The space between your ears

The flip side to that is I see a generation today, some at least of whom are totally content with the perks of being a cricketer without having to do the hard yards — the glitz, glamour, Bombay party circuit, all of that.

We are also seeing a generation coming, I saw it first in IPL 2, where there were some three, four players who didn’t want to play Ranji Trophy for the two months before the IPL for fear they would get injured and miss out they just wanted to go to the NCA and train, and these are the players who in IPL 2 were bigger and slower than they were in IPL 1.

The word goes around quickly, even though I am not part of the hard core circuit, the word goes around that these were the guys who didn’t want to play domestic cricket.

That clip is from a cricket conversation I had with Harsha a few weeks ago. Yesterday, the board’s chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty expressed similar concerns:

Shetty said the lack of focus was an issue the BCCI would have to look at. “You can see the change in attitude and focus which seems to have gone to things other than cricket. They are attracted by the different style of entertainment that is part of these events. This is worrisome.

“Some of these youngsters have become very big. Some of them feel that playing in Ranji Trophy is not as important as playing in the IPL.”

Concern is good, in the limited sense that it shows the administration is aware of the problem. But concern is merely the first step — the second, equally important, step is to act on that concern, and this is where the board needs to step up. Clearly, as Harsha pointed out, the problem is pervasive, and the fact that it exists is common knowledge; the corrective measure should be for the BCCI to issue norms that address this ill, and ensures that players who skip domestic tournaments, when not occupied with international cricket, will not be allowed to play in the IPL and similar leagues.

Man management has been an area the board has consistently fallen down on, and the problem Shetty has pointed at is merely one aspect. The latest escapades — with Ramesh Powar, and Dhaval Kulkarni — involving Shantakumaran Sreesanth is another. The latter has drawn a fine, and a ‘final warning‘. A clip from the Powar incident:

He returned in the afternoon to lead Rest of India’s revival with yet another probing spell. He later said that after his stint under Allan Donald for Warwickshire, he has tried to concentrate on his own bowling rather than on what the batsman is doing. There were just a couple of occasions when the old fiery Sreesanth threatened to crack open the lid of self-control.

The first came when the umpire denied a plausible lbw appeal against Ramesh Powar. He stared at the umpire, turned and looked at the batsman, then to his fielders and then back again at the umpire. He slowly trudged back and stood at the umpire’s position and had a look down the track as if he was trying to gauge the umpire’s field of vision as he played back the ball in his mind. It was pure drama. The holiday crowd roared at the sight of the old Sreesanth. They had tried baiting him at the boundary the whole day but he remained stoic – on only a couple of occasions did he indulge them with a wave and a disarming smile.

Senior national players will tell you that the problem had its genesis in this incident:

The fans loved it. The media — especially television, which knows to milk viral video clips when it stumbles on them, but is not too concerned with the fruits of their actions — replayed it endlessly to the accompaniment of talking heads screaming hoarse about how this typified the ‘new India’. We were told that this ‘new India’ is aggressive; that it will give back in kind and with any interest any slights others might inflict on it.

In casual conversations a couple of veterans told me at the time that the incident and its aftermath created a monster. An accurate paraphrase of their comments: The crowd loved Sreesanth for it, and he got carried away by the adulation. From then on, he really began to play to the gallery, and the more the crowds roared at his antics the more he acted up — not just on the field of play, but even in the dressing room. Some of us would take him aside, and tell him to watch his step; we told him that if he bowled well and batted as he was capable of when he put his mind to it, the adulation would naturally follow. But for him, winning approval through his antics, through throwing tantrums on the field and devising new ways of celebrating a wicket, was more fun than putting in the hard yards to stay on top of his game. On a couple of occasions when his behavior was really over the pale, we had even discreetly suggested that the team manager on behalf of the board haul him up before he went completely out of control, but no one did anything. The result is a total waste of seriously good talent.

That harks back to the point of man management. A friend who till not long ago was a senior administrator in the Australian board once told me a story of Damien Martyn. Apparently when he was on his first tour of England, he wasn’t picked for the first Test despite batting like a dream, and being the lead scorer in the two warm-up games. When he scored again in the side game following the first Test but was not picked in the playing XI for the next, Martyn went to pieces: binge drinking, being loud and obnoxious in the team hotels, flipping his senior birds the mate, misbehaving at team meetings, the works.

The ACB acted immediately. Martyn was hauled up before the board representative on tour; he was given a paper that itemized the problem areas in his conduct and told that any further instances would entail an immediate exit from the team. Further, the tour manager switched Martyn’s room-mate [another junior player] and lodged him with senior pro David Boon, who was given the job of kicking the youngster’s butt and ensuring he behaved. The result: the ACB and the team, working in harness, saved a seriously good talent before Martyn went totally overboard.

In my time of following cricket I’ve seen several talented players [think Sadanand Vishwanath, L Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh to name just three of the more obvious; Yuvraj Singh is a contemporary player whose lack of discipline coupled with the lack of a firm management hand on the reins is responsible for his being occasionally brilliant, without ever plumbing the depths of what is indisputably an incandescent talent] go off the rails — and heard administrators of the time tut-tutting about how youngsters don’t know how to handle instant fame. When I tried arguing that the board stood in loco parentis to these youngsters, and had a measure of responsibility in their cricketing and personal upbringing, the most common response would be an incredulous ‘Huh’?!

Alan Donald, who worked with Sreesanth during the latter’s Warwickshire stint, is very perceptive on the question of what ails the lad. Excerpts:

Donald was well aware of Sreesanth’s abilities with the ball and his excitable nature, having witnessed the Indian’s spectacular performance in the Johannesburg Test in 2006, where he took five wickets and helped India to a dramatic victory. “We wanted someone who could overstep the line a little bit and we know how Sreesanth can do that. But I knew I could control him, and we chatted about it quite a lot.”

Donald said they had extensive talks about the training routine, and reckoned Sreesanth had plenty of areas to work on. “First of all, his training habits are not good and the way he goes on to the field need to change. Then, he doesn’t put enough time on specifics.”

Donald also said Sreesanth needed to work on his attitude, and his tendency to lose the plot when things didn’t go his way. “I know he is aggressive, he is passionate and I know he just boils over with emotions in the heat of the battle. There is nothing wrong with that but I just think sometimes he lets himself down.”

At the start of the Irani Cup last week, Sreesanth declared his intentions of working hard to keep himself calm. By the end of the game he had been fined 60% of the match fee for using abusive language against Mumbai’s Dhawal Kulkarni.

Donald said coaches and team-mates were bound to get frustrated with Sreesanth’s temperament, and that he was likely to fall out of line with the team management as well. “It is frustrating in a way. I do have a problem with that because it is not the real him,” Donald pointed out. “It is false in the way he conducts himself. You need to be in serious form to back your body language. Off the field he is a little kitten – he speaks the right thing, comes and says ‘sorry for this and that’. But my message to him is he cannot come off the field and apologise. It is too late.”

‘It is not the real him’ is particularly perceptive — the real Sree is a friendly, happy go lucky fellow who genuinely loves playing the game, and as genuinely wants to do well. The metamorphosis comes when he crosses the line, and the crowds egg him on.

The good bit is he hasn’t lost all his talent yet — he bowled really well in the Irani game, following on from a good stint in English county cricket. It’s now time the board took a hand in his rehabilitation — instead of merely issuing a ‘final warning’, the administrators could with profit talk to the player, give him a clear understanding of what is at stake and what he stands to lose, and use senior players and even support staff to assist in the recovery. For instance, where is it written in stone that the mental conditioning expert who now forms part of the support staff should only work with members of the playing squad?

We appear to operate under the assumption that there is an endless pool of talent in the country, and therefore there is no real need to conserve, and promote, whatever talent comes to the surface — if something goes wrong with a player, there’s plenty more where he comes from, sums up the prevailing mindset.

Guess what — there isn’t plenty more where a Sreesanth, an Irfan Pathan and such come from: check out how we struggled to put together a decent attack in recent times, including in the Champions Trophy.

15 thoughts on “The space between your ears

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  3. Prem,
    Any thoughts on Mumbai getting the final of the 2011 World cup. Australia have been pulling out of many sporting events in India citing security concerns. England did it during the badminton world cup. Given that we can’t say with any measure of confidence that there won’t be another major attack within India in the next 2 years, what if either Australia or England makes it to the final and then refuses to play citing security concerns? If that happens, would the cup be automatically awarded to the other finalist, making it a win by forfeit? That would be an unusual situation. But then, you can’t expect the BCCI or World Cup committee to allocate matches based on Australia’s or any other cricket team’s level of comfort. However considering the Mumbai attacks and the not so great security, I couldn’t help thinking about this scenario. Any thoughts on that?

    • No thoughts yet — sometime early next year, the ICC is expected to discuss and release the list of playing conditions. I’d like to see what provisions they — and the hosts — make for unforeseen circumstances before we take this thought any further.

  4. There are three problems with your article.

    1) Sreesanth’s performances for Warks has been mediocre. His FC stats place him 71/156 (ave=32.15, W/ings/mat=13/10/5. This is on par with D H Smith & Franklin. In Challengers, he took NIL wickets and was outbowled by atleast 4 pacers, incl two rookies. Irani may have been an exception (he took 2 tailend wickets/3). Hence, comparison with Martyn and Yuvraj is very far from the mark.

    2) In situations like these, the employers (ie. BCCI) will pack the guy off for psychiatric sessions for a period of months to a year. How is burdening Team India Sports Psychologist going to help? (I assume you are not advocating a recall for him??)

    3) I’m uncomfortable with yourself, who tend to make easy (often ill-informed) parrellels between people. For this reason, Point 2 will help BCCI understand what ails SS and is the better way forward. This process, the obligation to attend, discuss & be judged, will make SS confront the wider concerns of the governing body.

    Donald’s report of SS, is indeed damning: physical training and skills workout are inadequate for a professional BCCI contracted player. Donald seems the right sort to spend a series with Team India and make observations about other Team India pace bowlers. V Prasad can take a holiday for that series!!

    • Arvind, I must be doing something wrong if you interpreted my words to mean a comparison between Sree and Martyn. I used the Aussie example merely as an indicator of how, if a problem is spotted with a player, a pro-active administration can work to solve it. Period. As for Sree’s recent performance, I watched the Irani game for the most part and saw him bowl. I doubt that wickets alone are a yardstick of measurement — I can think of innumerable instances where bad bowling has gotten wickets and vice versa. As for the Warwickshire stint, I didn’t watch him, but his bowling coach presumably did and I took his word for it.

      The BCCI will pack the player off for evaluation, you said. And I’ve been saying what? Question is, has the BCCI done it?

      “I’m uncomfortable with yourself, who tend to make easy (often ill-informed) parrellels between people.” — Yes, well. Reader discomfort with what I write is okay with me, this is a blog not a sermon on the mount. Might help though if you only read into my words what actually exists, not what you think I am saying.

  5. A GWB moment here – “flipping his senior birds the mate”… 🙂 Other than that, the article was right on the money! Sreesanth might become an extreme version of Merv Hughes or Andre Nel, a guy remembered more for his antics rather than performances on the field.

  6. Prem

    What about Ishant? why he is bowling at low 130’s , is he really a 145+ bowler or just that brief stint in Australia inflated his speed for a while !!!

    I am really curious of the fact that, all the major bowlers on display in Irani trophy, not one of them can cross 140 at any time during the match. Someone like Dhawal Kulkarni, main bowler for Mumbai , bowling consistently at 120 and all !!
    Do you think we lack the physical fitness , or due to pitches in India or just the bloody speed gun

  7. Hi Prem,
    I’ve read almost everything you’ve wrote in the last 5 years. But generally too lazy to send you my appreciations for what you write.
    In this instance, however, i don’t agree with the way you intend to treat players like sreesanth and yuvraj. Whatever’s wrong with treating an adult like an adult? Turning BCCI, which is already quite fascist, into a parenting organization for the players, imho, would only turn into a disaster. Ultimately, the player faces the consequences of his actions. Luckily, players have plenty of people willing to advice them, which, it certainly looks like, they also willingly seek. From then on, its up to them to act on good advice and succeed or not.
    This is how adult world works for the rest of us, I wouldn’t want my manager at work to act like my mom or dad and I’m sure the players feel the same way.

  8. Martyn got a talk from Aus Cric Board: Shape up or ship out. A Sr. player was asked to keep a tab on him. End result? He shaped up.

    Sree has probably got several such ‘talks’ from the BCCI. Looks like a few Sr. players have told him what needs to be done to save his career. Yet, he persists in his inexcusable on field behavior.

    Moral of the story: You can take a horse to the water fountain, but can’t make him drink.

    This idea that the BCCI needs to nuture talent is apt. BCCI clearly failed with regards to the likes of Irfan Pathan. But, with regards to Sree I think the onus is on the individual. Errant behavior and a sudden loss of confidence or skills are 2 very different things. The former is solely the individual’s responsibility; the latter the BCCI definitely has a role to play and should (unfortunately, it doesn’t).

  9. Perceptive article. I do have a question though.
    Sreesanth has been treated rather harshly by the media and the administration since then. Yes, that youtube clip became a monster, but since then, Sreesanth has been depicted consistently in a negative light. I bet most of the seniors don’t give him the time of day and haven’t for 2 years. He hasn’t represented India almost 2 years.
    He’s almost 27 years old. Isn’t it time we lay the onus on him too. The Indian system of “support” is not exactly Australian and probably will never be. But people like Zaheer and Nehra came through after a few years in the wilderness. I know Zaheer had “attitude problems” but overcame them.
    Its really upto the player himself, IMO. Until then, all we can do is wait; and hope that the IPL riches don’t dim Sreesanth’s aspirations to represent India.

  10. I think the BCCI should let Sree dance away in talk/reality shows and let him find his true calling. The last time someone tried to “help” him with some “tough love” in the way Boon did to Martyn, he lost nearly 3 crores! I dont think any other senior player would want to touch him with a barge pole!

  11. Sad reading and even sadder to think that none of the young recruits see it fit to imbibe from the temperament, behaviour and dignity of the Fab Five. Dhoni has his job cut out for the next few years – bat,keep wickets, captain the team, deliver wins, deal with the media especially when the team loses, and now manage the brats, whew!

  12. I think the article is spot on.

    If only warning letters were discovered to be the ultimate solution to behavioral problems, we would have heard the collective sigh of the parents of many an errant child.

    BCCI’s childish act of issuing a well publicised warning will at best have the effect of suppressing what has unquestionably been ingrained in the player’s psyche without necessarily curing it.

    Would like to discuss this further with you, but not necessarily in the public domain. If you don’t mind, send me your contacts and, then we can get chatting?

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