India lose the plot when the pace is hot

Short and fast bowling has been a perennial problem for the world's No 1 Test team, and their woes have continued in the Caribbean.

Not only have Indians struggled against pace but they have a poor record in world events on a bigger platform.
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It must be a prickly irony for MS Dhoni, the India captain, that his highly-rated team are constantly being criticised for their inability to cope with pace and bounce. Remember, India are the No 1 Test team and their one-day ranking is second only to Australia. India were "bounced out" of the last World Twenty20 in England and have suffered similar troubles in the West Indies.

Ever since Sourav Ganguly formed that terrific captain-coach combination with John Wright in 2001, India have adapted better to foreign conditions, but one cannot say that they have conquered their weakness against sheer pace. The 2003-04 tour to Australia is a classic case in point. India did well to draw the Test series 1-1, but when it came to the one-day triangular tournament, they gave a very poor account of themselves in Perth, where they found the pace and bounce tough to negotiate.

All the good work in the Tests was diluted by a performance that some critics called gutless at the time. On the previous tour of 1999-2000, Sachin Tendulkar, the then captain, expressed his frustration to me in Perth after losing two games (against Pakistan and Australia) at the Western Australia Cricket Association ground about how players are expected to perform on quick tracks when they play most of their domestic cricket on lifeless pitches.

It reminded me of what Dilip Vengsarkar, the former batsman, said a few years prior to that Perth fiasco: "Batsmen can sleep and still make a hundred on some Indian tracks." To be fair, Indian groundsmen have accepted the importance of having sporting tracks. "But not all of them get the real freedom from their state associations to produce fast-paced wickets. There is a groundsman in Mumbai called Nadeem Memon, who got into hot water with his bosses for preparing quick strips against South Africa (2000) and Australia (2001).

Both those Test matches ended inside three days and Memon did not survive for long as a Test match groundsman. Sure, Memon's preparation seemed a touch over-cooked but the reaction to those India losses seemed over-the-top too. It would be a pity if Indian cricket bosses took a strong view of what has happened in the last two Twenty20 World Cups and instruct their groundsmen to prepare fast tracks.

The problem-solving method must be revolved first by getting younger cricketers to relish the challenge of playing fast bowlers. The next step could be to produce quicker wickets even for juniors so that players learn their skills at a young enough age. It is the coaches who have to come to the forefront. Sandeep Patil, who played for India from 1979-80 to 1986, had a problem with quick bowling as a young cricketer. He used to run away when the ball was coming his way at an uncomfortable pace and height. The late Ankush Vaidya, his coach, was quick to sort out the problem by tying the batman's legs to the pole of the nets so that he could not back off.

In only his second season of international cricket, Patil got a brilliant 174 against an Australian pace attack comprising Dennis Lillee, Len Pascoe and Rodney Hogg in the Adelaide Test of the 1980-81 series. In the previous Test, Patil had been flattened when a delivery from Pascoe hit him behind the left ear. "He collapsed and my first reaction was that I'd killed him," admitted Pascoe in an interview to The Telegraph.

Back to Indian wickets. Sure, we need some variety but trying to change the nature of tracks drastically could take away the fabric of Indian cricket ? the roll of the wrists, the deft deflections, playing with soft hands. India must not worry too much about their pace problems, but need to work harder to play the quicker ball better. For a long time now the world has held the view that when India succumbs to pace it is a disgrace, but when other teams fail miserably to spinners, it is merely at adaptation problem.

In Ball of Fire, the autobiography of Fred Trueman, the great England fast bowler, he quotes Herbert Sutcliffe, the legendary Yorkshire and England batsman, as saying, "Some batsmen can play fast bowling and some cannot, but if they all told the truth, none of them like it." More than the problem of tackling pace, what the men who run Indian cricket should be concerned about is the fact that India have a poor record when it comes to limited overs events held on a world stage as compared to bilateral series.

Apart from triumphing in the first World T20 in 2007, India have only one ICC event win in the past decade - the Champions Trophy that they shared with Sri Lanka in 2002. That is a dismal record for a team rated and ranked so highly. It could well be a mental problem, too. Indian selectors have traditionally backed youngsters and though they have the talent for the big stage, they often fall short on the mental aspect.

Ravindra Jadeja, the all-rounder, could be projected as an example. Jadeja has no shortage of ability but somehow he does not give the impression that he has a smart brain. Ian Chappell, who has watched a good deal of him during the World T20, has been keeping track of his sixes conceded and dot balls ratio. At the end of Sunday's game against the West Indies it was 9:7. Jadeja flopped when it came to the crunch in England last year and has not come up to expectations this year either.

He also failed to play smart cricket during the one-day home series against Australia. He could do with some counselling along with some other young players. It should now be mind over matter.