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'Time for an exit plan for the big three'
What must the BCCI and the selectors do in the aftermath of an embarrassing second consecutive overseas whitewash? Harsha Bhogle, Sanjay Manjrekar and Ayaz Memon discuss (33:22)
Producers: Siddhartha Talya and Sidharth Monga
January 30, 2012
Related Links » News: Time for India to shed denial | A funereal end to Indian cricket's greatest era | No need to make a decision now - Dravid | India's system needs overhauling, not tweaking | Goodbye to India's batting greats Players/Officials: Ravichandran Ashwin | Rahul Dravid | Gautam Gambhir | Virat Kohli | VVS Laxman | Ajinkya Rahane | Virender Sehwag | Ishant Sharma | Kris Srikkanth | Sachin Tendulkar | Umesh Yadav Series/Tournaments: India tour of Australia Teams: India
'Time for an exit plan for the big three'January 30, 2012
Harsha Bhogle: Welcome once again to Time Out at a time when Indian cricket is in extraordinary turmoil. Four Test matches have been lost in England, four in Australia. And our topic therefore is: What next for Indian cricket. I'm glad we didn't do this after the England tour because what next for Indian cricket would have been another 4-0, and that's not something that we would have looked forward to or even have imagined; that's how poor India's performance has been. That's what we are going to do. What next for Indian cricket. Sanjay Manjrekar will join me, as indeed will Ayaz Memon. Between them they've watched a lot of cricket, Sanjay has played a fair bit too.
Rajesh will then join us for the Numbers Game. Since we're talking of India's batsmen largely when we talk about Indian cricket - we are a batting country aren't we? - the question is: In the 77 Test matches in which Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag all played, what percentage of team runs did they score? That's a question for all of you while you listen to Sanjay and Ayaz. Rajesh will come back to give us an answer at the end of it all but do keep thinking about it, but some of the numbers might surprise you.
HB: Let's start with Time Out then today. We've got Ayaz Memon and Sanjay Manjrekar with us. We're recording this at a slightly sad time in Indian cricket; we're recording this on a day when India have lost 4-0 again. When you say 4-0 it's bad enough; when you say 4-0 again, then it means you're in for serious trouble. There's been a lot of talk about the seniors in the side - Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman -, there's been talk about Zaheer's fitness, Sehwag's form, Fletcher's coaching, Dhoni's captaincy. It's almost as if we've got a supermarket of queries. It's almost like it's a huge wishlist. So, I'm going to put some of those questions to Sanjay and Ayaz. Maybe a few thoughts of my own as well.
So Sanjay, let's start with you. That's been the big debate, hasn't it? We've been in Australia, you've been back in India, so I don't know what the perspective you have over there is. But, Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar? Do we need to talk about all three, or only two? What do we need to do?
Sanjay Manjrekar: Yeah, because this is an extraordinary situation. People often say that Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting were ageing players, out of form and the Australian cricket board stuck with them and they delivered. They repaid the faith that the Australian cricket board showed in them by coming back into form and making useful contributions for Australia. But India's unfortunate situation is that: the ageing players running out of form has coincided with one of the worst results for Indian cricket. The first thing that Indian cricket has to accept is that this is an extraordinarily bad result for India.
Once they accept that, they'll have to start taking tough decisions and one of the things they didn't quite do in Australia was… you know, there was a lot of inaction. The method they used was bringing consistent failures, it was a method that wasn't giving them the desired results, it was a method that never changed. So, it's just logical for Indian cricket to now start looking for a different formula, a different method and that's where the ageing players' position becomes vulnerable because of the kind of results Indian cricket is getting at the moment.
HB: Yes, everyone's been talking about the fact that Dravid and Laxman must make their own call and we give them the respect. But Ayaz, isn't it true that the selectors must make a call too? Because you can't just say, "we'll wait for these people to make a call not knowing when they're going to." I mean, you treat them with a lot of respect but eventually the selectors should take a call too. Do you think the time has come to take a call on two, three? Which way have you been looking at it, because you've seen Kapil Dev come and go, Gavaskar come and go, and at that time we thought, "how is the world going to survive without these two"?
Ayaz Memon: I think they have to take a call. They are paid to take a call. You mentioned earlier whether there should be enough talk about these ageing players… it should be there but the selectors should be talking to these players, perhaps they should have started sometime back in anticipation, not necessarily of routs like this or two routs in succession overseas, but the fact that you've got three players, more or less of the same vintage, who might possibly go out all at the same time, may not be able to sustain their form over a period of time. Therefore, you start talking to them now. Look, they've been terrific servants of Indian cricket. I hate the words 'axe' and 'dump', but you've got yourself into a stage now where it almost seems as if precipitate action needs to be taken.
HB: I won't use those words Ayaz. I'll ask you and Sanjay slightly gentler words. A graceful exit? If both of you were selectors, would you be talking to the players about a graceful exit?
AM: Yeah. Personally speaking, I would. I would put that as part of my planning process as to what I need to do. Look, we all can start with a tube of toothpaste and till it approaches the very end, it still gives you a brush full of substance you need to clean your teeth. You should be prepared with a second toothpaste tube right in time. You can't say I have finished with this and I have nothing else.
So I think you have reached a stage where you are suddenly confronted with a situation where three of your greatest batsmen, possibly of all time, who are all out on a limb and you don't know what to do or what to say to them. But I think it's time to start talking to them, maybe work out an exit plan, in consultation with them.
I just want to add here that a selector's job is to choose teams that are going to win matches and win a series. Now, a player might decide that he doesn't want to retire. That's fair enough. A selector can't force a player to retire. A selector needs to choose a team. And a player who's not retiring feels he's got enough gas in the tank still to come back, so be it.
HB: Sanjay, I'm going to ask you two questions back to back. The first one: If you were a selector and you've got the credentials to be a selector, would you, in case the players are not retiring, tell them, "we've got no place for you"? What would your stance be on the current situation?
SM: Let's just be a little more pragmatic about the whole situation. I just wonder if the BCCI, through the selection committee, will take the course that they do, say nothing at the moment, they'll take no action because the selection meeting for the next Test match can be held in September? So, that's a good seven to eight months from now.
They actually don't need to decide anything now but because the situation is so extraordinary, I don't know if they oblige it to the fans who make this game so popular or whether they would want to reveal their plans to the cricket fans and all the others connected with Indian cricket, they could start doing certain things.
The most important person at this stage, Harsha, is Kris Srikkanth, the chairman of the selection committee. The first thing he's got to do is start a communication line. I don't know how useful that line has been or how often he's picked up the phone to talk to these ageing stalwarts, but if he hasn't done that, the time is now to ask Sachin Tendulkar about his future plans. I wonder whether any selector has ever asked Tendulkar about his future plans. Same with Dravid, same with Laxman. I for one have never asked a player to retire nor would I expect any player to retire because I've always felt the selector has the option to do what's best for Indian cricket.
And if you ask me, if I really have to get into the brass-tacks, I'd be looking to phase out VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and I would actually ask them what their plans are. If they are willing to go out on their own, then I'll have nothing much to do. But I'll also be very careful to make sure that if Tendulkar has plans that are similar to Dravid's for instance… I mean you can't imagine a team in South Africa next year with no Dravid, no Tendulkar or no VVS Laxman. So, for me, if Tendulkar wants to continue playing Test cricket then it makes it easier for me to let Dravid go. But if Tendulkar also has similar plans, we don't know, all this is speculation, then it will get a little more tricky.
HB: Okay, now, quickly for the two of you, before we go into a couple of other issues that everyone's got so worked up about, I saw two Tendulkars on this tour. I saw one Tendulkar who was a free-stroking batsman and could do what he wanted with the ball, he was playing shots all around the ground and was still as beautiful to watch as he's always been.
I saw another Tendulkar who pulled a tent out and who went into it far too frequently, and I'm starting to ask myself, which is the next Tendulkar we're going to see? Is it the Tendulkar who comes with his bat and plays all shots or is it the Tendulkar who comes with his tent? And if it's the Tendulkar who's going to come out with the tent, then Ayaz, I think you've got to ask him what his plan is. If it's the Tendulkar who comes out with his bat and plays all the shots, then maybe we don't need to ask him that question just yet. What do you think?
AM: Yeah, I completely agree with you and I also agree with what Sanjay said. Fundamentally, what should be the approach, for any selection committee that is choosing a team? Or in fact, any player wearing pads or marking out his run-up? It's to go out there and win a match. And a team, which, on paper, looks eminently capable of it but in practice is just not delivering, eight matches in a row, each defeat getting worse than the preceding one, then something needs to be asked. We've talked about the ageing players. We all know what happened with Ponting and Hussey. They were on the cusp of being dropped but were retained. So age is not necessarily an issue, fitness is, form is, the desire to win and whatever else you go out there and do in the middle. And if you find some of that flagging, especially with some of your champion cricketers, then it's time to talk to them. Whether it's a Tendulkar, Dravid or Laxman who've been absolutely fantastic, or for that matter Sehwag or Gambhir…and say, "guys, look, you know, at the end of the day we were the No.1 team. We lost it. We thought it was an aberration in England but this is becoming endemic."
And everytime this question crops up about what's happening and you turn around and say, "wait till they come to India or don't forget we beat West Indies 2-0 in India" then there is a mindset issue that is popping up every now and then which is not a sign of good health.
HB: I think that was an unfortunate query and I think when Gambhir sits back, he'll think, "maybe I shouldn't have said that". He is a thoughtful fellow so maybe he'll sit back and think whether that should have happened.
Sanjay, you've been No.3 and that's been a big problem in Indian cricket. These 16 innings that we've seen in Australia and in England, we had one half-century partnership and that is it. So, while we're talking about 3, 4 and 5, do we need to look at 1 and 2 because I can imagine what you must be doing, sitting up padded at No.3 and thinking, "right, I'm on any ball now." Do we need to look at 1 and 2 in particular? Sehwag's overseas form has dipped alarmingly, Gambhir has started to show some problems with the bouncing and moving ball. How important is that 1 and 2 at the moment for Indian cricket?
SM: More important than 3, 4 and 5 because if I was a selector today, I would be thinking India's tour of South Africa in winter 2013. That would be my goal for Indian cricket. India have lost their reputation on overseas tours, in England and Australia. And that's where I'd be aiming to regain India's reputation - on an overseas tour. New Zealand and England playing in India, I think India will do fine. But what they do on that tour of South Africa in 2013 is critical at this stage for Indian cricket and the planning has got to start now.
The openers, Gambhir and Sehwag, are going to be your problem because in overseas conditions, you've seen both of them together have become a bit of a lottery.
HB: You've got a home series against England New Zealand, there's a very good chance that Gambhir and Sehwag will score a truckload of runs in those series. So, by the time South Africa 2013 comes around, we may not know much more than we already do about Gambhir and Sehwag so how do you tackle that question then?
SM: Exactly, that's where I think the selectors, the selection committee, can be smarter. You've got Mohinder Amarnath there now bringing a lot of experience. As I said, the planning has got to start now.
I think Sehwag has played, in my mind, his last innings as a Test opener. He might get me runs in Asian conditions as an opener again and create a huge impact as he often does but I'll still be concerned when an in-form Sehwag goes to South Africa and opens again for India. So that eventuality I don't want to go to. I'll be looking at two openers currently and seeing Sehwag bring the experience that will be gone with the possible exit of Dravid and Laxman, and have a Sehwag kind of batsman down the order. I'll also be looking at the first chance to start getting Gambhir down the order, maybe batting at No.3 or so.
So, for the moment, what India needs is not so much No. 3, 4 and 5. They've got Virat Kohli there, there will be Rohit Sharma, there will be Sehwag in middle order, Gambhir can be batted at No.3. What they need are maybe two or three good, top-order, young batsmen we haven't seen before at the international level.
HB: It's an absolutely valid point because we are in a strange situation where India's two openers are brilliant players of spin. One's gone on and on saying that No.4 is his number. The second is very happy to bat at No.3. Maybe the middle order is not such a problem at all, maybe we need to find two opening batsmen. That might be the way to go. Maybe have Sehwag in the middle order in the home series and push someone like Rahane or any other opener that you can find. Maybe someone like M Vijay or Abhinav Mukund.
Sanjay: Harsha, Rahane would be my opener in the next Test match in home conditions and hopefully if he gets runs in conditions that he would like, or he would prefer, you would have a confident, young opening batsman going to South Africa on that tour.
HB: Ayaz, let's look at captain and coach. Very often you look at the captain and coach. I've often said I look at the game from a 100 yards. From a 100 yards, it's a very easy game to look at. You looked at it on television sometime ago and then came here, but Dhoni wasn't playing this game. Did you think Dhoni was letting the game drift? That Dhoni is a 50-over captain more than a 200-over captain?
AM: I don't know if he is a better one-day captain. If you go by the records it seems so, but he led India to the No.1 position thanks to the efforts of a lot of people who are under discussion now. But, it seems to me that ever since the England tour, there is a sense of déjà vu I get every time I see Dhoni on the field. It's not been helped by the fact that the Indian team has done absolutely nothing to bring about changes, change things around, just to see what could happen.
For instance, in the fourth Test in Adelaide, it just boggles my mind that they didn't play Rohit Sharma. The series was lost. I could understand that even till Perth, you had a chance to level the series so you might say, "this is my best XI. I must play them." At least on reputation they're terrific and they might click anytime. But here, it was inexplicable and inexcusable. Knowing that Virat was shaping up well in Perth, I would have certainly played Rohit Sharma here just to tinker around. It gives you an idea. You're throwing this young guy to a hostile Australian attack, you'll see the mettle he's made of. At least in a Test, you'll see how it goes.
On the other hand, he'll probably go back - he's got the one-day series to play - wondering why he didn't get a break in the Test matches. That's where the think-tank needs to come - it evolves around the captain, the coach and obviously the senior pros. And I think there seems to be a preference or a predilection towards status quo. Like, "let us see. We've done it in the past, we can do it in the future." And that, sometimes, can be extremely misleading if not delusional.
HB: Quick one Sanjay. Is the Indian leadership on tour a bit like the Indian leadership at the centre politically. There's a bit of talk but nothing is visible?
SM: Virender Sehwag's captaincy - Dhoni got that ban and Sehwag captained India in the last Test - actually vindicates Dhoni slightly, because we got the same result. People felt Dhoni was pretty mechanical, defensive. Sehwag got Ashwin in the fifth over of a Test innings, so he was trying to do something different but the results were the same, so it tells you that Dhoni is not really the problem.
For me, when I'm looking at the areas to improve, Dhoni is in my list of improvement areas but he's not there in the first two items.
HB: What about Fletcher? We don't know Fletcher. To be honest, I've seen him in lobbies, I've seen the shades. I hope someone knows him better because I don't know him at all. So I don't know what his contribution is. I find myself completely at a loss to analyse India's coach.
SM: An Indian cricket coach, as I've said in various platforms, has limited powers. He has limited influence on the team. The only thing I'm going to hold against Duncan Fletcher and MS Dhoni as well is the terrible selection of the playing XI right through the four Test matches. It was unbelievable that they didn't change the core batting unit even after the second Test match. Forget the second Test, even after the third. So that is where tough questions need to be asked. Whether Fletcher even suggested a change in batting approach, a change of personnel. So that's where my criticism is of MS Dhoni and Fletcher. But, as I said, holding a coach responsible for the results - the numbers are there for the people to be held accountable… but how much can you blame Fletcher when he has such limited powers and such limited influence on the team.
AM: I would have thought that perhaps Virat Kohli deserved to be pushed up the order in the second innings in Adelaide.
SM: What about Ishant Sharma? An average of 65 before Adelaide, three wickets in three Test matches. The series against West Indies, no wickets to show for it. England as well, the series before that, lot of heart but no wickets. He continued to just get picked. That was the real agony for me, watching from home. Non-performance was getting rewarded with a place in the Test side.
HB: Tell me Ayaz, the economists like to talk about green shoots don't they? They see little signs that recession is gone. There were the odd green shoots. We saw Virat Kohli. I was, I must confess, very impressed with Umesh Yadav's attitude. I know he was a little erratic, a little all over the place but I don't know if India has a fast bowling culture to look after Umesh Yadav. We have a batting culture, we have a slightly shaky spin-bowling culture. But I don't know if we have a bowling culture to look after Umesh Yadav. He was excellent. I thought Ashwin had his moments and certainly Kohli, so are the green shoots visible to you at all?
AM: Yadav was, clearly for me, one of the plus points. Virat Kohli, a century is far more in your face and impressive to see in a scoreboard. But, 14 wickets in a series that was so one-sided is not too bad. Zaheer Khan, the best bowler, had 15. So Umesh Yadav, I think, has done pretty well. He's been a little inconsistent but you would expect that on pitches where you get pace and bounce and get excited.
Do we look after our fast bowlers well enough? I think we should start looking at our fast bowlers well enough. We suddenly have so many of them around. They are all in contention. Much like the Aussies, we seem to have our own fast bowlers. We did the otherwise unthinkable - we played four fast bowlers at Perth.
I think the one fact that comes through, and to me it's symptomatic of where Indian cricket, perhaps, is stagnating, is in the fielding. We just don't have the energy Harsha. I can count about 15-16 times that the Australian batsmen ran all fours. We did it perhaps once when it was not needed, the ball had crossed the fence. This team, for me, really had only one international-class fielder, that was Virat Kohli. The others just don't measure up. So if that's your level of fitness - modern sport has so much emphasis put on fitness, perhaps as much as form and skill - this is where we are found wanting. So we might be a very good team for a year, two years or two and a half years, sustained excellence is becoming a problem and that is something the BCCI needs to address.
SM: Ayaz actually made a very important point about fitness. The day Indian cricket gives fitness its due importance, I think we might have been able to avoid what happened in England and Australia because there would have been players who would have been forced to be eased away, or would have been given hints much before their inevitable end, purely on the grounds of fitness. Very often India gives too much importance to skills and in the process are willing to ignore the fitness of players.
HB: Absolutely well said. To me the prime example of that is R Ashwin who has shown that he can bat. He is not a No.8, he's going to bat higher for India in the days to come. He certainly has the skills as a bowler. But he cannot move like that on a cricket ground at the age of 25. So that pretty much encapsulates all that the two of you are saying.
But Sanjay, fielding fitness India have never had it in their DNA. I am hopeful the newer generation coming through… with the one-dayers, you'll have Jadeja, Tiwary who is exceptional, Suresh Raina. But I would love to get a batsman's point of view on the bowlers. We have a culture of nurturing batsmen in our country but do we know how to raise a fast bowler? Because believe it or not, we do have a fast bowler in our midst now.
SM: Sadly, no. To be fair, we have a very good batting culture and I compare Pakistan when I talk on these matters. Pakistan has an excellent fast bowling culture. They have senior fast bowlers around to groom a young talent. Maybe when it comes to batting, they fall short as India fall short when it comes to fast bowling.
Ishant Sharma is a great example. He's got so many things going for him. He's going to be the leader of our seam-bowling pack for the future but he's already played 42-43 Tests and the results aren't coming. So, he's not getting the right guidance in India. He's just not been able to improve as a bowler. And this is where I fantasise Harsha that Ishant Sharma would spend three weeks with Imran Khan at his farmhouse in Islamabad. All he needs is two-three weeks with somebody like Imran Khan. Or maybe, for that matter, Richard Hadlee. And those guys would tell him the importance of having the wrist behind the ball, the head not falling away too much, the length to bowl, the importance of accuracy and all that.
Two-three weeks is good enough and I keep fantasising. Ishant Sharma, unfortunately, seems like he hasn't found anyone to do that or maybe, people have tried hard but haven't been able to get Ishant Sharma to do it. So, here's one example of a guy who's got everything but still, is lacking what's really important at the Test level to get wickets.
HB: Sanjay, as you fantasise I fear too. My greatest fear is surrounded by people who tell him, "tereko 10 saal khelna hai, medium-pacer ban jaa, 130-135, ball move karade." That is my greatest fear for Umesh Yadav. How do we insulate him from people who will tell him to become a medium-pacer bowling at 130-132? Just as you fantasise, my fantasy is that anyone who tells Umesh Yadav, [become a] medium-pacer, 130-132, goes puff, vanishing from India's cricket scene, never to be seen again.
SM: But I've said it always that India has a medium-fast bowling culture. We never had a fast-bowling culture. In Pakistan, if somebody bowls at 125-130, he is ridiculed by commentators and people around him. They like being fast bowlers because it makes them a hero in that country.
AM: I'll just jump in here Harsha. Both you and Sanjay have emphasised on this word culture, repeatedly and it is in the context of fast bowlers. But I think it needs to be far more widespread. As you mentioned, if you're going to bowl 130-135, you might just become ineffective when you're in Australia or somewhere else.
So when you are playing this game, and there are 8-10 countries anyway, and you desire and aspire to be No.1, then you must aim to win matches everywhere. And therefore you have to prepare for that. We can all launch into a witch-hunt about the senior players which I think is grossly unfair. Some of our best moments overseas have come with these players and the kind of attitude and skills they showed when they were fit were terrific. So we need to take a leap. We seem to have slid back. We need to revitalise, revive our culture. We need to get into a more athletic frame of mind, so to speak, if not legs and limbs. And we must look ahead, beyond our own shores, our own wickets. Of course, we must prepare wickets to help our bowlers and our batsmen. But you must also be prepared to go out there and battle the best on their turf, their territory, and win. That's what sport is all about.
HB: Okay, I'll end with the same question to the two of you. Are you depressed Ayaz, are you despondent, are you sitting there seeing darkness in front of you? What are you thinking about?
AM: Even I thought, when we went to England that we could possibly win the series but when we lost the series 4-0 I was shocked. I said surely this is an aberration, this team is just too good to lose so badly. Perhaps lose, but lose so badly? And then we came to Australia and the whole clamour was this team is going to win its first ever series Down Under. But you come here and you've lost 0-4 again. So it seems to be the time for saying, "these things can happen," is over. There is a serious problem. We need to put our finger on what the problem is. Whether it is players who are ageing, whether it's players who are unfit, whether it's youngsters who are funk or not spunky enough, whatever it might be. There needs to be a hard and harsh look and a big thrust provided, looking at 3-4 years from now. Maybe the South Africa tour that Sanjay was talking about and from there build up towards - that should be the burning desire - being the No.1 team again.
HB: This has become a slightly heavy program but it's that kind of time, isn't it, where everyone's wondering where Indian cricket is going. We haven't even gone to where Indian domestic cricket should go because we'll go back to conversations that were held 20 years earlier and 40 years earlier and 60 years earlier because I don't think that's going to change. We talked about pitches, that's not going to change. Sanjay, anything to smile at all? Come on, give me something to make you smile.
SM: What has happened has happened. Two things are important. All those connected with Indian cricket and especially those who've got the power to change the course of Indian cricket could look at the result and think about it. Whether this could have been avoided. What did we do wrong? What we could have done differently to avoid this kind of a shock. I mean 8-0 in eight matches and those were massive defeats as well - four innings-defeats and the last Test match could have been similar if the follow-on was enforced. So that has to be looked at, and what we could have done different to avoid a similar fate. Because once you learn those lessons, those lessons have to be imbibed. There will come dips in any country's cricket but not this kind of a dip. This was a nosedive, an embarrassing defeat and this should not happen again in Indian cricket. With so much going for India, they cannot afford to have performances like this in the future.
AM: Harsha, if I can have one second to squeeze in one line, we can be the richest board in the world but that doesn't mean our team is the best and I think that equation needs to be sorted out ASAP.
HB: Okay, that's an interesting note to end on. My own final word on that is that I know players are hurt, we are all hurt, but I wonder if those that drop itineraries and selections will hurt. That's for another day. Thank you very much Sanjay. I hope you'll enjoy calling it from Australia in the days to come and Ayaz, thanks a lot for joining us too.
HB: I hope you enjoyed that little discussion on what next for Indian cricket. It's something that we tend to have far more often than some of us would like to but that's the way it goes. Sanjay Manjrekar and Ayaz Memon today, and Rajesh as well, featured on Time Out. Do let us know what you think on firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe, midway through the one-dayers, we'll see if India are a better one-day nation than a Test-match nation which is what my hypothesis is. We'll see if that works out. Thanks for joining us.
To listen to the Numbers Game section, kindly tune in to the 29th minute of the discussion.
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