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And Gordon said... Let there be a team

By Prem Panicker
March 22, 2003 20:55 IST
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My brief was to do a team analysis ahead of the final.

I went looking through what I had written already -- and realized that before the tournament began, I had done three columns: on the captain - First Among Equals, the selection - The Three Card Trick, and the team itself - The Unpredictables.

On re-reading them, I find there is very little to add. Much of the gains of this World Cup have been touched upon, both on rediff and elsewhere.

The discovery that there is more to Indian batting than Sachin Tendulkar is one -- and it means that Tendulkar can now perform as first among equals where, previously, he was often like a minibus carrying 10 passengers along. Rudyard Kipling wrote it best when he said, "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."

It pays to remember the second part -- the pack is as important as the wolf. Opposing teams, earlier, had to budget for one player; now they have to make plans for six others -- and I believe the value of that will begin showing increasingly in the coming months.

Coming into this tournament, Ganguly's biggest strengths were also his most prominent weaknesses. Thus, the passion (to mention just one of those strengths) with which he could fight administrators to a standstill over a player was the same passion that had him scream abuse in public at a player -- something that could, and has, rubbed nerves raw and caused friction.

After the trauma of New Zealand and the indifferent performances in the practice games and the first two matches of the tournament, Ganguly was a man groping in the dark. It is often suggested by fans that the media called the Indian captain clueless -- it is often forgotten that this was the captain's own statement; he found himself helpless, clueless, and he said so.

What is interesting is the way he fought his way out of it. Adversity can change people, often in ways that are not pretty to watch. On the credit side here, adversity changed Ganguly -- not by making him forget his strengths, but by teaching him how to use them to best effect. Thus, the passion remains the same -- but today, it is coupled with a wisdom that dictates how, and when, he will display it.

Nehra's arrival as third prong of a pace triangle is a third; it means that facing India is no longer a question of seeing off the two mainline seamers. It also moves the team one step further on the road towards discovering a potent, balanced attack -- it now has three seamers and one high quality spinner; it will be interesting in the coming months to see how they mould, and use, the likes of Avishkar Salvi, Irfan Pathan and Murli Karthik to name just three into this matrix.

But over and above all this, is an aspect I believe will outlive this Cup, and be the single biggest gain not only for the team, but for the way India plays its cricket.

It is only with the 1996 World Cup that I began writing on cricket -- but ever since I was old enough to spell the word, I have been an unabashed fan of the side. Down the years, I have delighted in the compact defense of a Sunil Gavaskar or the technical mastery of a G R Vishwanath; in the guts and glory story of Mohinder Amarnath as much as in the silken extra cover drives of Dilip 'The Colonel' Vengsarkar; the artistry of an Azharuddin as much as the supreme technical skills of a Dravid...

Long before we celebrated Jonty Rhodes, I have watched in awe the close catching prowess of the likes of Ajit Wadekar and S Venkatraghavan (ever seen a better gully fielder?) and above all, that supreme exponent of the art of lightning reflexes, Eknath Solkar.

I've gloried in, and boasted about, the athleticism, pace, and swing of Kapil Dev and the wiles and guiles of the spin troika, each unique in his own way yet all three meshing beautifully to create poetry.

And yet, while celebrating those individuals, I have always mourned the fact that we have never had a team, in the real sense of the word. The spats between Bedi and Gavaskar, the face-offs between Gavaskar and Kapil, the animosities between other prominent members of Indian teams past and present are too well known to merit repetition.

Taken in tandem with zonal politics, what these individual animosities has done is to ensure that India would win through individual brilliance, but never become a 'team' in the truest sense of the term.

For me, thus, the biggest gain of this tournament came a few moments before the preliminary game against Namibia.

Consider the situation: The team had begun with an indifferent performance against Holland and followed it up with a pathetic outing against defending champions Australia.

Back home, a land that makes a religion out of cricket turned apostate; images of the gods were burnt, effigies fired… and the sparks of that unrest crossed continents and ignited the team.

The India team huddleMinutes before the Namibia game, the players trotted out into the field, warmed up, then got together in what is now famous as the Indian huddle. And a team was formed.

Sports psychologist Dr Sandy Gordon suggested the ploy; Sourav Ganguly explained it: "We are not getting support from the outside, so we have to seek it among ourselves."

From then on, the batting fired, the bowlers smoked, the team began winning in emphatic fashion. That huddle was the outward indication of an internal change -- the 15 players had finally come together as one unit, taking joy in each other's accomplishments, backing each other to the limit and beyond.

That is for me the outstanding gain of this Cup -- it took a collection of talented individuals, and forged it into a team.

13 teams have to lose this World Cup. We know the identities of 12 of them already; 24 hours from now we will know the name of the 13th.

In the build up, newspapers and websites around the world are full of articles analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of both contenders; many more reams can be added to it.

(For instance, you might want to spend some time with the graphical analysis packages on rediff. Check, for instance, the wicket-by-wicket partnerships -- does it point to a certain brittleness in the Aussie middle order? Again, this is a team that is known not only for its big hitting, but for its ability to make every ball it faces count, to use singles and twos and threes to inflict on opposing bowlers the death of the thousand cuts.

So check out the three Super Six games from this perspective: Versus Sri Lanka, Australia had 116 singles and 15 twos against 136 dot balls in a team score of 319/5, which is as close to perfection as you can get; but against Kenya it was just 25 singles and six twos to 127 dot balls; and against New Zealand it was 77 singles and 14 twos to, wait for this, 190 dot balls.

Most experts seem to argue that tomorrow's final is between the Australian bowling and the Indian batting - the abilities of the Australian batsmen are not being discussed in much depth. Do you get the feeling, as I do, that it is this factor that will in the final analysis prove crucial? And tangentially, do you recall how, in the preliminary game between the two sides, Hayden and Gilchrist were cantering when Anil Kumble came on and tied them up in knots? With that in mind, does it make sense, for the final, to go in a batsman short and a bowler long, giving India five regular options plus the irregulars?)

All this is what the team's think tank will be poring over. For my part, it is time to kick back, and enjoy a contest between the irresistible force and the immovable object.

The Indian team can be pure theater; watching them is a bit like buying premium tickets to the first performance of a new play. The lights dim, the curtain goes up, and you find yourself tensing in anticipation; you prepare to suspend disbelief.

You never know what you are going to get; you are never sure whether the impending offering will deserve a standing ovation or stinking eggs. But you do know this -- high drama is inevitable.

Who would want it to be any other way?

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Prem Panicker