Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Chappell impact, and the skipper’s vote

A recent e-mail from a friend read, “When Mr. Greg Chappell is done with his present stint he will be writing a book inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. It will be called ‘My experiments with Indian team’.” My friend expressed an opinion gaining ground in a section of Indian cricket lovers. Excessive experimentation with strategies, they fear, may spell doom for Indian team by the time this pre-World Cup year closes. The issue never fails to engender a debate, major points being frequent changes in batting order and repeated switches between 5-bowler and 4-bowler teams (may be rephrased as 6-batsman and 5-batsman teams).

Oh, the delicious irony if it all! People having harsh words to say for Chappell’s Way would sing hosannas on ‘sound strategy’ and ‘consistent selection’ to prove their point, and so would those who praise it. Perception of the term ‘consistent’ can be the opposite banks of a river even to people sharing the same roof for best part of their lives.

We limit the current scope of discussion to batting. The conventional or age-old approach to deciding batting strategy of a match assigns the ‘specialist batsmen’ well defined batting positions and allowing them a long run there to prove themselves. The term ‘specialist’ here is meant to express trust on the skills of these batsmen at various aspects of the craft of batsmanship. They are expected to play a number of roles and change gears depending on the scenario developing in the middle.

We have seen this method at work for all international teams since the birth of Test cricket. For example, Sachin Tendulkar batted at number four in the Indian team for over a decade in Tests. His batting position was irrespective of the situation his team faced. He would show the best defence in international cricket at 13/2; and at 200/2 he would be a volcano waiting to explode. Most supporters of this theory also endorse playing same batsmen for all recognised formats of the game. “If they are good for Tests, they will do well everywhere.”

Modern cricket lays more emphasis on optimisation and a new approach is fast gaining popularity amongst teams striving for that extra inch. This is particularly true for one-day cricket. It endorses ‘horses for courses’ to be the right way to go for the desired result. Here a batsman is put through a SWOT analysis and then assigned an unambiguous role. He will then be either an accumulator or a destroyer or a 50-over man, and rarely the all-in-one of the earlier approach.

Promotion of stroke players as one-day openers was the first big step in this direction and New Zealand patented this theory in the 1992 World Cup through Mark Greatbatch. Thereafter one-day cricket degenerated to a drag as novelty became a rarity, but for the occasional bout, until the Indian team of late showed intent of taking it to the next level.

Greg Chappell’s experiment with the batting roles has redefined the term ‘specialist’. For a ‘specialist’ batsman in his team, the function is well defined but his position in batting order shall be ‘real-time’, i.e. skipper and coach will decide during the course of the match on the position he bats at.

In other words this player is not expected to make any adjustments to his game like the ‘old specialists’ and simply needs to carry it out the job on hand WHENEVER his team needs him to. Fallout: he moves up and down the order match after match and even sits out games when the team does not expect his specialised services to be required for a particular match. Chappell’s experimentation with the Indian one-day side and Dravid’s concurrence to it demonstrates their faith in this theory.

Does this new-age approach, attempted for the very first time by the Indian team management at the highest level, go with ‘consistency’? Some say yes, while most disagree even in the face of an upsurge in Indian performances in one-dayers. Concern about its impact on player psyche and confidence remains a major obstacle on its road to popularity. It certainly will be no cakewalk for unsuspecting players to redesign their well-entrenched beliefs all of a sudden and fit themselves in this new mould. Also, the gifted and free-spirited players, though performing well in the early days of Dravid-Chappell regime, may start dipping off under the robotic monotony of their routine once the novelty wears off.

The opportunity to judge ‘Chappell’s hypothesis’ on the basis of records is still a year away, in the least. This theory, much Like Suresh Raina and some other rookies that were selected with an eye on their potential, is another new member of the Indian team. It had an impressive debut but it will have to prove its worth over a period of time. The success or failure of this hypothesis in the long run, primarily in the 2007 World Cup, is linked to what the Indian players make of this vision. That alone will decide Chappell’s place in Indian cricket history as a visionary or a villain.

There is one small point, often given a miss in the exchange of crossfire between opposing factions, that perhaps needs to be kept in mind at all times while discussing this ‘consistency’ theme. The team management and selection committee must display consistency in selecting the playing squads. It matters even more than choice of strategy in the overall scheme of things.

The most important message for a player comes neither thru an email nor at the team meeting nor scribbled on a paper chit. It is there in the newspapers with the announcement of squads. Expecting players to adapt to a team strategy is fair enough but the team management is then responsible for the careers of players that are willing to comply. Players combining right attitude with desired performance levels need to be defended where it matters - in front of the selectors.

A vote for the skipper and the coach in selection meetings can be the logical way to go about it.
[Cross posted at Desicritics: sports]

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