Ashok Malik is a writer based in Delhi
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I blame Greg Chappell. I wouldn’t want to call him Dr Faustus – too literary and dramatic a metaphor for someone I’ve come to associate with low cunning – but he’s struck a bargain with the devil, in this case with one-day cricket.
Chappell knows he’s here for a year – I can’t see him sticking around in India after summer 2007. He knows he’s coaching the team of a society that can’t tell the difference between good cricket and facile victories against an English C team. He knows he’ll make a fortune if he wins India the World Cup. He’s ready to pay a small price for it – scupper the Indian Test team.
Luckily, he’s been helped by a Board that’s too busy playing factional politics or fixing blockbuster deals, by a captain, Rahul Dravid, who’s proving to be as commanding and independent minded as, frankly, Manmohan Singh, and by a media too much in awe of the Chappell mystique to ask hard questions.
To be fair, Chappell’s done something right. As it happens, the “right stuff" has been limited to the shorter game. Beyond his jargon and pompous phrases – “flexibility”, “multi-dimensional players” – he’s given the Indian limited-overs team its most effective bunch of “bits and pieces” cricketers since the golden period between 1983 and 1985.
In that phase, players like Madan Lal and Roger Binny and Balwinder Sandhu – all honest triers and great fighters, but not quite Test superstars – gave the Indian one-day team a long tail, could bowl effectively, field hard. They provided India that extra zip that a team comprising just classic batsmen and classical bowlers will not have, not in the 50/60 overs format.
Essentially, a Kumble, a Dravid and three Robin Singhs works better in one-day cricket than does three Dravids and two Kumbles.
Chappell has recognised the value of this truism, taken it to its logical conclusion. Thus he’s packed the team with young men he can mould into “flexible” cricketers – a Pathan who can come up the order, a Kaif who can open the batting, a Raina who can be the incremental anything.
True, there have been some victims to this experiment – Ganguly has probably ended his one-day career a little before time, Laxman was never considered for the limited-overs team even when the super-sub rule (stupid as it was) was around to facilitate specialist cricketers like him.
Nevertheless, on the whole, Chappell has delivered results in the abbreviated version. Grant him that – he’s produced no aces but lots of jokers in the pack: players who can do a bit of this, a bit of that, and do it effectively.
Now move to Chappell’s big failing – Test cricket. To ease his way into the cockpit seat in the one-day squad, Chappell hasn’t been too perturbed by the sacrifices he’s got the Test team to make.
His one-day plan was premised on a need for young cricketers with simple, tabula rasa minds on which he could inscribe his ideas. He had no time for complicated and complex men, no patience to engage with experience, however talented. The wreck that VVS Laxman has become is there for all to see.
What did I expect Chappell to do with the Test team? Well, give it some thought, spare it some moments from all his cogitation about and obsession with the 2007 World Cup.
India’s greatest quartet of middle-order batsmen – Tendulkar and Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman – are ageing together. Instead of guillotining them, one by one, couldn’t Chappell have sat them down – explained why they didn’t quite fit into his one-day plans (three of them don’t, not even Tendulkar) and how, to lengthen, their Test years, he may want to rest and rotate them, keep them hungry that much more?
Under Chappell, India has seen Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra fade away – done in by an overdose of one-day cricket, washed out by a savage schedule. This wasn’t Chappell’s fault; they were already past their best when he arrived.
What’s his approach to their successors? Does he want Pathan to end up like them – slipping from Test strike bowler to one-day pinch-hitter who can bowl a bit?
What’s Chappell done to protect S Sreesanth and RP Singh and, even, Munaf Patel from early burn-out? Has he put his foot down and said: “No, Mr More, these are Test winners. They will not play one-day games, not on flat Indian pitches. They need to be nurtured.”
Where is the Chappell stamp on the Test side? Where is this allegedly cerebral cricketer’s sensitivity to traditional cricket, his understanding of player psychology?
I expected a Merlin, got only a Houdini. It’s sad; if you cherish Test cricket, it’s sadder.