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Sachin Tendulkar to the defense

Prem Panicker

9 January 1997

Previous defeats have seen India's 23-year-old captain cut loose with comments that, to my ears at least, sounded unwarranted, at times unbalanced, and at other times downright silly.

It was heartening, therefore, to see him at last prepare to defend the team he leads, to tackle tough questions head on and, through this means, let the public and the press know that he, at least, had not lost his faith in his colleagues.

After all, a team needs to back each other up to the hilt, even when the rest of the world appears to have a down on it, if only because morale is such a vital part of performance. Vide the instance - and this is merely the latest one - of the Aussie cricket team. Successive defeats at home against both West Indies and Pakistan have resulted in the odd media call for a rethink of skipper Mark Taylor's place in, and value to, the side. And yet, no sooner were the first muted calls for his exit made, than the likes of Ian Healy (the vice captain and natural successor) and Steve Waugh (who seems destined to go down in the books as the best player never to lead Australia) quickly came out with their total support of their embattled skipper.

A positive, healthy attitude, that - and I was frankly glad to see Sachin showing it in his post Cape Town press conference. ''We have to leave the two defeats behind us, and concentrate on coming up with a better performance in the third Test,'' Tendulkar said in Cape Town just before the team's departure.

It is, granted, rather hard to see how the team can turn things around. In three of four innings on S'African soil, the Indians have been bowled out for scores of 100, 66 and 144. And thus far, India has recorded just two individual fifty-plus innings ( Tendulkar 169, Azharuddin 115) against 11 by South African batsmen.

A similar situation prevails even in the bowling department. Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad who, between them took 25 of the 50 South African wickets that fell during the recent threeTest series in India, have continued their good work in S'Africa, claiming thus far 11 and 13 wickets in the first two Tests alone - but again, the two have toiled without any kind of support from the others, in particular leg-spinner Anil Kumble who thus far has a haul of just four wickets in 105 overs.

Does this indicate, Tendulkar was asked, that the likes of Ganesh and Johnson are misfits in the side? ''Ganesh and Johnson are both youngsters,'' said the Indian captain in response. ``They have just played three tests between them, and you can't expect miracles from them already. They will develop the skills they need to support Srinath and Prasad, but it will take time.''

Point taken - Javagal Srinath, not so long ago, was being written off as a tearaway, a guy who came rushing in and slung the ball at the batsman and who was ineffective, to the point of being pathetic, after his first two or three overs. Ditto the case with Prasad, who was seen as innocuous with the new ball and dismissed as little more than a ``fastish leg-spinner'' with the old ball.

What, meanwhile, of India's batting? The basic problem, as underlined by the likes of Mohinder Amarnath and Sunil Gavaskar among other commentators/analysts, lies in the fact that the opening pair have never clicked, resulting in enormous pressure on the middle order. Thus far, the Indian opening pair on the SA tour have come up with scores of two, two, seven and seven for the first wicket, and that sort of start does not provide for a healthy total.

''It has been happening to South Africa as well,'' points out Tendulkar. ``They too have been losing the first wicket cheaply, most times. What has worked for them is the fact that the other opener hangs in there and sees to it that he gets a big score. And that is what we too have to start doing, ensuring that there is no collapse even if a wicket goes down early. And frankly, I have seen a lot in the batting of Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman to face the future with confidence.''

Asked his overall rating of the series thus far, Tendulkar said, ``S'Africa is one of the top sides in the world. They are very competitive, and professional, in their approach. It is good that some of our youngsters are getting a chance to begin their careers against a side like South Africa. I don't believe that Azhar, being the most experienced player in the side, should bat so high in the order. Youngsters should go higher up and make the most of this opportunity. I think our younger cricketers have now seen the tougher side of cricket, and this should stand them in good stead. Yes, there is disappointment, but one cannot get demoralised, no matter what.''

Along with this press conference, Tendulkar and tour coach Madan Lal came up with a rather startling statement - to the effect that they would not be asking for additonal players to be rushed in, to do duty for the side in the third Test beginning at the Wanderers, Johannesburg on January 16.

While skipper Tendulkar says that India will take the same squad of 16 into the third Test, he adds that he would like the national selectors to chose the replacement players for the one day series immediately afterwards, and send them to South Africa well ahead of the one-dayers in order to give them time to acclimatise to conditions there.

Coach Madan Lal, however, was visibly more acerbic. ``How can we ask for anybody, when the selectors have already given us a team? We have to play with the team they have given us, any move to replace one or more of the players has to come from the selectors themselves and I don't see that happening,'' Madan Lal said.

Reading between the lines, I suspect a little battle going on between the tour management comprising Tendulkar, Madan Lal and deputy skipper Anil Kumble, versus the national selectors headed by Ramakant Desai.

Desai and company picked an obviously lop-sided squad to tour South Africa. And now that the side has been shown as less than the best India could have fielded, I suspect the national selectors are anxious to repair the damage, without however admitting their mistake in the first place.

Thus, Desai and company float, in the media columns, the news that ``if the tour management wants, they can ask us for replacements and we will consider their requests''.

The intention is rather obvious, isn't it? If Tendulkar, Lal and Kumble now ask for some members of the touring squad to be sent back, and others flown in, to augment the team, the selectors can then shelter under the statement that they were merely responding to the request from the tour mananagement, without having to admit their own mistakes.

Clever ploy, but from the way both Tendulkar and Madan Lal, with the meekest of faces, kept insisting to television and press reporters that they are forced to make do with the squad as named, I suspect that the Indian captain and coach are calling the selectors' bluff, and letting the results underline the errors in team selection.

It could be argued, of course, that Messers Tendulkar and Lal are in effect cutting off their nose to spite their collective face, by not taking Desai and company up on their offer of asking for replacements. But then, Tendulkar does have a point when he says that the offer to fly down replacements comes too late - even if acted on now, the replacement player(s) will reach South Africa just before the third Test, and will be forced to play without the time needed to acclimatise to the new conditions. So why risk it, if the only outcome is to help save face for the selectors, appears to be the mindset of Tendulkar and Lal.

While such political games keep the Indians busy, the South African camp came up with an announcement the Indian cricket board would do well to learn from. Immediately after the second Test, the national selectors headed by Peter Pollock affirmed that the same XI would do duty at the Wanderers as well.

There are two ways of looking at it. One way is to see in it an indication of the immense confidence of the home side. After all, Lance Klusener's bowling did not exactly set the stadia alight in the first two Tests, and a case could also be argued for replacing Paul Adams with a fast bowler, or another all-rounder (the name of Jacques Kallis comes to mind here), or even a batsman (Herschelle Gibbs, perhaps?) given that the third Test will be played at the Wanderers, which is not expected to give Adams much scope to practise his craft. The fact that such changes are made could indicate that the home side is supremely confident of its ability to take on the Indians without making even the obvious changes.

But the real lesson for the administrators of the game in India lies in the naming of Mark Davis, off spinner and captain of Northern Transvaal, as 12th man. I mean, no one in his right mind will see in Davis' selection an indication that the Wanderers wicket could be a spinning track - obviously, Davis has been named to the squad simply because SA picked a person who could bring out the drinks, and field in case of injuries to one or the other player.

But why Davis? Why not Rhodes, say? Or even Gibbs, who is easily on par with the electric Jonty at point?

Simply because between now and January 20, when the third Test ends, Natal (for whom Rhodes plays) and Western Province (for whom Kallis and Gibbs turn out) both have domestic games scheduled. And the SA selectors and administrators reason that it is more important for the young players to play domestic cricket than to merely hang around in the players' balcony while the national eleven does Test duty.

It is a lesson India would do well to learn. If for instance it had no intention of playing Saba Karim as wicket-keeper, should he have gone on this tour when he would have been better off playing domestic cricket and keeping his form up and eye in? Ditto Venkatapathy Raju? Think back to India's recent matches at home - the one-off Test versus Australia, the Titan Cup triangular, the McDowell Test series versus RSA - and you will recall that on each occasion, the Indian squad has boasted 14 players, at least three of whom had no hope of doing duty for the side and, by hanging around with the team, was only missing opportunities to play domestic cricket.

In fact, it will be recalled that during the Kanpur Test, the national selectors went to the extent of summoning Raju and D Ganesh to the venue, to bowl to the Indian batsmen in the nets and undergo some vague ``physical tests'', when their respective teams were engaged in Ranji Trophy games.

Interesting exercise, this, comparing the Indian mindset with that of the South African selectors.

There are lessons to be learnt from the latter - but then, Indian cricket administrators are not the best learners of such lessons, are they?

Source: Rediff On The NeT
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 14:34