July 13, 2012

Who's in charge of India's resources?

Most sporting organisations have a system that ensures good players are not lost forever. Not Indian cricket, it would seem

Amidst the timeless and compelling beauty of Roger Federer at Wimbledon, and the clinical precision of Spain at the Euro, Indian cricket's short holiday was barely missed. Now another season, and another tour of Sri Lanka, looms, an Indian team has been announced, and familiar issues have been brushed under the carpet. Little changes.

Meanwhile there has been a flood of Tendulkar interviews - more, I suspect, because there was the offer of a trip to Germany for the interviewers rather than any major issues that needed airing. And the selectors have bowed deferentially to a player's choice, seemingly unconcerned about the precedent they set. If there is a long-term plan to ease Tendulkar into a smaller work schedule, it remains a secret.

Indeed, India's selectors have been extraordinarily shy of discussing careers with senior players. No one talked to Rahul Dravid about his plans 12 months ago, and I will be very surprised if anyone has sat down with VVS Laxman or Zaheer Khan or, dare anyone say, Tendulkar, to discuss the length of their services to Indian cricket. India remains committed to a reactive mode of management: not foreseeing situations but handling them as they come.

After a brief and, to be honest, failed flirtation with the allrounder, India have gone back to what they like best - playing with seven batsmen and hoping two or three of those get through bowling ten overs. It is not a new situation. In the phase from 2002 to 2004, when India played some excellent 50-over cricket, Dravid kept wicket, and a combination of Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh (or even Dinesh Mongia) bowled ten hesitant overs. And at the 2011 World Cup, Yuvraj covered that weakness with a blanket. In between, and thereafter, India have tried all three contenders for that slot: the Pathan brothers and Ravindra Jadeja. A solution has been elusive.

Through injury, and poor form, Irfan Pathan has been largely lost to Indian cricket for a few years now. His brother isn't hammering the selectors' door down either. And now Jadeja has been found wanting. Outside of these, not a single player with those skill sets has announced himself in the last few years, and so if India want their balance to be right it would seem that one of the seven batsmen must step up to play the allrounder's role, or that one of these three players needs to be worked upon to raise his game. In effect that is what management is about; not just handling the best but getting those who have to play bit roles to be better than they seem capable of being.

Most organisations have a system that ensures good players are not lost forever. The Pathans and Jadeja may never become Dravids or Zaheers but they are good enough to play a role; a quiet, unfashionable role maybe, but one that completes the ensemble. India has invested significantly in each of the three; who is responsible for ensuring that the investment, like many in recent times in the money markets, is not lost?

I will be very surprised if anyone has sat down with VVS Laxman or Zaheer Khan or, dare anyone say, Tendulkar, to discuss the length of their services to Indian cricket

That, I would like to believe, is the job of the National Cricket Academy, where an expert, resident or otherwise, works with players to sort out issues that might have crept in. A few years ago when Alastair Cook's potentially magnificent career seemed to have stalled, England got a grizzly, hardened man in Graham Gooch to set him right. When Ganguly thought he had a problem he spent a week with Greg Chappell in Australia and came back a better player. Cook and Ganguly are exceptional players but even the Pathans and Jadejas don't need their game dismantled, not anymore. They need someone to tweak them, either the technique, the approach, or indeed the mind. Why, I'm sure a Suresh Raina would benefit from a week or ten days spent with Dravid, a Harbhajan with an Anil Kumble. Indian cricket needs to have a system to rehabilitate as much as it does one to discover fresh talent.

I would like to believe the chief selector would be concerned enough to find a way out, or more likely, the national coach. Someone has to be in charge of player performance, player upkeep and, where needed, rehabilitation. And that person has to be accountable.

Performance is measured as much in actual match results achieved as in whether or not players have grown under a particular regime. In recent years India have lost Munaf Patel, RP Singh, Sreesanth and Harbhajan. The three allrounders I mentioned haven't become the players they could have become. Suresh Raina's and Pragyan Ojha's growth has tapered. That is far too many to allow. India now have no bowlers of any quality to summon, and we saw that coming for a while. So, who's responsibility is it?

And so in the foreseeable future, India will have to play with seven batsmen (or play R Ashwin at No. 7) and hope that the four bowlers have a good day every day because there is no back-up anymore - those guys are busy being the fifth bowler. India will continue to get by in conditions where Raina and Sehwag and Rohit Sharma can slip a few overs in here and there, but to be consistent, India must play five bowlers and that means one of those must bat. But with two new balls in limited-overs cricket that fifth bowler should ideally be a third seamer.

There is an issue with senior batsmen in Test cricket and with allrounders in limited-overs cricket that needs urgent attention. That carpet, the one things keep getting pushed under, has had bulges in it for too long.

Harsha Bhogle commentates on the IPL and other cricket, and is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here