Champions atrophy

Apologies to a friend for stealing the subject line of a common email thread on the subject of India and its premature exit from the Champions’ Trophy — what to do, it is so peculiarly apt.

On that thread, some of the friends brought up the question of the fairness, or lack thereof, of a tournament where a top team exits at the preliminary level because of one match gone west. Sambit Bal also suggests in his column that questions could be asked about such a format.

I’m sorry, but why? The Champions Trophy format is neither new, nor a secret — in fact, one of the best things about it is its crisp, short nature and limited field as opposed to the World Cup which, in the immortal words of one commentator, is “still probably going on in the Caribbean some place.”

Try these names on for size: Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Kenya. Those four teams are ranked full members at ICC’s ODI top table; in other words, in the eyes of the ICC they are the equal — in terms of rights, if not quality — to the eight teams that played the CT in South Africa, and they have good reason to be aggrieved that they have been kept from the tournament.

One of the few good things the ICC has done in recent times is to limit the field, and thus ensure a minimum of dud matches in a crisper, more viewer-friendly format. All participating teams knew, going in, that it was about winning two out of three in the first phase; if they had done their due diligence, they would have known, too, that there was always the possibility of rain spoiling someone’s party.

So, hey, we lost one game, and it turned out the loss was fatal — yeah, well, tough. Suck it up.

Harsha in course of a recent chat made this argument: Within India, there is an economic ecosystem vested in India’s continued success — a group that comprises the BCCI, the players and support staff, the associations, the advertisers, the broadcasters, and even news channels whose talking-head shows rely heavily on cricket and controversy, often twinned naturally or through artful surgery.

Therefore, Harsha said, there is an inordinate focus on the next game, the next tournament, as opposed to taking the long range view. It doesn’t, he pointed out, matter what happens a year from now — what matters is that we do well in the next outing, to keep the hype machine running. And so when we pick teams, we pay lip service to long term vision, to rotation and the need to rest key players, and pick the team that will, in our opinion, give us best returns in the game tomorrow.

He was referring among other things to the reversal of the youth policy and the return of Rahul Dravid to the mix [and no, this piece is not intended to lay the blame for India’s premature exit on Rahul]. And he is bang on the money — the BCCI and those equally invested in the cricket economy operate purely on short term logic unmindful, likely even unaware, that they are defeating themselves in the process.

Never mind the rain — despite MS Dhoni’s words, anyone who was watching the India-Australia game would have said that when the rains came down, the Aussies were odds on to win.  Sure, we might have pulled off a brilliant chase — but ‘might’ and Rs 3 will get you a cutting chai.

Consider instead the game against Pakistan, and India’s bowling effort against Australia. Pundits, the press, and even the captain have pointed, very rightly, at the lines and lengths our bowlers used as the root cause of the malaise. By the time the bowlers got their radar working, it was way too late.

So, why? Why didn’t international players get it? IMHO, a large part of the reason lies in our preparation — a point I bored everyone with while the whateveritis cup was being played for in Sri Lanka. Why did we play that triangular in conditions that were the exact antithesis of the one we would confront in the world tournament? Because the BCCI had a deal. Its hype machine cleverly sold the cup as India’s push for world domination — but the fact is, we played the triangular because the BCCI saw money to be made, not directly in that tournament but in the reciprocal Lankan tour that was part of the deal.

On Lankan pitches, you pitch up if you want to get driven to the dry cleaners — the optimal length is a shade short. We got it right, so did Lanka. The Kiwis, who by nature and inclination bowl fuller and quicker, got it wrong, and exited early — but look where they are now, and look where Sri Lanka and India is. [Consider, also, that England and Australia recently went through seven pointless one day games — but at least they were played in conditions where the fuller length was mandatory, and thus had little or no adjustment to make in SA. On the other hand the South Africans, who know these conditions best, were rusty, coming off a long lay off — and rust manifests first in the shorter length, as Wayne Parnell can tell you; to bowl fuller you need to be in a really good rhythm].

The damage is done, and India now has the dubious record of prematurely exiting three of the last four world level tournaments, to the considerable consternation of the BCCI, the advertisers, broadcasters, media, et cetera.

Lesson learnt? Likely not — but it should be. The next world level competition is a year and a half down the line — the time between now and then is packed with a heap of pointless bilateral ODIs [Oh I know — India and Australia are playing for revenge, for the world number one title, or whatever else the hypemeisters dream up].

There’s two ways we can go from here: Treat each game and each meaningless cup as an end in itself, as Harsha pointed out is the nature of the beast, or treat the interregnum as the ideal preparation for the World Cup, which will be played on home soil.

If you take the latter view, then the result of the Australia-India series and all the other cups and saucers to follow shouldn’t matter — those games are ideally used, initially, to experiment with fresh talent and to rehabilitate those who have recently lost their way, and closer to the WC, to home in on the best squad, and to work on fine tuning their skill sets and moving them towards peak form.

The right way to go is obvious. Unfortunately, it is equally obvious that our administration will go in the exact opposite direction — so I’ll save this particular post someplace; that will save me the effort of writing it out all over again at the end of the WC.

PS: We’re looking to close the week’s edition of India Abroad today, a day ahead of deadline, to sneak a rare three-day weekend; blogging, hence, likely to be erratic at best, more likely non-existent, for the rest of the day.

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14 thoughts on “Champions atrophy

  1. The Indian bowlers werent able to hit the right line and length due to a scheduling blunder by the BCCI, is that it? And that they couldnt adjust to the different conditions in SA after playing in Sri lanka, whereas NZ actually did well because they bowled crap in srilanka, but it was good enough in SA? Thats priceless.

    The problem is simple. The Indian bowlers lack skill, and they would do well to learn a few things about bowling. Getting into microscopic details like doesnt solve the real issue. If you identify a non existent problem, the solution to that problem is also likely to be non existent.

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  3. “need to save the post ”

    This is a sad truth… It happens in India… not only in Cricket… u ask for a change and by the time the parliament /assembly debates, opposition walk-outs, etc etc.. and finally someday the change gets implemented, it will be of no use…

    The saddest part is WE, people of India, get used to things around us rather than pushing our leaders to take quick action…

    Do u think we will have a better team playing Australia? I would like to see the big names rested, including MSD…

    BTW, the maximum benefit from Champions Trophy is to Champions League T20 2009. Coz of the amount of ad time they got during Champ Trophy…

    Now the number of people watching CLT20 will be more than the ones who watched CT50-50… any bets? 😉

  4. Agree & Disagree.

    I agree with the need for rotation, testing bench strength, and the need for ‘appropriate’ preparation on the eve of big tournaments.

    But is it a good idea to treat a full year of matches as mere preparation for the world cup? Greg Chappell used the same excuse to chop, change & dissect the team. All in the name of preparing for the World Cup (though I admit we did win quite a few during that time). The World Cup came. And it went.

    Dont you think if we are to be true world champions, we have to focus on winning consistently? It is then that we will pick up the habit of winning that Australia had. Which means, we can’t treat every series as just a lab for experimentation, and therefore just a means towards some end.

    Shouldn’t we balance the short term & the long term. Experiment all the time, but make sure we have a winning team for every match. Because even the short term goal (of winning tomorrow’s match) has a long term impact – of getting our team into the habit of winning.

    • I’m not questioning the need for consistency of performance, Ramesh — far from it. And though I believe GC, like the bloke in Shakespeare, suffered from a case of the good being interred with the body, I am not a fan either of relentless chopping and changing.

      I much prefer that change come in a planned, phased manner, with a clearly defined set of goals and requirements driving it as opposed to an idiosyncratic process driven at least in part by personal likes and dislikes.

      To give you an example, I’d agree with the thought that a senior, say RD, needs to be phased out. But that does not mean picking the first likely looking bloke and making the switch — a short list of the right candidates need to be identified and tested in match conditions, the likeliest of them needs to then be given the job and groomed into it…

      So I am not suggesting we ignore the need for results on an ongoing basis — what I am suggesting is that the current thinking, which focuses ONLY on the next game, the next tournament, is wrong. A larger goal needs to be defined and always kept in mind at every stage.

      For instance, assume an Ishant Sharma is not in top form. I’d love to see a thoughtful analysis of what the problem is. I’d like to see him played say in a couple of the Indo-Aus games, and then to be sent, with the coach’s diagnosis, to the NCA to work out whatever the kinks are — as opposed to the policy of playing him no matter what. And that goes for everyone.

      Net-net, I guess what I am arguing for is a sensible structure that seeks to balance immediate deliverables with long term goals — and oh yes, that also includes the scheduling, the planning of games and tournaments.

  5. I understand why you are miffed about mindless bilateral ODI games but isn’t that the best way to prepare for bigger tournaments like the World Cup? Ofcourse, playing in SL for a competetion in SA is not the best way to prepare, but atleast the players get match practice and are “battle ready”. They should learn to adapt, which sadly our men didn’t.

    • Match practice in totally opposite conditions is worth what, mate? How the devil can you practice in Sri Lanka’s slow, low wickets for playing in SA? That “match practice” is precisely the reason our guys began bowling the wrong length, and our batsmen found themselves stuck on the front foot.

      That is why I used the example of Sri Lanka — a far better bowling attack than ours, with the 3 Ms and Kulasekhara, and look what happened to them. Like us, they too got their “match practice” in Lankan conditions — and ended up being let down badly by their bowling.

      So clearly, it was not the best way to prepare.

      “Players have to adapt” is a line routinely, and blindly, trotted out by our commentators. Of course they do — but to adapt, the right course is to get to the venue a few days early, and to adapt on the ground. You can’t adapt to living and working in New York, say, by spending a month in Dharamsala.

      Consider this: Routinely, we keep saying that our team starts slow, and gets better as a tournament progresses. Now ask yourself why. The answer is simple — our team comes into a set of conditions cold, with no prep. After one or two games, we learn to adapt. If only we get to the venues earlier, the process of adapting would be quicker, and we would be in a position to hit the ground running — but the BCCI is too busy organizing pointless games to worry about such things, or make time in the calendar for acclimatization.

      • Rightly said – even college football coaches routinely take their team to different time zone (max 3 hr difference) areas couple days earlier before the weekend game to acclimatize to the environment. It is ridiculous with the Indian team – almost always lands up at a major tournament as one of the last teams if not the very last.

        • my question is why dont the players demand they be at the venue earlier – I think they should… strongly. The BCCI can be very bad masters but what are the wards doing?

      • BCCI has to think beyond the scheduled commitments,it can easily prepare pitches similar to Foreign pitches Green Tops,Bouncy dusty etc ,replicating the climatic conditions may be tough,It could also flex its muscles to get good practice pitches before the tournament starts (We lost the warm up game against NZ on a substandard pitch).If you recall one Board Scy mentioning these players need to learn to adapt putting the onus on the players ( akin to sending them to battle with one hand tied) Maybe our players do not want hostile conditions for domestic cricket?They might be found wanting -which affects their selection to the team.
        Preparation is only half the story,delivering in the tournament is key-
        1)are we selecting the best 11 or 15 for a tournament?If yes,then we simply did not play well enough
        2)The nation wants the team to win every match-maybe the weight of expectation is too much,we cannot expect the other teams to not turn up
        3)Maybe its the manner of losing -rather than the actual loss are we running the other teams close in a losing cause?We are not!
        We won yesterday against WI but the team make up looked very weak without Sachin in the batting line up already missing Veeru ,Yuvi (Theoritically we went only with Gambhir,Dravid,Raina and Dhoni)

      • Prem, how do you explain Pakistan doing so well in the competition? Surely they had no match practice? Or did they have something in Srilanka as well? I think they did. But it might have been a test series, I dont know.

        So all teams who come into a tournament by playing a series on a different kind of pitch tend to perform badly? And those who play on a similar kind of surface do well? Is that a rule?

  6. Yes,it was atrophy,IMHO there should be no youth or senior policy for the National Team,the best 15 should be available for the National team irrespective of the age,we should have a system to groom the next gen players, which we do have -U23,U19 etc whether it is effective or not is the matter to ponder.
    I believe the selection policy has not been consistent for the present bunch some have been given quite a few chances and others far less,it’s tough for the selectors to continue selecting the bunch of players who have failed to deliver.
    One way could be to rest some of the players to give others a chance -this is possible as India plays quite a fair bit.
    Try telling a Sanath ,Sachin ,Murali or Rahul that he should not be in the team only because of his age!I am sure they will know when to move away if the right replacements are there(Our players have been known to hang around well past their sell by date) Change only for sake of change will do no good.We should stop hyping the emerging players as next Sachin,next Kapil.
    We have players like Yuvraj who have not played even 30 Tests in so many years.A Raina has played over 70 ODIs yet to make his Test Debut(Already bracketed as Limiited over speacialists)While a Badrinath has played 3 ODIs,yet to play a test,and may not be able to play for India again

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