In this Idea Exchange, former cricketer and AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP Harbhajan Singh discusses the mental fragility of the visiting Australian team, what India should do to win ICC trophies and why politics minus rancour is the way to go ahead. The session was moderated by Devendra Pandey, Senior Assistant Editor.
Devendra Pandey: Do you think this is the most mentally fragile Australian team to tour India?
If you compare to other Australian teams which toured earlier — we don’t want to go 30-40 years back but even if we go that far — I think this is probably the weakest team. Not in terms of skills, mentally they are very fragile. They are not able to handle pressure the way the Aussies used to. It’ll be fair to say this is not the Aussie-Aussie kind of team that we used to see or play against.
Devendra Pandey: Can you elaborate on what this team lacks?
The Aussies used to have a lot of plans before touring any country. They understood the conditions better than the other teams. That’s the reason they were a bit more successful than others, even in India. This team, particularly, are clueless. They don’t have any plans. In the first game, they were clueless. They knew these conditions would be challenging for any batter — the ball will spin from the first ball. It’s not something that’s started to happen now; it’s been happening for the last eight-10 years. In 2012-13, they lost on similar wickets. They were clueless even at that point in time but they fought better than this. But this team, I don’t see anyone standing up and taking those challenges and trying to do something different than what others are doing. Before the first Test even began, there was so much chaos. They were thinking about what will happen, will the pitches spin. They even got a bowler like R Ashwin at nets. But when you bat at nets and you bat in the middle, those are two different things. So you’ve hyped up among yourselves about how Ashwin and (Ravindran) Jadeja will bowl. So what! No matter how the pitch is, you should know how to manage the game. Know that 200-250 will be a good score… At least try to get that somehow. I couldn’t see any of this planning.
I have spent 20-odd years in cricket and enjoyed every bit of it. Today, whatever I am is because of the game. Even the reason why I was given the MP seat is because I am Harbhajan Singh, the cricketer
Devendra Pandey: What happened in the second Test?
In the second Test, they thought attack is the best option. That’s true when things are under your control. But when you are trying to attack the opposition, you still need to assess the bounce and spin of the pitch; who the bowlers are; what are the scoring options and how often will you attack. But that was not the case. They were trying to play those sweep shots which was not the right option. The ball was staying low. Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been happening from the time since the stadium, which is now named after Arun Jaitleyji, was called Kotla. When the ball is keeping low, sweep is the worst option you can apply. Out of the 10 wickets, seven fell to sweep shots and one batsman lost his back stump while trying to hit a reverse sweep. That shows there wasn’t any plan and the one they had wasn’t right. So, if this is the way the Australian team is thinking, this is probably the worst I have seen…
Devendra Pandey: Is the art of defence dying?
To be fair, these are very challenging conditions even for our batters. If spinners are bowling, it’s very challenging for any batter to defend. But you need to learn the art of how to defend. Suddenly, if you come to India and think you’ll learn defence in three-four sessions, that’s not going to happen. You see how (Cheteshwar) Pujara bats or any Indian batsmen. They play with soft hands. But they still get out because the wicket is doing so much. When the wicket is so challenging, no batsman is set even when you are batting at 70-80. One good ball will take your wicket. These are tough conditions, not just for Aussies but for Indians also, but Indians are doing better because they are kind of used to it. It’ll be very harsh for me to say they (Australians) don’t know how to play. They do, but these are challenging conditions, these snake-biting conditions are making life very difficult for a batsman.
The BCCI is right. We shouldn’t be sending our team to Pakistan. Even recently, some firing happened next to Karachi stadium. You don’t want to send your team to a place where anything can happen at any time
You see the averages of our Indian batsmen have dropped drastically in the last eight-nine years. Ajinkya (Rahane) mentioned the other day that one of the reasons his average fell was that Indian pitches were such that it was impossible to bat on them. So, it is difficult to pinpoint anyone on these pitches… to say (Australian cricketer) David Warner isn’t playing well, or someone else for that matter. But yes, their intent isn’t correct.
Venkata Krishna B: With influence of spinners getting reduced overall in limited-overs cricket, should ICC go back to just one ball, as every second World Cup is going to happen in the Indian subcontinent?
There has to be some balance between bat and ball. Now, everything tilts towards the batsman. If I am an off-spinner, I will have to have point or mid-off in at all times. It becomes a challenge for spinners as well as fast bowlers. There needs to be some cushion for them. As long as the ball is new, there will be swing. Around the 25-over mark, the ball is in the best condition for hitting. So, from the 25th to 35th overs, when the ball will get old, reverse swing will be there and spinners will be able to bowl in the later stages as they will be able to grip the ball better. So, the old rule was much better. Two different balls from two ends, and five fielders inside the circle is too much in favour of the batsmen. You talk to any of the greats — Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni — they will say it was hard work to score a hundred. You will not see scores of 340, 380 getting chased. Now, just because you have two new balls, which are harder balls, and five fielders in, those runs are not safe enough and getting chased most of the time.
Venkata Krishna B: Is there a dearth of off-spinners coming through the system now?
The shorter format is killing the art of spin bowling. Nobody wants to take up the challenge, because with IPL, we see different bowlers doing different sort of stuff, not proper off-spin or left-arm spin. Left-arm spinners are trying to bring the ball in, rather than spinning the ball. The same goes for off-spinners. They are not spinning the ball in, but taking it away, or trying the knuckle ball. The mindset has changed.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Did you ever imagine the switch to politics you would make, and how different has it been for you?
It’s an altogether different field for me. I have spent 20-odd years in cricket and enjoyed every bit of it. Today, whatever I am is because of the game. Even the reason why I was given the MP seat is because I am Harbhajan Singh, the cricketer. I am still very new, very raw in politics and trying to know how things work. Being at Parliament sessions, meeting the big people of our country, the decision-makers, is an experience. Sharing my knowledge, getting to know their mind in a lot of different aspects of life and what is happening in India is obviously a big learning. The more time I spend in it, the more I am trying to learn from different people. I try to keep as much track as I can of these political agendas — what is happening in India — and try to raise the same issues in Parliament and also what is happening recently in Delhi with (the election of the) mayor and stuff between the BJP and AAP.
Mallica Joshi: What is your overall sense of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) mayoral poll issue in Delhi?
Whatever happened there isn’t a good thing and it’s not a good sight for people of any country watching the proceedings. It is not the right thing to do and a lot of people are watching you. No matter which party you belong to, this kind of behaviour is not right at all. You can sit and talk to find a solution to issues. But if we take this approach, it will just keep on swinging back and forth. I am too young to say what is right or wrong but issues can be resolved by sitting and talking. For that, people from both sides must come forward, putting their pride aside. They need to find the right solution and I think these things can be sorted out very easily.
Tushar Bhaduri: Has left-arm spin become the most effective style of spin bowling?
Those bowlers who aim at the stumps will do well. You see how good Ashwin and Jadeja’s records are. Axar Patel played when England visited India and his record is good as well. Left arm-spinners are effective because when the ball stays straight, the batsman tries to save the pad and when the batsman tries to save the pad, the bat comes in. And if the ball spins from there, the slip and the keeper come into play.
Nihal Koshie: At the moment, there is no chief selector. How important is it for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to hire someone with stature?
A man with stature, one that has played the game quite often, will solve a lot of issues at the selector level. But why wouldn’t they take up the opportunity? I’ll give the example of Virender Sehwag.
If you ask Virender Sehwag to become the chief selector, then the salary of that post needs to be analysed. I don’t know how much the chief selector in India earns, but if Sehwag is in commentary or in other businesses around cricket, then iti s likely he is earning more money. If you want Sehwag, a player with stature, for the chief selector’s job, then spending money has to be key. If you don’t spend money, then you will have to choose selectors from players who may have only played a year and might not be that big a name. If a man like Rahul Dravid is made the coach, then the chief selector must have the same stature as well — jiski awaaz mein dum ho, jiske wajood mein dum ho (whose voice and stature carry weight).
Nihal Koshie: If the BCCI pays more, will you be open to become the chief selector?
Let’s see. If things shape up moving forward, and coach and selector are equally paid, then why not?
The job of the coach is to stay with the team and plan around the team. But team selection is also an equally important job. You have to pick and select the best players and if you don’t select players that are needed by the coach or captain, then the chief selectors position doesn’t have value.
Navjeevan Gopal: I wanted to ask you about the Asia Cup controversy between India and Pakistan and what do you think of the BCCI’s role in it?
I think the BCCI is right. We shouldn’t be sending our team to Pakistan. Even recently, some firing happened next to Karachi stadium. You don’t want to send your team to a place where anything can happen at any time. Any place which can be a security issue for players shouldn’t be considered.
Devendra Pandey: Should the BCCI monitor the work load better to make players play longer?
A machine runs well when it’s used regularly but not overworked and overused; it will go bad. Jasprit Bumrah or any other talent should be treated likewise. Take Yuzvendra Chahal, no one takes his name these days, but his record is so good. Or Ashwin. If you want these players to play long, then there should be a rest period, think what’s good for them. Rest is as important as playing. Else, the body slowly and surely will break down. The day it breaks down, then no one knows after six months or a year, how it will function.
Tushar Bhaduri: Was it easy to transition as a commentator?
Playing is tough, and the real fun is in playing. On mike, you can share your mind, what you feel is happening in the game — what can happen, what should happen, according to your experience. It’s fun as it’s still to do something with the game that I love and played. It allows me to stay connected with the game in some capacity. I am still trying to learn every day; you see a new shot, new ball.
Devendra Pandey: Why has India not been able to win an ICC event for a while now?
It has become a bit of a pattern. In 2018-19 we saw that there was a lot of shuffling of players. Dinesh Karthik was playing, Rishabh Pant was also playing… How to win a big match, there is a little lack of experience. Big matches are high pressure. World Cup pressure is different from bilateral series. Bigger the tournament, the higher the pressure is. Very few people actually take that kind of pressure. We used to say that if Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli make runs, then India will win. But now there is Hardik Pandya. We have more players now (potential match-winners) and I hope this trend will change. With the kind of talent we have, I think we should be able to. If you are unable to win with the talent we have, then when will you win?
Devendra Pandey: This year the 50-over World Cup is being played in India. So what can the team do differently?
I think we need to show a little more intent. If you are playing T20s then you can’t play it like a one-day match. If you are playing one-day, you can’t play it like a Test match. We can’t be dependent on two-three players to win you the championship. When you have a World Cup in front of you, you need eight to nine guys performing at the same time. One or two players can win you matches, but it is the team which can win you the tournament.
Devendra Pandey: Going ahead, do we need a younger coach for the T20 format?
Yes, you have two captains, so you can have two coaches. Why not? Someone whose planning is different. Like England has done with Brendon McCullum. Someone like Virender Sehwag or Ashish Nehra who worked with Gujarat Titans and Hardik Pandya won his first tournament (IPL) as captain. So, bring someone who understands the concept of T20 and the demands of the game. The coach knows that focus is on T20 cricket. Say if Nehra is the T20 coach, then he knows that his job is to make the Indian team champions in the T20 format, and Dravid knows he has to work on how the Indian team can be No.1 in Tests and ODIs.
Why Harbhajan Singh
One of the stars of India’s 2001 comeback series victory against Australia, Harbhajan Singh, the off-spinner, always performed well against the arch rivals. Having been part of some memorable face-offs with champion Aussie teams of his time, he is well placed to comment on the current team on tour in India that is struggling on India’s pitches. Singh has also recently joined politics and is now a Rajya Sabha MP from the Aam Aadmi Party. He’s also recently moved into commentary, sharing his experience of the game with the audience.