From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.44 :: Oct. 31, 2009

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CRICKET / FEATURE

‘I fear for the game’

“Everything has become so commercial these days. I believe if playing for the country is threatened or diminished in any manner because somebody else is offering more money, then the game will gradually die,” says the South African batting legend, Graeme Pollock, in a chat with S. Dinakar.

“I fear for cricket,” says batting legend Graeme Pollock. The South African realises the game is passing through a phase where its foundation is being shaken. On one side is the game’s famous spirit and on the other lies a mountain of money.

Pollock believes the game’s great tradition should be preserved. “The primary responsibility of the administrators is to protect the game. The contracts and the deals should not be put before cricket. The point is, if cricket does not survive, then what is the use of all this wealth? Money cannot come ahead of cricket itself,” he says.

Cutting down the number of overs to induce excitement is no answer, he points out. “Today you have Twenty20. Tomorrow you will have Ten10. The spectators will lap up the shorter forms which would bring in more money. But is that the real cricket?”

The influx of Twenty20 leagues has raised serious questions over the issue of players’ commitment. Cricketers are retiring from the longer formats to prolong their careers in the cash-rich slam-bang versions. Representing the country, it appears, is no longer the ultimate honour for some.

Pollock is bothered by England star Kevin Pietersen’s controversial remarks on Central Contracts awarded by the ECB. He is emphatic about playing for the country remaining the pinnacle of a cricketer’s career.

The South African icon says, “You cannot be giving in to the cricketers all the time. I just fear that if the cricketers begin to freelance, playing in the Twenty20 leagues, then playing for the country could become secondary. And cricket will disintegrate.”

He adds: “Everything has become so commercial these days. I believe if playing for the country is threatened or diminished in any manner because somebody else is offering more money, then the game will gradually die.”

The South African is concerned, too, over the kind of money young, budding cricketers are making from the Twenty20 leagues. “When you are a young, developing player and start raking in so much money for a month or two of cricket in its shortest form, then it could adversely impact your hunger and motivation, your technique and your mental preparation. It’s a dangerous scenario for somebody so young. Would he be able to handle it?”

There were few distractions for Pollock as he chased glory. Now 65 years of age, he is considered by many as one of the three greatest left-handers the game has seen; the other two being Gary Sobers and Brian Lara.

In 23 Tests, Pollock made 2256 runs at 60.97 with seven centuries. He was a gifted timer of the ball who stroked with the lazy elegance of a natural.

Those who watched him play say he no more than toyed with the most fearsome of attacks. And he had immense powers of concentration. In South Africa, they call him “the cricketer of a lifetime.”

His international career suffered during the dark days of the Apartheid era in his country. Pollock could so easily have been among the foremost Test run-getters of all time. But the legend does not live in regret. Instead, his memories are full of those glorious days in sunshine in the longest form of the game.

Pollock does not want Test cricket to be tampered with in any manner. “It’s fine as it is. Why do you need to have day-night Tests? Test cricket is the premium form. It’s played in different conditions over five days. It is the physical and mental demands of a Test that separates cricket from other sports. It’s unique and very special.”

The South African feels there is enough space for all forms of the game. “I enjoy watching the 50-overs-a-side game. Why do you want to reduce it to 40 overs? Why do you want to compete with Twenty20 cricket? The ODIs give you a nice full day of cricket. Twenty20 cricket is entertaining in its own way.”

Predictably, the talks shifts to the two of the greatest batsmen of the modern era — Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting. Says Pollock, “What I like about them is that they put the bowlers under pressure. They make them sweat. Technically, they are exceptional. They also seize their chances. They put the bad balls away and create scoring opportunities.”

Pollock says Tendulkar has a couple of more years left for India. “India will be going through a transitional phase and will need Tendulkar to guide the side during that period,” he says.

The batsman who dominated attacks picks Virender Sehwag as the most attacking batsman in contemporary cricket. “Sehwag is the most feared and ruthless batsman in world cricket today. When you get a triple hundred in a Test match so quickly, you have to be a destructive player.”

Not a great believer in the use of feet — much like Sehwag — Pollock says cricket had moved away from the MCC coaching manual. “That has been a healthy development. Batsmen should be comfortable with their stance, the way they hold the bat and the way they strike the ball. You essentially need to play straight, and not across. And you need to be balanced. You build on that.”

The South African legend is impressed with the current crop of left-handers in world cricket. “The left-handers get more width than the others. You have the ball going across you and you get room. I like the way Chris Gayle stands up and hits the ball. Graeme Smith has come on a lot. He is batting straighter and has improved his off-side game. I like Yuvraj Singh. He has been very impressive in the one-dayers. But he is not running up big scores in Test cricket. A double hundred against Australia in a Test, that’s what I would want to see from Yuvraj.”

Then Pollock makes an important observation. “Batsmen are playing a lot of shots in the shorter versions and this is affecting their approach in Tests. You need to build an innings in a Test match. You need to concentrate hard and your shot-selection is vital.”

Queried about the menace of suspect bowling action, he opined: “You see the spinners getting away with it all the time. But the moment, a pace bowler sends down one with a doubtful action, he is pulled up. Whatever is the rule, whether it is the 15-degree (flexion) rule, you have to be consistent in its application.”

Pollock considers Dennis Lillee as the best bowler he ever faced. “He was fast, aggressive and moved the ball at telling speed.”

And he has words of praise for leg-spin legend Shane Warne. “There was a time in the 70s when a side like the West Indies, with four fast bowlers, would send down just over 70 overs in a day. That was not good for the game. Then somebody like Warne came along and changed things. Spin was in the forefront. This has been his biggest contribution to the game.”

The bowlers have been largely marginalised these days because of the nature of the wickets and the shorter formats of the game, Pollock says. “You need to have lively pitches to restore the balance. If you look at Test cricket, the average of even the top bowlers has risen from around 22 to 28. Flat tracks are detrimental to the game. Bowlers cannot be fodders. You require pitches with good, consistent bounce that would allow the batsmen to play shots and also provide a fair amount of encouragement to the bowlers, both pacemen and spinners. You need to give the bowlers a chance.”

There has to be a balance between cricketing skills and fitness as well, he says. “Cricket is producing better athletes but are they better cricketers?”

Pollock is passionate about the game in a very old fashioned way. His words, “I fear for the game,” come ringing back.



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