Exclusive Interview : ‘’It’s High Time We Looked Beyond Ishant Sharma‘’, Says Maninder Singh

As Virat Kohli and co. look to pull themselves together and stage a comeback in the second Test of the on-going Border-Gavaskar series in Bangalore which is slated to begin on Saturday, the pitch-debate has once again swung into the arc-lights; thanks to the contradictory views prevailing within the Karnataka State Cricket Association regarding the nature of the pitch which will decide the outcome of the all-important second Test of the four-match series against Australia.
Former Indian cricketer Maninder Singh though has urged the Indians not to clutter their minds too much and instead focus on the arduous task at hand. In this wide ranging conversation with cricfit correspondent Ritam Basu, the 51-year old cricketer-turned-expert talks about the road ahead for team India after feeling defeat’s cold embrace for the first time in the last sixteen months in the series-opener in Pune last week and the need to bring in fresh faces and discard the underperformers in a bid to salvage lost pride. Considered as a natural heir to Bishan Singh Bedi, the former left-arm spinner represented India in 35 Test matches (between 1982 and 1993) and claimed 88 wickets @ 37.36, plus another 66 wickets in 59 ODIs.

Q: Many cricketing pundits have started calling the current Indian Test team ‘the worst against spin’ after the humiliating 333-run defeat against Australia in the series opener in Pune. Do you agree with their opinion?

Maninder: To be honest, I don’t think this Indian team is well equipped to bat on such square turners if the opposition spinners bowl good lines and lengths. I don’t think these batsmen have played against quality spinners at any level. If you recollect, in the recent matches which were played on poor wickets, India’s highest score was 215 (against South Africa in the first innings of the inaugural Test of the four-match series in Nagpur in 2015)! So when you’ve no clue about playing spin on such crumbling surfaces, why are you adamant about preparing pitches like that?

Q: Reports have surfaced that the pitch which was originally designed for the first Test match at the MCA stadium in Pune was tampered upon the instructions of Daljit Singh, BCCI’s chief curator. Is it fair to transfer the buck of the team’s failure to the nature of the surface every time the team loses a Test match?

Maninder: You know, this is that one thing I have always abominated. Whenever the team goes abroad, it complains about unfavourable wickets. Whenever it plays on home soil, the talks revolve around the behaviour of the pitches and not cricket. This is exactly what happened in the first Test match; the players were so concerned about the pitch on offer that they failed to apply themselves on the field. It looked more like a ‘bunch of schoolboys’ playing cricket in Pune!

Q: How difficult is it for a team to bounce back after losing the first Test of a four-match Test series, and that too against the second-ranked team in the world?

Maninder: I have also lost confidence, if truth be told. But the pitches in the ensuing matches are going to be different. As a great fan of Virat Kohli, I am hoping that he can inspire his boys to stage a comeback. We have obviously seen the Indian team bounce back and turn things around in the past. It’s now up to Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli to motivate their troops ahead of the Bangalore Test.

Q: Do you think the Indians were a bit complacent in Pune?

Maninder: Against South Africa, New Zealand and England, the Indian team management got pitches prepared according to its whims and as a result the team won comprehensibly. But sorry boys, this is Australia! They are natural fighters. They might eventually vanquish, but they don’t go down without a fight. I have always been a big fan of the Australians, for their ability to retaliate and their mental toughness and their performance in the first Test was a glaring testimony to that.

Q: What according to you is the reason behind modern Indian batsmen’s weakness against spin bowling?

Maninder: I think it is the consequence of not facing quality spinners at the domestic level. Secondly, you need to give the boys enough time to get acclimatised to rank turners and that is clearly not happening. It’s fine if you want to play on pitches like that but you also need to practise batting on such turning tracks day in day out. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Q: Taking a cue from what you have said, there was a time when spinners like Padmakar Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel were the behemoths in the Indian domestic circuit, even though they never got the chance to ply their trade in the international arena. Has the lack of quality spinners in domestic cricket been a real concern for India in recent times?

Maninder: Absolutely so. I think India’s overindulgence in T20 cricket is a primary reason behind modern Indian batsmen’s susceptibility against spin. Last year during the Ranji Trophy as well, we saw matches ending in one-and-a-half or two days. The BCCI started the trend and later the state associations followed suit. So, on a wicket conducive to spin, a spinner just needs to pitch the ball in the right areas and leave the rest to the wicket. The art of spin is thereby dying and we are killing it further by making pitches like that.

Q: The Aussies prepared for three weeks in Dubai before embarking on the Indian tour. Do you think the Indians should take a leaf out of Australia’s book as far as preparing for overseas tours are concerned?

Maninder: Hats off to Australia for setting a template like that. They identified their Test players and withdrew them from the T20 Big Bash and the T20 series at home against Sri Lanka. In a nutshell, they have done their homework brilliantly.

Q: So how would you rate Steve O’Keefe after his exploits in the first Test?

Maninder: Frankly speaking, I don’t think he’s a top-class bowler. I don’t think he’s much of a threat anyway. With the wicket in Bangalore expected to be better than the one we saw in Pune, let’s see what he comes up with in the second match.

Q: Murali Vijay and KL Rahul both have proven track records in whites but they are yet to strike together as a pair. Would you say the shakiness of the opening pair is the biggest chink in Team India’s armour at present?

Maninder: It’s a big, big worry. Both these batsmen are so proficient that it hurts when you realize that they have struggled to forge partnerships at the top of the order. Why aren’t they scoring runs consistently? They need to understand their responsibilities. This is where Anil Kumble needs to step in and tighten the screws, with the help of the support staff of course. I think he’s the perfect man for the job.

Q: The pitch for the second Test in Bangalore has been the subject of much debate with different sources within the KSCA having different versions about the actual nature of the pitch. How much is the pitch going to come into play at the Chinnaswamy stadium?

Maninder: I have heard Sudhakar Rao (KSCA secretary) comment somewhere that the ground curators at the Chinnaswamy stadium are trying to make a sporting pitch which would last for five days. We all know the pitch at the Chinnaswamy stadium is a consistent pitch, devoid of uneven bounce. Can you imagine the kind of panic the Aussies have created in our cricket fraternity? The secretary (Sudhakar Rao) is saying something, whereas the curator is saying something else. This is nothing but the outcome of the havoc that the visitors have wreaked on our players’ minds.

Q: Let’s talk about a particular knock which has entered cricketing folklore to say the least. Sunil Gavaskar’s 96 in his final Test innings against Pakistan in Bangalore, is revered by many as the best knock ever played by an Indian on a rank turner. You yourself produced a stellar effort by picking up a match haul of ten wickets in that game. What was so special about that innings?

Maninder: He (Gavaskar) was a master! He isn’t called a master for nothing. He was an epitome of concentration. I remember him being written off before we toured England in 1986. I wasn’t playing in the last practice game against Somerset before the commencement of the actual Test series. I met Gavaskar sir on the stairs before he went out to bat and he gently tapped on my shoulder and said, ‘’don’t worry son. I will go out there and score a hundred’’ and he actually went on to get a hundred in that match.Coming back to Gavaskar sir’s final Test match, it left a bitter memory in our minds since we couldn’t win it. The performances that give you pleasure are the ones that help the team win. The 96 which Gavaskar sir scored in that match was a product of his level of immense concentration. To score so many runs on such a terrible wicket against the likes of Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed spoke volumes about the magnitude of that innings.

Q: Do the modern Indian batsmen lack enough concentration?

Maninder: Yeah, because they seem to run out of patience all the time.

Q: Ishant Sharma, the most experienced player of this Test outfit has picked up no more than 16 wickets in his last 11 Test innings. You reckon it’s high time we looked beyond him?

Maninder: For heaven’s sake! I have been saying this for a number of years now. Time and again, he’s referred to as the senior most bowler of the team, so my question is- when will the senior bowler actually deliver? Poor Bhuvaneshwar Kumar! Whenever he has been drafted into the side, he’s picked up wickets. You are not doing any good by dropping a bowler who has been doing well of late. The Indian think tank is basically taking his confidence away!

Q: Do you feel the need to accommodate an extra batsman in the playing eleven for the forthcoming Tests? Your erstwhile teammate Mohammad Azharuddin has recently said that Kohli needs to bring in Karun Nair in place of Jayant Yadav in Bangalore. Do you assent to that?

Maninder: It would be very harsh to be judgemental about a youngster like Jayant Yadav but he is not an international material as of yet. From whatever I’ve seen of him, he seemed like a very ordinary bowler to me. But he’s been working hard in recent times. His hunger for improvement seems to suggest that he can be polished and made to excel in the international arena. I am not sure what kind of combination we are going to see on the field on Saturday because Kohli has always been a strong advocate of playing five bowlers. However if you play on a pitch like the one in Pune, you need to go in with a robust batting line-up.

Q: How about unleashing an unknown commodity in KuldeepYadav, of whom the Australians haven’t seen much?

Maninder: I proposed that (Kuldeep’s inclusion) prior to the Bangladesh Test match. He’s a freakish kind of customer as not many people in world cricket bowl chinaman, so why not just throw him in? If Kohli persists with the 6-5 ploy, Kuldeep fits the bill perfectly. If I am to pick between Jayant Yadav and Kuldeep for the Test side, I will go with Kuldeep. I think he’s worth the gamble.

Q: Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli are two people who know the nitty-gritty of the M. Chinnaswamy stadium like the back of their hands. Will their knowledge about the ground conditions come in handy for the rest of the team?

Maninder: See, experience always comes in handy, there’s no shadow of a doubt about it. But it’s the players who need to take to the field and perform. The onus lies with the players to apply themselves and put up a good show.

Q: What according to you should be the modus-operandi for Kohli and co. in Bangalore?

Maninder: (I would advise them to) Forget about the previous Test match. It was a nightmare as well as a wake-up call for them. You are not going to get everything served on a platter. It would be incredulous to take the Australians as mere pushovers as they won’t allow the Indian team to breathe easy.

Q: These are the Do’s. What about the Don’ts?

Maninder: Number one, they shouldn’t be complacent, which they won’t be after losing the first match so heavily and number two, they shouldn’t count too much on the pitches but rather focus on the job at hand. The Indians need to remember that they are playing international cricket and more importantly, that they are playing against Australia which knows very well how to hold its opponents by the scruff.

Q: The Australians have credited their success in the Pune Test with the work put in by Monty Panesar and SridharanSriram behind the scenes. Do you see their employment as a masterstroke from Cricket Australia?

Maninder: Ummm….(pauses for a while and continues) I will give more credit to the pitch that was laid. And the attitude with which the Australians expressed themselves on the field was praiseworthy too. It does help when you have advisors who have played top-quality cricket at some point in their careers, but I wouldn’t jump into conclusions straightaway. I would rather prefer to see their performances in the next few Tests.

Q: A lot of experts had made predictions for the eventual outcome of the Border Gavaskar series, 2017 prior to its commencement. What’s Maninder Singh’s forecast going to be?

Maninder: You know what? Before the series got underway, I predicted it to end with a 3-0 score line. But now with the Australians having won the first Test match, a few doubts have begun to assailme. I am thereby not in a position to forecast but we can obviously look forward to a well-fought contest..

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