Michael Atherton, in The Weekend Australian, 28-29 January 2012
CRICKET writers these days think long and hard before they pass judgment on the Indian game. The Twittersphere is awash with examples of irate Indian “supporters” lashing out at perceived slights. The language of debate is always unreasonable and often disgraceful, a reminder that out east, cricket is much more than a game.
So reader comments need to be understood in that context where Indian cricket is concerned, which made those underneath a recent piece on Cricinfo all the more interesting. “Way to go”, “decision to be applauded”, “positive step for the right reasons”, “good decision”, “fantastic move” were just some of the comments and then, revealingly, “it should always be your country first, and then the rest”.
What had sparked this unusually sanguine response was not a decision to instigate a daily meet-and-greet with the gods of Indian cricket but rather a report that the Punjab Cricket Association had taken the step of banning its young cricketers (in the 17-21 age range) from playing Twenty20 for the foreseeable future. The secretary of the association revealed that the move had been taken in the interests of the players themselves and the “country’s cricket as a whole”, those years being the most formative in a player’s career.
After a whitewash in England, and facing another in Australia, there is a considerable amount of ink being spilt on the causes of this calamitous decline. Inevitably, the Indian Premier League carries its share of the blame. Bishan Singh Bedi, wonderfully outspoken and incoherent as ever, spoke of the lack of “philosophy” in the IPL, as if a session with Jean-Paul Sartre rather than Shah Rukh Khan would improve the ability of young players to cope with its excessive demands.
Other targets were more predictable: Manoj Prabhakar, the former all-rounder, trained his guns on the discrepancy between amounts earned in domestic cricket and the IPL and the damaging effect that was having on the traditional first-class program. Aakash Chopra, the opening batsman, who last week batted through the first day of the Ranji Trophy final for 86 not out for Rajasthan, bemoaned the collapse in technique and inability of batsmen to concentrate as a result of their infatuation with the shortest form of the game.
And yet recently, one of the first generation of cricketers to emerge out of the Twenty20 era, Dave Warner, smashed a quite brilliant Test hundred in Perth, the equal fourth-fastest, off 69 balls. Nor did he stop at that, posting a Test-best 180.
While many batsmen who were conditioned in a more decorous age struggled to cope with the pace and movement off the Perth pitch, Warner ran riot in a glorious exhibition of unrestrained but technically excellent hitting.
Some years ago, in a meeting of the MCC world cricket committee, Rahul Dravid, one of the greatest of modern players, spoke of how Twenty20 would lead inevitably to a decline in the standards of batsmanship. Without a firm grounding in traditional methods, he believed young players would struggle to adapt and that a classical side-on, front-elbow-high method, as so brilliantly championed by Dravid himself, would be lost amid a whirligig of innovative reverse sweeps, switch hits and the like.
Humbly, I disagree: it may well affect concentration spans and occasion fewer of the two-day-long vigils that I enjoyed in Johannesburg, for example. That innings, more and more, feels as if it is of a different era. Batting may become less aesthetic, too, as wristiness and elegance give way to expressions of athleticism and pure power. But batting standards generally are on the rise. Watching the crisp footwork and positive strokeplay of England’s batsmen in the nets in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday confirmed it once again: they are way ahead of players even of my comparatively recent era.
The need to score quickly, which is absolute in the modern game, will force batsmen to think less, to play more instinctively, and this in turn will improve technique in its purest form. The most attacking players in history have, after all, generally had the best methods.
There is a fundamental misconception when slow, grinding players (such as myself, for example) are described as “technically good but limited”. I was limited because I sometimes struggled technically. I scored runs in those instances in spite of, not because of, a good method, being too often “closed off” to the bowler and therefore unable to hit fluently in the “V”. Fluency came when the glitches went.
You cannot hit the ball as cleanly, and score as quickly as Warner did, as Virender Sehwag has, as Adam Gilchrist and Viv Richards did, without a pureness of technique. What is technique ultimately beyond an ability to stay still, watch the ball and swing the bat, pendulum-like, through the ball? You can hit the ball cleanly only if all the angles – feet, hips, shoulder – are in alignment.
In this instance, the IPL is an easy target for India’s recent failings. Instead, the focus should be on those actually paid to do the job. One of their number, Gautam Gambhir, came closest to the answers when he talked of the need for India to prepare “rank turners” the next time Australia tours the sub-continent. Let’s see how they do in our backyard, was the gist of Gambhir’s comments. After all, he said, you cannot be judged as a complete player until you have played and succeeded in all conditions.
The point was apposite. At home, Gambhir averages 90.25 against England and 49.20 against Australia. On the greener tops of England, he averages 17; in Australia’s bouncy backyard, before the present Test, 24.
India’s problems in Australia lie closer to home, in some of the personnel at the top of the order who seem ill-suited to a scrap, a bowling line-up that has failed to adapt and a middle order that has been allowed to grow old together.
Cue the backlash.