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Monday, June 25, 2018

Status quo intact: India flexes muscle off-field, bowlers quake on it

At the moment India’s performance is determined by the surface, writes Harsha Bhogle.

Updated: January 31, 2014 5:09:06 pm
Now that power and revenues are guaranteed and need no longer keep people up at night, I would like to see Indian cricket excited by the prospect of finding a 145 kmph bowler (AP) Now that power and revenues are guaranteed and need no longer keep people up at night, I would like to see Indian cricket excited by the prospect of finding a 145 kmph bowler (AP)

There are two things we knew last week; that India call the shots in world cricket, and are not averse to flexing their muscles, and that when the ball doesn’t stop and turn India’s bowlers can’t trouble a decent batting side. And so this week, after a lot of sabre rattling, we only know what we already knew.

The moment the details of the position paper were revealed, it was apparent to everyone that change was imminent and that after token resistance, more in words than actions, the advancing armies would take control. It tells you a little bit about people.

Some months ago, and indeed even earlier, I had argued that when enticed by power and wealth, irrespective of culture and lineage, people largely behave the same. I did not say it was appropriate, that it was just the way it has always been. The events of the last week proved that. England and Australia were presented the option of running world cricket and significantly enhancing revenues. They closed their eyes and charged at the opportunity. As India had done when a growing economy and a large audience allowed them to raise more money than anyone else.

There were a few dissenters who thundered in print and before a camera. When a carrot was dangled, they jumped at it. It wasn’t the principle of power in the hands of a few that they were contesting, they were merely searching for a better bargain, for a slightly bigger share of the wealth. Many years ago, someone in industry had told me there was no such thing as a conscience, that there were merely different price points. I think we saw that last week.

There is still some time for the proposals to become resolutions and, in a manner of speaking, for different sized chairs to be placed at the table, but it seems that everyone has shown their cards. It will be interesting to see how the running of world cricket changes, and whether other power structures emerge in the new coalition. But for the moment it seems India have been very shrewd and without quite deploying their artillery have displayed it to annex territory. They have been ambitious and, while some others may be loath to admit it, very smart.

Surface dependent

I would now like to see similar ambition and intelligence (and there is a lot of it around) used to strengthen the level of cricket in India. Power has virtually been achieved, performance must follow. India have been good at home without being outstanding. For the whitewash of Australia, and the pitiful demolition of the West Indies, there was also a home series lost to England. But overseas they have been poor. And in New Zealand, a team I have always admired for their ability to punch above their weight, they have been very ordinary.

At the moment India’s performance is determined by the surface. When the ball stops and turns, two things happen. India become a good bowling side and the captain feels in control. Dhoni craves for spin like Mills and Boon readers do romance. Part of the reason is that he has often been let down by anyone quicker than his spinners; that he has seen a lot of promise that found the wayside rather than the highway.

But history tells us that great teams are built around top bowling attacks; that you can be competitive with a weak batting side and a top bowling unit but the reverse is much tougher. And so for India to become an all-weather side, there has to be a massive effort, on the ground and in the mind, to look for quality bowlers.

Earlier this week, as part of Switch Hit, our new programme on Star Sports, we spoke to Abhishek Nayar and Aakash Chopra and it became clear why India have a major problem on their hands. Let alone quality pace, there is no spin as far as the eye can see. Abhishek explained how with the SG ball, you get prominent reverse swing by about the 25th over. And so the swing bowlers come back. By the time the spinners get their hands on the ball, it is around the 50th over, not much time before a new ball appears. Consistently, in the last few years, the leading wicket takers in India are seam and swing bowlers and it seems there is more of that coming.

Surely then there should be more fast bowlers coming! But as both Abhishek and Aakash pointed out, with a new ball and then, a reverse swinging ball, the quicker bowler bowl 25 overs a day. At the end of a game they catch a flight and in a couple of days after that they are back at it in another city. Speed gives way to medium pace quickly, 130 becomes comfortable but is also deemed essential if you have to keep playing to that schedule. The leading wicket takers, Rishi Dhawan, Ashoke Dinda, Ishwar Pandey, Pankaj Singh and many like them are all medium pace. International cricket is not about them unless they are an Anderson or a Philander.

And yet it is inconceivable that fast bowlers or pacy swing bowlers or gifted spinners are not hidden somewhere waiting to be discovered. But is Indian cricket obsessed with discovering them? Unless you are obsessed you don’t find things, you can’t make things happen.

Indian cricket has been obsessed with power and revenue. Those need not only be dirty words because they are essential for the conduct of sport. Indian cricket is excited by another 500 crores and they spend a lot of time and intelligence finding ways to earn it. Now that power and revenues are guaranteed and need no longer keep people up at night, I would like to see Indian cricket excited by the prospect of finding a 145 kmph bowler, or a spinner who makes you go wow like everyone did when Harbhajan Singh was first sighted. I would like them to be obsessed with the idea of being the best bowling side. Eventually you must produce a great product. That defines you. If your predominant focus is revenue, you are a finance company. It is only if you have a fierce desire to be the world’s best all-weather cricket team, that you are a cricket company. I am craving for a position paper on bowling dominance.

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