Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Aussification of Indian Cricket

Since the arrival of "I will take both your eyes if you are after one of mine" Ganguly, Indian cricket has travelled a few notches higher. Ganguly instilled in the hitherto meek Indian cricketers a sense of pride and a will to fight.

There was the immediate heady successs of an enthralling series win against Australia in India, best remembered by the epic Laxman-Dravid partnership in Kolkata. Getting to the World Cup finals in 2003 was a big boost to a cricket-starved nation. India drew with Australia in Australia and came close to beating them at home in what was to be Steve Waugh's farewell Test Series. Then came the series win in Pakistan.

It was after that that the rot set in and something had to give. Ganguly did.

Since the arrival of Greg Chappell as coach of Team India, the "Aussification" of Indian cricket has taken on a newer meaning. There are many things that are not great about Aussie cricket, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are a champion team. In recent years, I have seen some wonderful batsmen play cricket. Batsmen like Richards, Gavaskar, Greenidge, Haynes, Miandad, Tendulkar, Lara, Dravid, Kirsten, Chappell & Chappell, Waugh & Waugh, Kallis, Inzamam, Anwar, Gower, Border, et al were greats. Bowlers like Marshall, Roberts, Garner, Holding, Walsh, Ambrose, Lillie, Thompson, Imran, Sarfraz, Hadlee, Akram, Younis, Akthar, Kapil, Botham, Prasanna, Chandrashekar, Bedi, et al, were some of the best bowlers we will perhaps ever see.

However, there has been only one team that has stood out since the early 90s. The Australians are a champion team. In my view, Simpson moulded them. Border endured them. Taylor built them. Waugh strengthened them and now, Ponting will take them to newer heights. Australia will continue to innovate in every aspect of its game. Unlike the West Indian decline, there is significant bench strength in Australia. The game has never been more popular than it is right now. Indeed, after Australia's loss in the recently concluded Ashes series, sales of cricket gear (bats, helmets, gloves, etc) were bigger than ever before!

The Aussie method starts in the paddocks and backyards where their cricket is played initially. Even at the junior levels, the moulding, the hardening and the strengthening is evident. Junior cricketers are hardened in these lush green fields. Sloppiness is not tolerated. Discipline is rewarded. Youngsters throw themselves on wet and well-watered grass to stop sure fours. Even a 12-year old can effect a slide-stop to cut off a sure four. The Team is always bigger than the individual. Players stand up for their mates. It is tough out there on the field. No quarter is asked. None will be given. However, at the end of the days' play, everyone has a beer and a laugh.

The Aussie method builds on this strong representative-level foundation. The domestic competition is tough in the Pura Cup. Overall the method is simple and yet effective. It is the process that matters. It is clinical and efficient, demanding and ruthless.

In a recent article, Simpson talks about the Aussie way of doing things. It is clear that every single aspect is ironed out and discussed. The demystification process involves the dismantling of a complex solution landscape into a collection of easy variables that one can attack and address.

Today, the coaches of India (G. Chappell), Sri Lanka (Moody), Bangladesh (Whatmore) and West Indies (Bennett) are all Aussies. Not long ago, the coach of New Zealand was an Aussie too! Geoff Marsh had a stint in Zimbabwe recently. They are all over the place, putting in "processes" to lift the level of the game around the world.

Indian cricket needed Greg Chappell. He has brought into the game in India fresh thinking and a clear focus on goals and process. There are, now, individual goals within team roles. The focus is on fitness and performance. It doesn't matter if one wins or loses as long as one plays to the best of one's potential. This mantra has sunk in and the team is finding fresh legs everywhere.

Story has it that when Sreesanth, the new Indian fast bowler won his cap, Chappell asked Tendulkar to say a few words and present the pup with his cap. Apparently, Tendulkar made a stirring speech in which he is reported to have said that the cap is not just a piece of cloth that sits atop a cricketer's head, but that it was what every cricketer in India would easily die for. He asked Sreesanth to wear it with pride and ensure that he gave off 120% every time he stepped onto the field with it. He is reported to have added that that would be a moment Sreesanth would never ever forget whether he played 150 games or a mere 10! It is said that Sreesanth had tears in his eyes. Nearby, Dhoni was heard mumbling that he'd have loved to have had a ceremony like this when he won his India cap. Instead, he just turned up for his first game and found his cap in amongst his kit!

Yet another sign of the Aussification of Indian cricket. Each Aussie cricketer's cap is presented by a legend of the game. This is a ceremony that is said to bring a lump to even the most hardened throat. For the recipient, it is said to be an unforgettable experience.

Only time will tell if Chappell is successful in raising the bar, but for now, the portents are good. India is increasingly embracing processes, thoughts and strategies that made Australian cricket what it is today. And with a hardened Aussie in charge and with Dravid, a constant learner, as his 2IC, Indian cricket is certainly in safe hands.

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