May 22, 2010

Bounce isn't India's only devil

While the focus has been on India's inability to play short bowling, their poor preparation and the issue of player fatigue have been brushed under the carpet

So some Indian players stayed out too long, had a drink or a few, and apparently stood up for a team-mate who was being abused by "fans". In true God of Small Things fashion, the BCCI has slapped a show-cause notice on them. The fear, though, is that the real issues, the reasons for India's poor performance at the World Twenty20 - the weakness against the bouncer, the lack of fitness and intensity, the disappearance of fast bowlers, the crazy schedules - might, as usual, get swept under the carpet. Talk to people involved with this team of late and it reveals a lack of willingness to address such issues, both at individual and administrative levels.

Coach Gary Kirsten's dressing down of the team on their last day in St Lucia did not pertain to a new issue with the team. "While everybody is talking about lack of fitness now, I brought to the team management's notice the fitness problem - not only with bowlers, but the team as a whole - last year," says Venkatesh Prasad, India's former bowling coach who was sacked last October, no reasons given. "It wasn't taken in the right spirit." Kirsten's complaints last year weren't taken in the right spirit either, and he was subsequently gagged.

Something similar, only much more damning, can be said of some of the batsmen's troubles against short-pitched bowling.

"Everyone is now talking about how this started about 10 months ago," says a current India player. "Four or five years earlier, when they first came into international cricket, even then they needed to work on the short ball. You need to practise it in the nets, facing bouncers and getting good people to bowl at you. But they don't like facing bouncers and are upset about it."

It's easy to see why the bouncer was not top of the limited-overs side's agenda over the last year: there are players taking care of the issue in Tests, and only rarely in limited-overs cricket do Indian players come up against genuine pace in a Sri Lanka-Bangladesh-IPL-dominated schedule. "That is a dangerous route to take because you are masking a problem. In critical tournaments you need to win the crucial games: what if you run into Australia in the quarter-finals or semi-finals? Even Pakistan quicks are clever enough to challenge the batsmen."

Around when this new crop of Indian cricketers was coming through to the limited-overs side, the world's players had a major issue with boards - one that seems to have gone out of fashion of late. Player burnout is so early 2000s now, although schedules have only got tighter.

A fringe player has no doubt there is too much cricket happening, and too little care from the BCCI. "A player really burns out after a certain point," he says. "I believe we need to have a certain work ethic: you need time for preparation, performance and rest. Take the Australians - they spend at least four months a year resting and preparing."

How serious the BCCI is about preserving its resources is clear from an example during the IPL. Trainers from the ECB came down along with their players, and instructed the local trainers on how to deal with them. A couple of Indian national players, on the other hand, went to a miracle healer in Sri Lanka, without the permission of the board, so that they could play as many IPL matches as possible. Who will take the responsibility if the miracle healing goes wrong or involves substances on the WADA banned list?

The BCCI counters this by asking if any player is heard complaining about the schedule. No, they're not, except for Sachin Tendulkar, who applies for rest every now and then, but that can be put down to his age, and also that he has earned the right to pick and choose. Can an Ishant Sharma, considered by most experts a promising Test bowler, say no to yet another meaningless ODI series? Especially knowing that in India the money and fame come mostly through limited-overs cricket.

Every time the fatigue issue is raised, the BCCI says the same thing: nobody is forcing the cricketers to play. It is open to conjecture whether it is insecurity regarding their places in the side that makes players keep going even when not 100%. It is also open to conjecture whether the BCCI doesn't want to rest star players because of pressure from broadcasters, who have overpaid for the TV rights. What is sure, though, is what Prasad says. "When the schedules are so packed, the players have to become more disciplined, especially with fitness."

Preparation is not top priority with the board either. "You can't go into a big tournament without a warm-up because that would've also helped you look at your ideal line-up," says an India player. "We were always searching for the right combination throughout the tournament. Considering the schedule is so short and sharp, you can't do that during the tournament."

Every time the fatigue issue is raised, the BCCI says the same thing: nobody is forcing the cricketers to play. It is open to conjecture whether it is insecurity regarding their places in the side that makes players keep going even when not 100%

In the three years since their success in the World Twenty20, the catalyst for the Twenty20 revolution in the country, India have not only lost all their Super Eights matches but also a promising bench of fast bowlers. The way they have handled Ishant is an indictment of how the country's top talent is regarded. After having selecting him for almost all the meaningless ODI series played on flat tracks in recent times, they have barred him from playing county cricket - the one thing Wasim Akram thinks Ishant needs the most.

Akram, who worked with Ishant at Kolkata Knight Riders, believes his fast-bowling muscles will develop when he bowls 300 overs in a first-class season and learns to work things out by himself.

Another IPL coach believes Twenty20 is the worst thing to happen to an out-of-form fast bowler. "Good balls get whacked for fours and if you are not on top of your game it becomes difficult. For Ishant, playing the 50-overs game or the Tests is better. That would allow him to regain his rhythm, rather than the hustle and bustle of Twenty20."

On the surface of it, most players and coaches involved believe the IPL to be a fantastic tournament, and not one responsible for India's woes. They also concede, though, that when it teams up with a watertight year and a schedule that has the national team playing its first World Twenty20 match five days after the final, things don't look that rosy. "I would really like to know how many of these guys, while the IPL was on, thought about looking ahead to the World Twenty20," says a senior IPL player. "And saying, 'What we really are going to face is not this, so let's start preparing for that.'"

The World Twenty20 debacle has served the team a warning 10 months in advance. In February 2011 starts the 50-over World Cup. In May 2010, the fast-bowling cupboard is bare; the selectors seem intent on damaging the careers of both the back-up spinners, Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra; the schedule is still just as ridiculous; and the outcricket - which this team does well when fresh - is in disarray. Yes, there will be more quality coming into the batting line-up for the 50-overs contests. Yes, the bouncer is not that much of a devil in 50-over contests, especially when playing in the subcontinent. Still, much work is to be done if the BCCI wants to avoid a similar inquest this time next year. One that won't involve just banning the IPL parties.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo. Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor

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