The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The curse of being an Aussie

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now, for Greg Chappell. If that is too much, please have an iota of pity for him. Last week, India’s cricket team has restored some of its honour, but only because the players he had exiled were brought back and performed magnificently.

Had John Wright from New Zealand not been Chappell’s immediate predecessor as coach, the train of events might have turned out differently. New Zealand is a country all right, but it is a lilliput compared to its giant neighbour, the continent of Australia. The land mass of New Zealand measures 268,704 square kilometres; in the case of Australia, it is 7,686,884 square kilometres. Both Wright and Chappell have captained the test team of their respective countries. But, as an opening batsman, Chappell’s recorded is miles ahead of that of Wright. In any event, New Zealanders generally keep a low profile. Wright has been an exception. During his tenure as India’s coach, he preferred to be sheep in sheep’s clothing. He was quick to comprehend the Indian psyche. We may be among the bottom twenty in the United Nations ranking of countries in per capita GDP terms, but the emerging middle class here, aggregating to as many as 200 million or thereabouts, enjoys an average income comparable to the per capita income of many advanced countries. These millions of Indians are glued to their television sets and deify the top-ranking cricketers. Endorsement by these cricketers constitutes the lifeline of the burgeoning consumer goods and consumer services industries.

In contrast, Chappell travelled to India riding a high horse and refused to climb down from it. Is he not from big, big Australia, which is not only huge in size but the leading cricketing country as well' Does not his record show he was one of the most skilled batsmen to ever walk the soil of this earth, and is he not a former captain from Down Under' He worked out his own grammar of coaching. He targeted all the maladies the team was suffering from that Wright had already identified. Chappell, however, is an Australian, the mildness of manner Wright exhibited was not for him. The politeness the Indians initially greeted him with he assumed to be deference to a richly deserving foreigner who knows the best on all aspects of the game.

That was a fatal assumption. The murky politics within the precincts of the Board of Control for Cricket in India largely contributed to his initial major success: the chucking out of Sourav Ganguly. That went to his head, and he proceeded to commit egregious mistakes one after another.

He has a personal theory on the ingredients of sound cricket, particularly in the context of one-day internationals and next year’s World Cup: good fielding is the key to superior performance. Ganguly, Laxman and Kumble had to be eliminated because they are either too old or plain lazybones; they needed to be supplanted by young turks who could sprint like tigers. Agility in the field on the part of a player can, according to Chappell, save as many as 30 to 40 runs per innings. Which is why he thinks all players must go through the whole drill, run cross-country races, perform callisthenics of different sorts, excel in karate, do trekking, surfing and all the rest, so that they might reach the peak of physical fitness.

There is a flaw in the theory. If you drop an established batsman because his fielding is below par, you are taking into account only one side of the arithmetic. By substituting him with a sprightly youngster, you may save 30 or 40 runs during the innings. The substitute, however, may be no good as a batsman, his record showing a succession of ducks in game after game. On the other hand, the batsman who has been dropped could have, who knows, hit up a century.

True, a mild rejoinder to this proposition deserves consideration. It is not only a question of saving runs but also of holding catches. But a player, who is otherwise a slow mover, could still be quite successful in latching on to catches in a specialized position, such as slip, gully, mid-off, mid-on, point, silly mid-on, and so on. It is only when a ball is hit toward the direction of no man’s land that the ability to move like a hare becomes relevant.

The issue of physical fitness can be viewed from other aspects as well. The way cricket is played in Australia, England and South Africa is not quite the way it is played in India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Given the relatively shorter build and muscle prowess of a person from the subcontinent, it is only natural that skills have diversified over here. For instance, while pace bowlers are rather less common in the subcontinent, it is impossible to ignore the species who weave magic through their deliberate slow run-up to the wicket and throw the ball with a majestic spin. Similarly, while batting, an Indian or a Pakistani or a Sri Lankan produces late cuts and leg glances of a quality which baffles cricketers of Caucasian descent. A subcontinental batsman has generally less faith in driving a ball hard and would fall back on the technique of twirling the bat by a wondrous twist of the wrist to despatch the ball to the boundary.

Globalization certainly has caught up with cricket too. The game is nonetheless unlikely to shed its infinite variety. Conceivably, Greg Chappell, has failed to grasp the point. His lack of sensibility in the matter has made him drive his wards to such near-ludicrous extremes of physical exertion that quite a few of them have, at the end of it, either broken down or felt totally confused.

It would still be otiose not to mention a number of other circumstances. John Wright’s luck has not devolved on Chappell: while the young ones the latter nurtured have failed him, the patchiest phase in the careers of some of the senior players has coincided with his tenure. And there is that other overarching phenomenon not usually discussed in polite society. The prosperity of the Indian middle class has zoomed as never before in the past couple of years; sky is now the limit for consumer expenditure. Quite a few members of the Indian cricket team are naturally busy, busier, and busiest in signing endorsements. Money-making has emerged as the central passion; cricket, the original deus ex machina, is relegated to the category of a distraction. Australia has barely 16 million people, the West Indies at most 5 million, the United Kingdom around 58 million; the Indian middle class adds up to as many as 200 million. They buy goods and services, endorsed, at a price, by our cricketers, who, on occasion, have their minds on things other than cricket.

Let us be fair. Chappell has his share of sin, but only a share.

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