Hands on attitude

 

Sri Lanka was easy, Pakistan will be the real test for Chappell and Dravid

A Special Correspondent Delhi

It's been six months since Greg Chappell assumed command of Indian cricket. He began as a coach who ran into Sourav Ganguly at the very first bend but since then has ploughed on with a mixture of luck and pluck and now the booty of kingdom is in his hands. If he was a master batsman, he has also shown himself as a supreme cricket theoretician and brings a maniacal zeal to his job. However, the jury is still out on his man-management ability.

Chappell has clearly shown himself as a man who would brook no opposition. All those men and issues that confront him must give way or be ready to get crushed under his onslaught. He is quick to take offence and clearly feels he knows more about the game than anybody else. That might be true to a large extent, but his clear contempt for any other viewpoint is alarming. His influence, before long, would cause rebellion.

Chappell has stretched himself so thin that if he now tries to make a Ganguly out of somebody else, he would find himself in hot waters. Everyone perceives him to be intolerant and a similar treatment to a Virender Sehwag or a VVS Laxman would make his position untenable. Why, there is even a risk that before long, he would cause a serious breach of trust with captain Rahul Dravid.

So far the Chappell and Dravid alliance has worked well. One is domineering and an autocrat; the other a hard-nut cricketer but a shrinking violet when it comes to handling fellow men. Dravid, because he is gentle and discreet, wouldn't call a spade a spade and would rather go about his work quietly. He has let Chappell take command because he has been busy adjusting himself to the new role and to the turbulence that Ganguly's exit has caused to Indian cricket.

The issue would come to fore when Dravid would be required to assert himself. It is a situation that Dravid can't ignore for long. He would have to react to his men's aspirations and concerns and he cannot be seen as someone who is only passing on the messages out of the invisible hand of Chappell. Players like to relate to their leader and Dravid, with all due respect to his quality as an individual and a cricketer, is perceived as somebody who is not quite a captain. His decisions are seen as those of Chappell's and his viewpoint only a reflection of what the Australian thinks. Players, in such a situation, are not prone to sharing their issues with their captain and it can only be described as a ticking time bomb.

Chappell could be mistaken in believing that Dravid would never be able to assert himself in front of him. He could perceive that Dravid is accommodating by nature and would give way rather than confront an issue. It has been Dravid's method all through his career and it is unlikely to change now that he is in the second and final phase of his career.

Everything has worked well so far because India has been winning. For it they need to be thankful to Sri Lanka who proved to be a spineless opposition. Marvan Atapattu's men lacked class and spunk to take India in their own backyard. The return of Sachin Tendulkar and the early roll for the Indians proved quite overwhelming for the Lankans. Despite the tall claims of Tom Moody before he arrived for the Test series, it was clear that Lanka was suffering from lack of talent and form in their ranks.

In that respect, it was easy going for the Indians. They picked their runs and wickets in comfort and style and even the threat of Muthiah Muralitharan was negotiated without undue concern as the SG balls didn't quite go well with the Sri Lankan off-spinner.

The protruding seam of the ball didn't allow Murali to grip the ball as he wanted to. The threat of Murali negotiated, nothing could stop the Indians.

It would be different though in Pakistan. Shoaib Akhtar and his men are waiting to bite their teeth into Indian flesh. Pakistan is on a roll and after England, their next target is India. They have a lot to play for: despite the heroics of drawing a series in India in early 2005, Pakistan still carries the scar of the 2004 series when they lost to the arch rivals 2-1.

As the series against England showed, Pakistan is now a fine unit. They are perhaps better than India in more respect than one: they have awe-inspiring fast bowler; a mystery spinner in Danish Kaneria, swashbuckling allrounders in Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq and a captain who always seems to put his hands up when the chips are down. Even their wicketkeeper Kamran Akamal, though not a Mahinder Singh Dhoni, is extremely effective with the bat and if compared, certainly a better keeper.

Indians, on the other hand, would still be uncomfortable with the state of their batting. The openers are clearly struggling and might expose the soft underbelly of the team. India's middle order is not as strong as everyone perceives it to be. Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman clearly have an issue with their consistency and Yuvraj Singh is only feeling his way into international cricket. Rahul Dravid alone is "the wall" who everyone is looking forward to shore up the Indian challenge.

With the top order being what it is, it would be unfair to expect the lower to bail the batting out as they did against Lanka. They wouldn't have such a luxury against a better attack. India's runs must come from the top of their order or the challenge is doomed.

Let's make no mistake: India's secret against Pakistan in the last couple of series has been the runs they have been able to put on board. It was largely possible because of two outstanding batsmen in their ranks: Sehwag and Dravid. However, Sehwag has not been in the pink of form lately. His form could be a critical factor in India's performance in Pakistan.

It was the Indian batsmen who put runs and allowed bowlers to come to party in Pakistan the last time round. If India now is not able to put up a big total, it would be difficult for bowlers like Kumble to go along with their experiments. Kumble wouldn't have the pitches to his liking in Pakistan this time: they are preparing hard and bouncy tracks for the Indians and it makes sense.

Despite the impressive averages of the Indian batsmen, it is also a fact they are uncomfortable against short-rising deliveries. Nobody is a good hooker, except may be Gautam Ghambir. Dravid too only is a good leaver of the ball. Tendulkar, despite his early promise on his return, has again gone back to his old circumspect style of play. VVS Laxman, if reports are to be believed, is not in the best of physical shape and could be seriously tested in Pakistan.

If India falters in Pakistan, knives would be out for Chappell, if not Dravid. Everyone has now sensed that his measures are too dramatic and not exactly suited to the Indian style of functioning. He is perceived as to be coming down hard on any opposition and there would be voices of dissent in galore if India does not do well in Pakistan. The criticism would also be deflected on Dravid, who is capable of inspiring with his personal deeds but is yet to be tested when it comes to personal equations. A leader needs to be sensible to the demands of his men and play the role of a big brother. One is not sure if Dravid has yet assumed that mantle, which fit in so snugly on the profile of Sourav Ganguly.