May 20, 2008

Exchange students

The IPL has given young players the opportunity to interact with their elders and betters - both from India and overseas

VRV Singh is among the many young Indian players who have benefited from sharing a dressing room with overseas cricketers in the IPL © AFP

It was the penultimate over of the Delhi Daredevils' innings and Punjab's VRV Singh, as he had done while bowling in the death through the tournament, was trying to get every ball in the blockhole. The first, which ended up a low full-toss, was turned to short fine leg by Virender Sehwag; the second, which Tillakaratne Dilshan tried to pull, was an attempted yorker that turned into a beamer down leg side; and the third, which Dilshan paddled past short fine leg, was another low full-toss.

That was when Mahela Jayawardene, fielding at deep third man, decided to run halfway across the field to have a word with the bowler and captain. As someone who captains Dilshan in the Sri Lankan team, it was obvious Jayawardene saw through his plan. Fine leg was pushed back, three full-ish balls followed, the line was controlled according to how Dilshan moved in the crease, and the remainder of the over produced just three. In a game that was decided by six runs, it was a crucial over.

There are many reasons for Punjab's ascendancy to second spot in the IPL - balanced side, strong bowling attack, good mix of Indian and foreign talent - but tactics have played a big part.

The international players have imparted their ideas and the local players have chipped in during brainstorming sessions. Australians have helped in analysing Australian opponents, and Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara have been perfect allies for Yuvraj Singh.

Brett Lee, for the two weeks he was available, was a big brother to the fast bowlers. One young Indian bowler talks of the "highly emotional" atmosphere in the dressing room the day Lee left. "We became so close to him that we felt bad when he said goodbye. The amount we learnt from him in such a short time was unbelievable. He used to treat every practice session as if it was his last."

Sangakkara has missed the last four games but that hasn't stopped him from making a serious contribution. "Uday Kaul [the young replacement wicketkeeper] had never kept to quality fast bowling before," says a team member, "but Sangakkara has ensured he gets adequate training." Even during the early games, Sangakkara made sure Kaul got enough preparation in the nets.

How useful has it been brain-storming with international and local players? "It's interesting to see how the same questions are approached by people with different perspectives," Sangakkara told Cricinfo. "Sometimes you get two or three opinions on the same subject - or more. The debate then starts. It's important how you bring all those into one thought process or one strategy."

What's been really challenging for Sangakkara and Jayawardene is coming up with strategies to counter their fellow Sri Lankans - which they haven't quite managed against the wily Muttiah Muralitharan, who's foxed them both at crucial moments. Sangakkara thinks there are advantages to planning against your own countrymen.

"You find yourself coming up with new ways to combat these players [like Murali]," he says, "but you then realise there are new dimensions to their game that can be exploited to Sri Lanka's benefit later. When you analyse someone's game, you try and find how you can get the better of them, but also find new ways in which they can be lethal. It's nice to sit back and analyse your own team members - gives you an appreciation and new-found respect."

If he gets a direct hit, he analyses what went right. If he misses, he analyses what went wrong. It's the attention to detail that was mind-boggling for us Aakash Chopra on Ricky Ponting's approach to fielding in the IPL

The Australian way
Like Punjab, all eight franchises are experiencing the benefits of players interacting with their international peers and elders. The prolific Rohit Sharma has attributed part of his success to Adam Gilchrist. "He told me not to get swayed by the results, as my job is only to keep performing." Delhi's young bowlers can't stop raving about Glenn McGrath, and over in Jaipur, Shane Warne has been inspiring a whole generation.

McGrath's influence goes beyond his role as a fast bowler: he asked for videos of Pradeep Sangwan's Ranji Trophy matches to analyse his action and suggest improvements. "McGrath makes it a point to stand at mid-off or mid-on when the youngsters are bowling," says TA Sekhar, cricket operations chief of GMR Holdings, the owner of the Delhi franchise. "Now that itself is a great inspiration for young bowlers like Yo Mahesh and Sangwan. If they bowl a no-ball, he's encouraging them, telling them how to deal with the free-hit ball. If they bowl five good balls, he makes sure they don't get carried away with the sixth."

Halhadar Das, the Orissa wicketkeeper who plays for the Hyderabad franchise, says he never imagined he would even see Gilchrist, let alone learn from him. Sumit Khatri, Rajasthan's chinaman bowler, says he needs to pinch himself every time Warne says "Well bowled." And S Badrinath, who is yet to make the national side despite years of domestic consistency, talks of the lessons learnt from Michael Hussey, who went through a similar phase ("His message was simple," Badrinath says. "Enjoy whatever you are doing and the rest will follow")

Ricky Ponting's dedication to fielding was an eye-opener for everyone in the Kolkata side. "His dedication to fielding is unbelievable," says Aakash Chopra, the former India opener who's currently with the Knight Riders. "If he gets a direct hit, he analyses what went right. If he misses, he analyses what went wrong. It's the attention to detail that was mind-boggling for us."

Australians have dominated the tournament so far but it's been their attitude to practice that has really benefited their teams. McGrath is the first to arrive at nets and the last to leave. Ponting ensured that every batting session was planned properly, and while he may not have scored many runs, his approach was inspiration enough. Warne has managed to throw in tactics even while relaxing in a swimming pool in Goa. ("It was great to sit around the pool and talk about how to construct an over," he said.)

The approach is likely to rub off. "I always wondered how some Australians manage to score despite looking so badly out of form," says one former India player. "Now I realise it's because of the amount they practise. They target one area and go on striking the ball there, irrespective of the length. It's such routines that makes them come out of slumps."

The likes of McGrath and Lee have taken their duties as mentors seriously, and have also set good examples with their dedication to practice © Getty Images

Local flavour
It's not all been one-way traffic. In an era of packed international schedules, the IPL has also allowed Indian superstars to interact with domestic players. "I hadn't seen him earlier but one ball was enough to convince me that he was a talented bowler," said Sachin Tendulkar of Dhaval Kulkarni, the 19-year-old medium-pacer who is the highest wicket-taker for Mumbai after nine games.

Ross Taylor made it a point to talk to Rahul Dravid and Shivnarine Chanderpaul about batting in England, where he was set to join New Zealand for a Test series; and Cameron White said his most satisfying experience in the IPL was discussing legspin with Anil Kumble.

India's domestic cricketers, who could never have imagined sharing the same dressing room with legends like Tendulkar have probably benefited the most. "More than anything else, it's given domestic cricketers a strong belief," says a former India allrounder who is currently with one of the franchises. "There is a general perception that international cricketers are perfect, but you realise that all of them have weaknesses too. It's because they work around these weaknesses that they play at the international level. So domestic cricketers will start to believe they can make it too, as long as they are focused and totally dedicated."

The downside
It hasn't been all good, though. A few foreign players have treated the tournament like a circus that offers them generous pay packets, and some have shown no restraint when it comes to late nights.

"Most of them are used to drinking late and partying hard but the worrying aspect is that some of the young Indian players are emulating this," says an Indian player who is part of one of the franchises. "They must know their limits. Just because they see their heroes partying, it doesn't mean they need to follow that."

Halfway through the tournament, Bangalore's think-tank felt the need to read the riot act to the players, listing the kind of discipline that was expected from them. Murmurs have been heard about the Deccan Chargers being distracted about the number of get-togethers and promotional events being organised. Such talk usually accompanies teams that are not doing well but it's a warning one mustn't ignore: revolutions have their flip side too.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo