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Captain clueless

By Prem Panicker
February 16, 2003 15:59 IST
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Enough is more than enough.

It is shocking for the captain of the Indian team to say that he has no answers; that he does not know what to do. That he is, in his own words, "clueless".

Maybe he is; he certainly looks it. But to say that at the end of the match, with four more matches to come, does nothing for the morale of a struggling squad, or for its image in the eyes of the world.

Ricky PontingContrast that example of captaincy with another. Ricky Ponting of Australia wakes up on the morning of the team's campaign opener against one of the best bowling sides in the competition, aware that he has only 13 men to pick from.

Even before he has downed his first cup of coffee, comes word that 13 has been reduced to 12 -- and that the man he has lost is his champion leg-spinner, the man who in the previous World Cup bamboozled Pakistan.

Ponting shrugs. "We are here to win, not talk about our problems," he says. He then proceeds to lead from the front, with the bat and in the field, and take his team to a win.

Look now at the statements coming from Sourav Ganguly. A day before the game against Australia, the captain says Sachin Tendulkar will open. He likes to open, and we need him at the top against Australia, is the comment.

Rewind a bit, to England circa 2002. "We need him in the middle order, to provide some stability." You mean in mid-2002, the captain was not aware that Tendulkar likes to open? The realization dawned just the other morning?

Never mind that. Realization finally dawned, and the captain realized that not only does Tendulkar like to open, he is in fact the best fitted to take on a strong bowling attack like Australia's.

An hour after going down to defeat against Australia, what do we get? We get the captain saying that, maybe, Tendulkar has to be pushed down into the middle order again!

He is asked whether, in light of his own poor form, he has considered dropping himself down the order. He says, "I have scored all my runs at the top. I am going through one of those phases. As captain, I am the first person to know I should score. But there is no point talking about the batting order."


If Ganguly has got his runs at the top of the order, where then has Tendulkar got his runs? How is it that two different arguments are used, almost in the same breath, for two different people?

The illogic, the disconnect, is frightening.

The captain -- who, incidentally, has now decided that he alone will draw up the team list and batting order, without reference to coach John Wright and the rest of the tour management -- says there is no point talking about the batting order. But that is all he has been talking about. He talks of pushing Tendulkar up, then down; he talks of batting Sehwag down, then up again.

It is only when the discussion revolves around his own position that he says "there is no point in talking about the batting order".

Oh yes, there is. If the opening is shaky, especially in these conditions, it puts enormous pressure on the middle order -- pressure a bunch of young players are ill equipped to handle.

Examine an alternate line-up for yesterday's match: Tendulkar, Sehwag, Mongia, Dravid, Ganguly, Yuvraj, Kaif.

The advantages are obvious. Even Ponting, not known to talk in respectful terms of the opposition, said before the game that his main worry was Tendulkar and that he was also spending some thought on Sehwag who, in his words, "bats a bit like Sachin".

Those two at the top suggest themselves. Incidentally, to use the captain's own argument, Sehwag has got all his ODI runs at the top of the order, including centuries in New Zealand when the rest of the team could not, all together, break into double figures -- why play around with his position?.

Mongia, it will be argued, has not been in outstanding form of late -- but if you watched the way he played against Holland, it was obvious that he had put behind him whatever demons plagued his mind. Holland who, you might ask -- Holland who gave head - and heartaches to the more hyped batsmen is who.

When you see confidence and self-belief, even in an unlikely source, it pays to back that confidence, and that player, to the limit -- VVS Laxman in Kolkota, anyone?

Such a line-up would have the advantage of bringing Ganguly in against the likes of Symonds, Hogg and Lehmann -- bowling that is tailor made for what he does best, which is come down the track and hit hard and long.

By way of aside, it was amusing, in a bizarre sort of way, to see Ganguly attempt to treat Glen McGrath like he was Muralitharan -- backing away and advancing all at the same time, only to find that the ball was never where he thought it would be. Just as it was amusing to see Darren Lehmann being treated with such exaggerated respect, and given his best ever bowling figures -- have the Aussies found the answer to Shane Warne, you think?

Speaking of treating McGrath as if he were Murali, answer me this: Assuming Ganguly was going to open (and he would know, wouldn't he?), what was the point of spending the previous day in the nets batting against spinners -- which is what he was doing, vide an eye-witness report from Faisal Shariff? Surely that would be less than ideal preparation to face Lee, McGrath and Gillespie?

It would also have meant that Yuvraj and Kaif would come out to bat in the latter stages, which is where they are at their best.

The template for this team needs to resemble the template for a spaceship: Two disposable external rockets on the outside, to provide phenomenal acceleration and thrust at blastoff and lift the craft out of the opposing pull of gravity; a steadying central rocket to keep it on track; two internal rockets to build on that initial thrust and put the craft into orbit; two more rockets to keep it there.

Does that make sense?

Sourav GangulyWho cares? As the captain says, "There is no point in talking about the batting order."

He does not know what is worth talking about, and where to look for answers ("I am clueless"); but he is sure that the batting order, by which he means his own position, is not open to debate or question.

What is this, a gully team playing in the neighbourhood? That is the only time you see one guy -- maybe the chap who owns the bat, or who is providing the ball -- deciding where he will bat and when he will bowl and when the game will begin and end. He also gets to call 'no ball' when he is out -- a luxury that, unfortunately, is not permitted the captain in the international arena.

The real tragedy of yesterday's game was evident if you looked beyond the scoreboard, and focused for a moment on what was possible.

The track was made for batting -- especially, batting first. No question about that.

The Australian bowlers were under pressure -- Brett Lee was nowhere near as impressive as he was the other day against Pakistan; in fact, he looked strangely off colour. The two wickets he did take were gift-wrapped for him -- but that is put in perspective when you look at his bowling in the second spell which, in a word, was pathetic (Harbhajan Singh hitting a yorker over point for six, anyone?).

Glenn McGrath, too, was feeling the heat. A bit more on that later. Gillespie was the real threat -- but then, you have to bargain for one, two bowlers doing well, this after all is Australia, and had the openers held it at the top, Gillespie would not have been able to attack as much as he did.

And that would have opened up the fourth and fifth bowling options to attack by a team that plays spin better than most.

250 on the board was not beyond the realm of the possible. In fact, chief curator Herbert Smith was telling Faisal Shariff before the game that the pitch had even bounce and a decent batting side would want 250, minimum.

Put 250 on the board, theoretically, and then look at the way the ball was turning for Harbhajan and even for Kumble, who rarely looks to turn the ball. Those two, plus the likes of Yuvraj, Mongia, Sehwag and Sachin against an Aussie team that, if it has one weakness, is spin, would have set up a cracking contest.

What we had, instead, was a no-contest. We also have a situation wherein India now has to win its remaining games, and win well, to have a whisper of a chance of getting into the Super Sixes.

How will we do that? Cue in the captain: "I am clueless."

Postscript: There were little contests within the main battle, yesterday, that provided moments of interest.

There was the contest between Gillespie and the Indian batsmen, which was mentioned in the match report.

There was a contest between Anil Kumble and the Aussie openers -- which, you would have to say, Kumble won; it was  interesting to see Kumble, who prefers to bowl flat and quick, floating the ball up, giving the ball some loop and enough of a tweak to make it turn. Neither Hayden nor Gilchrist, by then in rampaging mode, handled him with any semblance of ease.

And then there was the McGrath versus Tendulkar contest. The last ball of McGrath's second over seemed to set the stage somewhat -- he bowled a short of length delivery, Tendulkar pulled at and missed. McGrath chatted Sachin up, and on television, what he said seemed to be on the order of 'You still haven't learnt to pull, son'.

It was a throwback to when Australia last toured India. In the third Test, McGrath repeatedly bowled short to Tendulkar and the batsman as often went under it. At one point, the bowler stood in mid-pitch and parodied the hook shot, asking Tendulkar if he had seen it before.

The comment yesterday -- delivered, it needs to be mentioned, with a friendly smile -- was not surprising. Sachin's response, though, was -- grim-faced, he responded, at length, to McGrath. Given that his face was hidden under the helmet, it was difficult to make out what he was saying, but it was evident from his expression that "friendly" was not one of the words you would use to describe it.

The next over, the fifth of the innings, contained a cover driven four, a fierce square cut for another boundary, a checked pull played wide of midwicket, a flick between square leg and midwicket, a straight drive... and 14 runs.

The battle was on. In the very next over, the battle was over -- in a way that needs no recapping.

Post Post-Script: If all this is not enough to give you a headache, ponder this:

Late last year, we were told how perfect it all was. Natwest Trophy in our pocket; the Champions' Trophy "morally" ours. A team on a roll, with 14 ODIs (seven apiece against the Windies and New Zealand) to fine tune the team ahead of the World Cup. The only concern expressed at the time was, had the team peaked too early?

After all that rolling and fine-tuning, the Cup is here. Two games are behind us. And here we have a situation wherein positions number 1 right through to 11 are the subject of intense debate.

What preparation? How fine? Which tune?

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Prem Panicker