage of failure from the previous season. Bring out the tricolours. India is on the rise again.

It may well be. But between that wish and its fulfilment lies the reality that the trick, no matter how eye-catching, has to feed into the trade. Against Pakistan, India's tradesmen scored 5.63 runs per over with the bat but conceded 6.02 runs per over with the ball. The team off to Sri Lanka is made up largely of the same players who played the previous season-the same exhilarating, exasperating lot.

CHAPPELL'S CHECKLIST
1 BOWLING BLUES: Get better results from bowlers; try to get each one bring his economy rate (runs conceded per over) down by half a run.

2 TAILEND TALLY: Shorten the tail, tap into all-round talent, make more of Sehwag, Yuvraj and Tendulkar as solid fifth bowler options.

3 SMALL STEPS: ODIs are often decided by a margin of 20-30 runs. Find or stop those runs with better running between wickets, fielding.

It is one thing to talk, as the players blithely do, of their new coach taking them to a new level, as if he were not a man but an escalator. In the past two seasons, the Indians have had starting trouble returning to the field after big performances-the World Cup final and victory in Pakistan. As a combined unit, they didn't handle success quite as smoothly as they should have. Maybe failure will prick their pride.

After Pakistan won the Bangalore Test to level the series 1-1, pace bowler Laxmipathy Balaji couldn't sleep for three nights. Hurt makes for a good foundation because the only way to bury it is by building over. Like the team, Irfan Pathan too has seen it all in 18 months-success, raging popularity, injuries. "Being dropped is the worst thing ever," he says. "It's like there is nothing in your life." He played 25 days of cricket against a variety of batsmen during a 45-day stint with Middlesex. "My target every season is to avoid mistakes of the last one." It is not a bad target for a team either.

Every player knows that no matter what is given to him off the field, it is what he gives on it that counts. New coach Greg Chappell says, "You can talk as much as you like but unless I can help them change their mindsets, nothing is going to change." The team's push to improve must come not through outside intervention but internal drive. "Sometimes we don't see enough of it," says one player. "Each of us must set higher and higher standards for ourselves." It is an idea not easily quantifiable-except when the results of the off-season fitness tests come in. When Sehwag admitted to arriving overweight at the camp, he was not given a rap on the knuckles but brownie points for candour.

INDIA'S CRICKET SCHEDULE
AUGUST
ODI tri-series away vs Sri Lanka, West Indies

SEPTEMBER
vs Zimbabwe, away, 4 ODI tri-series, 2 Tests

OCTOBER
Super Series: Rest of the World vs Australia

NOVEMBER
5 ODIs vs S. Africa; 7 ODIs vs Sri Lanka

DECEMBER
3 Test series vs Sri Lanka, at home

Some have the right idea. "Each of us needs to think like a captain," says Harbhajan Singh, adding inadvertent irony to a raging debate. "The team is our responsibility too." He belongs to the generation which in a few years will find that the stalwarts have gone and the torch is in its hands. Chappell, who could be caretaker during the handover, says, "The next generation has youthful enthusiasm and it is important to keep adding that to the mix of a team." Mohammed Kaif, a leading member of that bunch, wants Sri Lanka to be a launch pad. "We need to start well to get the belief back. Teams are raising the bar all the time, we have to respond," he says.

Those who have come off county cricket feel match sharp, one player pointing out that all bowlers should at least bowl 50 overs in matches before India begins its season. All theories can only be proved in Sri Lanka as the clock ticks down to the 2007 World Cup.

Chappell has identified areas that need immediate attention in India's one-day game. Even though their personalities are dissimilar-the Australian perfectly ironed, the Kiwi perpetually creased-Chappell's message is similar to that of his predecessor, John Wright. Do the basics well, pick attitude over talent and remember the coach is not a magician and the captain is the boss. From a distance, at first glance, Chappell's methods appear different. His management style is more visibly macro than micro, the various departments in the back-up team left to work on their own. Trainer Greg King runs the physical drills and Chappell's associate, former first-class player and biomechanist Ian Frazer, supervises most of the fielding routines and works with the bowlers.

  PICTURE SPEAK
CAPTAIN'S CALL: Dravid takes over as skipper at a tricky time

The drills are tweaked for both variety and purpose-instead of having players practise direct hits at a single stump, they took a shy at six. The stumps are reduced to five, then four all the way down to the single stump, by which time the player's confidence is high. "Most of the times," says Chappell, "we train for failure, this way you build a player's confidence."

When presented with a target of six stumps in the nets, the bowlers laughed; when ball after ball flew over the stumps instead of into them, they were forced to rethink their length. Says Chappell: "It has been a bit of a strategy to hit them between the eyes with a few things early on, with variety in thinking, the fitness stuff, so they realise that this is different." Frazer will work with the team in Sri Lanka as assistant to Chappell, but a decision on his long-term involvement rests with the BCCI's working committee.

It took Wright 18 months before the board agreed to hire a physical trainer for the team and he spent the last 12 asking for a full-time bowling coach. Chappell might actually succeed in bringing Frazer on board. An insider says, "Chappell should get whatever he wants now, before the door slams shut." The players have responded to the icon in the dressing room. They speak of giving Chappell time and space to settle in, hoping he will help them find the next 10 per cent. In an environment of conflict and opinions, there is near unanimity on what that means. "Success, winning more," says Dravid. "A higher win ratio," says Harbhajan. "Winning more consistently," says Pathan. The chorus will please the coach but theirs are some of the stronger voices. It is in the blurred margins that the destiny of teams is decided. The new batsman when two wickets have fallen, the fielder at third man, the fifth bowler in the middle overs. All that separates De Bono's famous word "lateral" from the altogether different world of "literal" is the tiny detail of a single letter. It is often the same between success and failure, victory and defeat.

   THE INDIAN CRICKET CAPTAINCY

No Man's Land

  PICTURE SPEAK
The selection panel

It is a game of musical chairs in which there is no music to be heard and the chair is a very hot seat. When Rahul Dravid was named the captain of the Indian team to tour Sri Lanka for the tri-series, with Sourav Ganguly starring as 16th man, one crisis was put on hold and another created. The original crisis was created by the former captain's dodgy record on ODI over rates and the former BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya's penchant for taking on the ICC. By naming Ganguly as 16th man, the BCCI kept its paperwork tidy before the final hearing of an appeal against an ICC ban on Ganguly. Says a BCCI official: "If the BCCI had not named Sourav in the team, then they would have no case before the appeals commissioner." Privately, the word in the BCCI was that the chances of Ganguly getting the ban overturned were slight, but appearances had to be maintained. When contacted by India Today, Chairman of Selectors Kiran More and BCCI Secretary S.K. Nair denied that the board had issued any diktats to the panel. An official said, "The idea was that if you fight for Ganguly as a provisional captain, he will at least make it through as the 16th player."

The decision helped the selection panel retain its reputation as an independent body, helped BCCI save its face and gave Ganguly one more lifeline. The panel is not unanimous on whether there still is leadership left in the left-hander, though there is consensus that his experience as batsman cannot be cast aside. "We will take a long-term decision on captaincy before the Zimbabwe series," says a selector, indicating that the tri-series will be a trial run for Dravid. It is the most lead-in time Dravid the captain has got. His previous stints as skipper came with notice periods ranging from a few days to less than an hour before the Nagpur Test versus Australia. Even if not instantly successful, a team settled under the Dravid-Chappell combine will be an improvement and put the selectors under pressure to make the big call-to give Dravid the leadership for the long term, and bring to an end the era of Indian cricket's most successful captain.

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
CURRENT ISSUE
AUGUST 01, 2005
 IN THIS ISSUE
COVER STORY

BIG STEP FORWARD

OTHER STORIES
 

The Nuclear Fallout

Rising Stakes

With Open Arms

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Tracking Down The Terror Trail

Leader Downsized

Forestalling Motion

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Collect Call

Rush Hour For Travel

All Eyes On Pakistan


Over To The General

The Boomerang Boy

The Pitch Turns

The Spell Is Broken
Weighing the Atoms

 

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