A trophy on the mantelpiece, or a pot of gold?

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Thursday, August 5, 2004

6.40pm IST - First step on the rainbow

News comes in that India have selected Dinesh Karthik in the Indian squad for the three one-day tournaments ahead. I blogged about the wicketkeeping dilemma just yesterday, and I'm delighted to find that the selectors have taken a long-term view on this. Good for them. But will Karthik actually get a game in the playing XI?

6.30pm - Embalm VVS Laxman

As an aside in a post below, I had mused about what the Indian selectors would do if, years from now, Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid played past their sell-by date. Well, John Clifford has written in to say, "forget Tendulkar, forget Dravid - VVS Laxman must be allowed to play until he is 80! Stuff him with embalming fluid if need be - any player who can feature in three triple-century stands against the best attack in the world is an absolute legend."

John goes on to say that he gets "weak at the knees when Laxman comes out [to bat]. As a cricket worshipper since age 4 (now 33) I cannot remember a time when I have looked forward to a Test series more than October."

Earlier this year, Sambit Bal wrote, "One of the nicest things that can be said about VVS Laxman is that he looks like a batsman from another age." Well, if he plays till he is 80, that will hold even truer.

5.10pm - Mahela's century, and Sri Lanka's conundrum

Mahela Jayawardene has completed his 12th Test century - it also happens to be his tenth in Sri Lanka. That statistic underscores what my last post was about; Sri Lanka have created a self-sustaining loop that has made them strong at home but weak abroad.

Shihantha Sangarapillai is exasperated by this tendency, and writes in to say, "I am a bit peeved with the problems that our guys face when out of Sri Lanka. We have some very talented batsmen who have the capability to handle any bowling attack, anywhere ... The problem is that they are not exposed to different kinds of pitches on a regular basis, so as to be able to develop the necessary skills."

Shihantha accepts, though, that correcting this bias towards the short term would mean risking defeat at home, and that wouldn't go down well among local crowds. "Sri Lankans are very passionate about their cricket," he says, "and it affects them adversly when our team fares poorly. I remember not so long ago when we had a lean spell, and for the first time could not make it to the final of a triangular [the Bank Alfalah Cup in 2003], with New Zealand and Pakistan, played in Sri Lanka. People did not even want to watch cricket after that for a while."

The solution, according to him, is to "prepare bouncier pitches, but [to] refrain from playing international matches on them for some time. The domestic competition could use a few of these specially prepared pitches, which would enable our current batsmen to adapt, and [would] also allow the new guys to learn from the start what it means to bat on these pitches." But wouldn't the local authorities, and domestic sides, also have short-term goals of their own, which would conflict with this?

Dr Unnikrishnan writes in from Oman saying that "Sourav Ganguly has surely reached the age, and self-assuredness, where he can set a few long-term targets for the team, even at the cost of some inconsequential bit of furniture for the mantelpiece that will anyway be overlooked once the pot of gold sits there." A fine sentiment, echoed by Sundar, who writes in to say that India should instantly start playing a specialist wicketkeeper in their one-day side, and that "[Mohammad] Kaif must be rested".

Well, yes, Sundar, but if India lose the next couple of tournaments because of being a batsman short, it won't be your job that will be in danger, but Ganguly's. His brief is to win whatever is the immediate match or series at hand, and you can't blame him for focussing just on that. Besides, a losing streak will affect India's confidence, and could begin a self-reinforcing cycle that will also, surely, not be good for the long term. The road to a better tomorrow often demands that we don't muck up today.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

9.15pm IST - The conflict in our lives, and in cricket

I feel like having ice-cream but I need to watch my weight. I so want the latest Nokia model but I need to grow my savings. Should I take a loan to buy a house, and live frugally, or keep renting, at a lower cost, and live it up?

One conflict we come up against every day of our lives is balancing short-term gratification with long-term well-being. Should I spend for today, or invest for tomorrow? This is not a conflict that only individuals face, but one that cricket teams do as well. And cricket teams mostly give priority to the short term.

Consider the Indian side before Sourav Ganguly took over, and the Sri Lankan team today. Through the 1990s, India had a win-loss ratio of 3.4 in Tests played at home (17 wins to five losses) as opposed to a miserable 0.07 away (one win and 15 losses). This skew was self-reinforcing. India lost abroad because of two reasons: their batsmen were unused to the bounce and movement of pitches outside the subcontinent; there weren't enough match-winning fast bowlers coming into the side, given the unhelpful conditions at home.

You'd imagine that to amend this situation, the Indians would create pitches with pace and bounce at home, to give their batsmen practice and their fast bowlers scope to grow. Instead, with each home seriers that came, the long-term good of the side was ignored for the short-term satisfaction of winning something. The history of Indian cricket in India in the 90s is a history of turning dustbowls and Anil Kumble. And the more India ensured that they won at home, the more likely they became to lose abroad.

Sri Lanka is in somewhat the same situation today. At home, they are a powerful side - since the start of 2000, they have won 14 Tests and lost nine, with a win-loss ratio of 1.56. Away from home, they have won five and lost nine, with a win-loss ratio of 0.56. They are too reliant on spin at home, and their batsmen, who prosper in home conditions, are largely hapless abroad. Yet, winning is like a drug - before their tour to England in 2002, where they were drubbed 0-2, they had won nine Tests, all at home. It is easy to imagine why the authorities prefer to keep winning at home, rather than undergo the uncertainty that a reform of their pitches and domestic cricket would bring.

Putting on weight? We'll see about that later, now just bring on the ice-cream.

Sourav Ganguly's many dilemmas

India have tried to break through this vicious circle in the last few years, the most prominent example of which is the setting up of the pitches committee - they have, admittedly, not shown enough results yet, but they have shown intent, and that is a start. India also have, in Sourav Ganguly, perhaps their finest captain, who has been a key catalyst in a process that has modernised Indian cricket. But Ganguly, also, has regular choices to make between short-term and long-term goals, and he gets pilloried by the press regardless of what he chooses.

Consider the dilemma of who will keep wicket for India in one-dayers. My colleague, Dileep Premachandran, made the point recently that by the time the next World Cup comes around, Rahul Dravid will be 35 - not too old to still be one of the best batsmen in the world, but certainly old enough to feel the strain of keeping wicket as well. It is a no-brainer that India must, thus, groom a young wicketkeeper from now itself.

But that is a luxury Ganguly can't afford. Having a specialist wicketkeeper in the XI denies Ganguly the chance to play seven specialist batsmen, which has been key to India's success of late. In fact, India visibly suffered in the recent Asia Cup when one of their seven batsmen, VVS Laxman, was injured, as there was no back-up for him. Ganguly's priority is, and should be, winning the series or tournament that he is engaged in at any given point in time. His captaincy will be judged by that. He will always do what he needs to in order to win in the short term - and who can blame him?

Ganguly faced a similar dilemma in the third Test against Pakistan earlier this year. First, he replaced Aakash Chopra with Yuvraj Singh, a controversial move in itself. Then, he asked Parthiv Patel to open in India's first innings, a tactical move that the Indian media rubbished vehemently. Their criteria for condemning it was that such stop-gap solutions would not work in the long run, and India needed a specialist batsman at the top of the order. But Ganguly wasn't bothered about the long term then. This was the decisive Test of perhaps the most important series of his career, and his priority was to employ whatever tactics would help him to win the match. Patel made 69 in 141 balls as he blunted Pakistan's new-ball attack, India's batsmen cashed in, the ploy worked, India won.

Such conflicts will continue for the rest of Ganguly's career as captain. Will Yuvraj be Virender Sehwag's opening partner in Tests later this year or should a specialist opener be groomed? Will Dravid continue to keep wicket in one-dayers? In each case, Ganguly will opt for what he feels has the best chance of winning the nearest match - and it is his prerogative to do so. To expect anything else would be impractical.

This is the key area in which individual conflicts differ from those of groups. Whether I opt for immediate gratification or future reward, I will be the person to benefit. In a group's case, the person called upon to make those decisions will often be a participant only in the near term, and will obviously be concerned with chiefly that. In fact, the more he focusses on the distant future at the cost of the immediate, the less chance he has of actually participating in it himself.

Horses for courses, and sentimental vacillation

Common instances of short-term decisions winning out over long-term planning is when a team adopts the policy of picking a player for specific conditions even if he is not part of the long-term plan of the team (if indeed they have one). Australia, for example, brought Michael Kasprowicz on their tours to the subcontinent (India in 2000-01, Sri Lanka in 2003-04) because of the impression, born during Australia's tour of India in 1997-98, that he bowled well in those conditions. But, rather unfairly, he didn't figure otherwise in their plans, until recently. The subcontinental teams, similarly, have often played three spinners in home Tests, while knowing that only two will actually get to apply for a visa when it's time to travel overseas.

The logic behind this is simple: it is better to get the trophy on the mantelpiece than reach towards the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that may, after all, never materialise.

Teams also display short-term thinking when top players near the end of their careers. England continue to play Darren Gough in one-dayers, though Gough's best days are certainly behind him, and there are a horde of talented youngsters who could do with the experience. Javagal Srinath said in an interview recently that had India continued to play him, as they probably would have had he not retired, the emergence of Irfan Pathan and L Balaji might have been delayed. In such cases, the sentiment of the short term should be defeated by the cold reason of the long term.

Australia set the benchmark in this regard. There are many, and I am one of them, who would include Michael Bevan in a World ODI XI without hesitation - yet, Australia have dropped him. They have realised that Bevan will probably be too old to be a force in the next World Cup, and they might as well give his replacements as long a run as possible.

Of course, Australia can only do this because they have such tremendous reserve strength. Even without Bevan, the Australian lower-middle order has Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke, and they shall no doubt make sure that Bevan is not missed, in much the same manner that Adam Gilchrist took over from Ian Healy. No other country, at this point in time, can afford to send their top players packing.

It will be interesting to see what happens when India's superstars age - if Sachin Tendulkar or Dravid play on beyond their sell-by date, will the Indian selectors muster up the courage to drop them? Thankfully, that is years away yet, and I'm not thinking so far ahead.

Ah, here comes my chocolate mousse. Bon appetit.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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