October 19, 2007

Ghost in the machine.

“I see dead people” - Now, I may not quite be Cole Sear from “The 6th Sense” whose long unattended claim that was, but when it comes to cricket, it’s something like that.

I was watching the Australian innings unfold (fold?) in the last one-day game. Hopes was at the crease, playing a well ironed innings. Murali Kartik the bowler, about to deliver the 35.5th ball of the Aussie innings. Isn’t the suspense killing you? But I’m getting ahead of myself: after the previous ball (35.4th ) Hopes had a peculiar expression – nearly a half grimace, not a very comfy look if you ask me. I stood there and Boing! I pronounced him dead – he’ll have to go! And then lo, behold, Murali became Mackenna and struck gold – he bowled Hopes all ends up. Murali didn’t look over the moon, just another wicket in a day of excess. Maybe he knew something I did – that the end is nigh, it’s utterly hopeless for you-know-who.

When you look back it all fits in: Hopes’ expression after the previous ball, his obvious discomfort, the well thought of faster, skidding one that finally cleaned him up. Suffice to say, my reaction was no different from Kartik’s – after all, I was expecting it.

Of course, most cricketers have the gift, they’re sort of 6th sensed: but while playing Australia this instinct crumbles into a negative force, and they almost expect doom - why else do they give in so meekly? That too, without embracing any new thought whatsoever.

Shouldn’t Indian cricket use all its intuitive powers, and at least challenge this Aussie bully? Dare say, normal cricketing acumen isn’t enough to overpower Oz - they have to resort to guerilla warfare, like opening with spin or someone other than the usual suspects.

India opened with Harbhajan Singh after they made a measly 148 at the Vadodara ODI– but why alone do desperate times call for such extreme measures? Is it too tricky for Indian cricket to think out-of-the-box? Is the proverbial, what if, always haunting Indian cricket? Is the fear of criticism stopping Indian cricket from exceeding itself?

Experiments are essential versus Australia as they’re a far better team. However, their superiority is augmented when we serve them the same eleven-course meal repeatedly. How often, if ever, has India bothered to counter Aussie might with unconventional new thinking?

Granted, Zaheer Khan had an exceptional last game, and Kartik pulled off more rabbits than Hugh Hefner has bunnies – but usually India’s playing catch-up with Australia. Throughout the series Australia won handsomely while India’s wins were anything but that. And along with Shakira’s hips, facts don’t lie either: In this series, India won vs. Australia (chasing) after a gap of more than nine years.

Also, Australia is known to lose the last game in a dead rubber, maybe some of them are human too. But as Rameez Raja said of Symonds, “He is not human”.

So, how does one beat the machine? Not by calling it a monkey. Not by sledging alone. If it was so, Symonds would have rolled over and not been the man-of-the-series.

Face it, just like in those Hollywood fantasies, you beat the machine by staying human; true to your instincts, your own strengths, and not by aping the enemy. It may not work instantly, but it will push them harder – Australia will have to scrap harder to win games. No more one-sided 9-wicket wins. No more dreary defeats by a hundred plus runs. No, none of that.

Eventually, the doubts will creep in. That’s when the machine will show signs of mortality.

Now, pace alone cannot counter the Australians. Chances are, spin alone won’t do the trick either, but at least it will make them think out of their comfort zone. Even though the Wankhede wicket turned square, it’s worth asking, how often in the past has India gone into a one-day game vs. Australia with two specialist spinners?

Never too late for Indian cricket to face facts: the ghost in the Aussie machine is beatable. But first, we must beat the ghosts within our own machine - our screwed-up system – that which runs Indian cricket. And unless we put our own house in order, the cracks will only widen. And that like Hopes’ dismissal, I can see that clearly.

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