Experience is a two-edged sword

2008 Jan 01 by Suresh Menon

What works on a featherbed in Bangalore will not work on the faster, bouncier tracks of Australia.

By Suresh Menon

Sachin Tendulkar chops the ball onto his wicket from the underside of a horizontal bat, V V S Laxman plays down the throat of a fielder placed just in front of the bat for that very stroke, Rahul Dravid gets into a tangle with his feet and is leg before, Sourav Ganguly misjudges length and is bowled by a spinner. Is there a pattern here? India’s vaunted middle order has played a combined total of 445 Tests, so skill is clearly not the problem. In cricket, you can be skillful without being technically correct, so the temptation is to ask if technical flaws are being exposed at this stage of their careers.

Sure, Dravid’s problem is different in both degree and kind from that of his colleagues, and only one man can help that, Dravid himself. I don’t know if the psychologist (or someone from his stable) who changed Viv Richards from a struggling, diffident batsman on a tour of Australia into an arrogant world beater is still plying his trade there. If so, a visit to him might be fruitful. India’s new coach Gary Kirsten has said that he would like a sports psychologist with the team, but he takes over only from the third Test, and the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy might be decided by then.

Perhaps there is another reason for the batting debacles of the first Test. The once fearsome foursome have not made allowance for the sportsman’s greatest enemy - age. Four years ago, the same bunch made centuries and double centuries in Australia with such panache that cricket historian David Frith suggested that India might have the best top six line-up of all time.

Caught between the brilliance of their early years and the necessary dullness of their later period, India’s stars have failed to make the adjustment. For inspiration, they need to turn to a great batsman of a previous generation - no, not Sunil Gavaskar, whose technique was flawless for most of his career, but Gundappa Vishwanath who broke all the rules when young, and then made the adjustments in the latter part of his career. He changed from a leg stump guard to middle stump; he consciously began to play straighter.

All of us believe we can beat old man Time. At 40, we believe we can run and jump the way we could at 20; at 50, we cannot believe we are slower than at 40, and so on. Where it is a question of gradual change over decades in the ordinary run of things, for sportsmen, that period is compressed into years, months, and sometimes weeks. And it doesn’t help when the cricket Board in pursuit of the extra dollar refuses to give the team time to acclimatise itself to the special conditions in Australia.

Experience is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you can work yourself out of trouble, on the other you carry enough baggage to slow you down. There is too the fact that the longer you play, the more bad habits you can pick up. What works on a featherbed in Bangalore will not work on the faster, bouncier tracks of Australia. The batsmen have got away too often; they are paying the price now.

We tell youngsters to respect age, but in sports, it is the old who have to learn to respect age.