| Seat of decisions'
The year was 1921. The Australian cricket team under the captaincy of Warwick Armstrong, or the Big Ship as he was fondly called, was poised to make a record. It was about to return to Australia without having lost a single match during its tour of England. This triumphal march was stopped at Eastbourne where a handpicked Amateur England XI beat the Aussies in a dramatic match.
The team had been picked by the former English captain, A.C. MacLaren, who, watching the Armstrong juggernaut through the summer, had made the claim that he could put together a side that could humble the Australians. Those in the Long Room who had mocked him had egg on their faces when on that August afternoon he walked off the ground in Eastbourne with his sweater over his shoulders. This was also his farewell to cricket. He had selected and led the side which had stopped Armstrong from making history. History had to wait till 1948 when Bradman, on his last Ashes tour, went back home with an unblemished record of victories.
MacLaren's great victory against the Australians in 1921 is not unknown to genuine lovers of cricket. I underline the word genuine to distinguish that select band from those Johnny-come-latelies who watch cricket without giving a tinker's damn about the game's history and its traditions. I have dug out this bit of cricketing lore to use it to make a few points that are being lost in the ongoing controversy that has excited cricket fans in India, especially in Calcutta.
MacLaren's boast and his proof and justification of it illustrated one thing. It showed that behind success on the field in cricket, especially when that success is against the odds, there has to be a great deal of thought and planning. That planning has to be backed up by firm decisions which have to be executed on the field by the team. In the case of the Eastbourne match, MacLaren did the planning, took the decisions and executed them on the field. He was the sole selector and the captain. He was to suggest later in a delightful foreword to A Cricketer's Book by Neville Cardus that his selection had been based on a study of weaknesses. (Why he wrote that foreword has also become a part of the lore of cricket. No cricket correspondent in England came to cover the Eastbourne match since they felt that old man MacLaren had made a vainglorious claim. Cardus, one suspects out of sheer loyalty to his boyhood hero, travelled to Eastbourne and thus got what he called his only scoop in a lifetime spent with the Manchester Guardian.)
The importance of planning, decision-making and execution can also be shown through another well-known and perhaps notorious instance. Bodyline bowling, which enabled England to win the Ashes in Australia in 1932, was the product of a well thought out plan which was superbly implemented on the field by the captain, Douglas Jardine, and his fast bowling combination of Larwood, Voce, Bowes and Allen. Jardine and Larwood were later made villains and what was brushed under the carpet was the planning that had gone before the team went Down Under. The plan had one aim ' to keep Bradman quiet. Without Bradman there would not have been bodyline. Some of the wise men of English cricket had noted Bradman's discomfort against the rising fast short ball on the leg side. A think tank led by the captain of Nottinghamshire, A.W. Carr (Larwood and Voce both played for Nottingham) worked out a strategy. Jardine, in fact, went to see F.R. Foster who had bowled leg-theory against the Australians in 1911-12 when Pelham Warner had taken over the English side. Jardine wanted Foster's field placings.Warner, significantly, was the manager of the side that Jardine took to Australia in 1932.
Both these pieces of history suggest that in cricket brains come before brawn. This generalization falls, of course, in the case of a side which has everything going in its favour. Clive Lloyd, when he had Holding, Marshall, Roberts and Garner bowling for him, and had the likes of Richards and Greenidge batting for him, did not need to put on his thinking cap. He only had to ask a bowler, 'Are you tired', and if the answer was yes, bring another one on.
The point about recounting these episodes is that planning and decision-making are the most neglected aspects of Indian cricket. And any discussion of this has disappeared in the clamour following Sourav Ganguly's departure and possible return. What are the questions at the forefront : is Greg Chappell anti-Ganguly' Is he a good coach' Should Tendulkar be back in the side without any runs in recent domestic cricket' If he can be in the side, why does Ganguly have to prove himself' These are a series of irrelevant questions for the future of Indian cricket.
The future has two clear aspects. One is the immediate. India has to produce a side for the 2007 World Cup, a side which will not compete with Bangladesh for the bottom place but will play good and competitive one-day cricket. The other is the creation and establishment of a structure that will plan and decide about selecting a side that will be the best against a given opposition. It follows by definition that such a structure has to be free from prejudice, vested interests and provincial bias. In other words, it has to be professional and be merit-based.
Unfortunately, nothing in Indian cricket warrants the confidence that these matters are being addressed or being addressed in the proper manner. Planning in Indian cricket has come to mean plotting and intriguing, sitting in a building on what used to be called the Maidan end of Eden Gardens. Nobody is quite sure about the axis of decision-making. There is a coach who has been hired at considerable cost but he has no say in the selection process, in other words no say in the building up of a side. So how is he to deliver in 2007' There is no appreciation of the fact that three of India's most talented batsmen ' Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly ' are all thirty-plus. Myopia is the biggest enemy of foresight.
There is a steadfast refusal on the part of those who claim to run Indian cricket to clearly define the role of the coach. Is his role only concerned with enhancing performance and correcting the technical flaws of players' Or is he part of making strategy and formulating tactics' If he is the latter, he cannot be left out of the selection process. The coach's relationship with the captain should also be clarified. Who is the master' If a cricket coach's role is deemed to be different from that of a football coach, then his duties and jurisdiction should be unambiguously spelt out. The command structure should not have even a vestige of confusion. Above all, whoever is in charge should be given the authority to tell the players that the team has no place for prima donnas, no matter who the player is ' captain, former captain, world's greatest batsman and so on.
Without a resolution of these issues outside the field, on the field the Indian team will remain in the they- also-played category in 2007. Amen.