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By Saj Sadiq
In a relatively short career which spanned 2 years (2003-2004), opening batsman Aakash Chopra played 10 Test matches for India in which he scored two fifties. A gritty opening batsman suited to occupying the crease, his tight technique protected the middle order from the new ball and allowed the illustrious middle order of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Saurav Ganguly to express themselves.
In his debut series in 2002, India secured a draw away to New Zealand. He was then selected for India’s tour (2003-2004) against the great Australia side, and played in all four Tests in the fiercely-contested Test series which ended in a 1-1 result. He also participated in India’s historical victory in the 2004 Test series in Pakistan.
In 2009, his book Beyond the Blues: A First-Class Season Like No Other was released based on his 2007–08 domestic season in which he scored 783 runs in Delhi’s victorious Ranji Trophy campaign, and 310 runs in the Duleep Trophy, guiding North to victory. He also participated in previous editions of the Indian Premier League (IPL), representing the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR).
Chopra has subsequently forged a career as a journalist, with columns regularly appearing in high-profile publications and has also been involved in television commentary for IPL and ICC tournaments.
Speaking exclusively to PakPassion.net, Chopra spoke on a variety of subjects including the strength of the IPL brand in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan’s young batsmen with special emphasis on Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad, Yuvraj Singh’s international future, the legality of actions of some spin bowlers and the future of the Pakistan-India cricket relationship.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): Are you surprised at how successful the IPL has been in the UAE?
Aakash Chopra (AC): I’m not surprised at all, because the UAE has been deprived of any Indian cricket for a very long time. It was the hub of cricket a long time ago particularly Sharjah, where India often played Pakistan. There is of course a huge Asian population in the UAE who have been craving for India to go out to the UAE and play cricket and of course the IPL is a wonderful tournament. You have to also realise that the stadiums in UAE are not the biggest, so it’s not difficult to fill them and also the tickets have been priced very reasonably, so if you combine the two then you have a very good spectacle in front of 15-20,000 people. In addition three stadiums are being used so there is a rotation of sorts in the UAE regarding the grounds instead of just using the same venue.
PP: Do you think the IPL could be held in the UAE in future?
AC: It could be a thought, but the point is that it’s an Indian tournament and ideally it should be held in India because the sponsors, the viewers and everyone is basically waiting for the event to take place once a year in India. The moment the IPL goes out of India, the costs go up and also each team has ten to twelve sponsors, and the organisers look to give those sponsors some freebies and there is a package included for each game for the sponsors including an executive box, hospitality for the sponsor’s clients, but that all goes out the window when the tournament moves out of India.
So, if the tournament is moved out of India then the IPL doesn’t become very profitable for the franchises. The gate receipts take a beating and the Indian cities are deprived of four or five home matches. For example Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) are only playing three games at home in this edition of the IPL. Once in a while it is alright, but I don’t think it’s ideal to move the tournament out of India.
PP: Despite the controversies and allegations, public interest in the IPL hasn’t diminished, why do you think that is?
AC: It’s quite strange at one level. Perception would suggest that if you are disenchanted with a brand, people will stay away, but that didn’t happen last year despite the fixing controversy breaking towards the latter half of the tournament, and we still saw full houses for the semi-finals and the final.
I’ve spoken to a number of people in England about the IPL, and their allegiances to the franchises. Some were Chennai fans, others were Rajasthan fans and they stated that they didn’t care about the controversies because it was just a club tournament, which is a dangerous and worrying sign really. Those fans said to me if it was an Indian player doing something that was hurting the Indian team then we would switch off, but for controversies in tournaments like the IPL we aren’t too bothered.
PP: What can the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) learn from the current edition of the IPL partly being held in the UAE?
AC: I would suggest to them to make the tournament short and snappy. If you can, then hold it outside Pakistan due to the security situation, plus quality cricketers will not be willing to travel to Pakistan given the circumstances. Find the right window and make it a two to three week tournament. Pakistan cricket will attract a lot of viewership because they play an attractive brand of cricket, and if they can attract other international stars then that is a recipe for success.
PP: Have we seen the last of Yuvraj Singh in an India shirt?
AC: It’s looking bleak for Yuvraj [Singh]. I’m a huge fan of his and at one point I thought he was India’s most talented cricketer after Sachin [Tendulkar]. No matter how much I want him to play for India the fact is that what I have seen of Yuvraj over the last year and a half since he came back from illness, he’s not the same Yuvraj Sngh. I hate saying it, but the numbers are validating what I’m saying. He’s not scored runs in Test cricket, he’s not scored runs in limited overs cricket and he’s not set the world alight in the Twenty20 (T20) format either.
Everyone was surprised by his innings in the ICC World T20 2014 final, but if we are objective and not emotional we will see that the signs were there as barring that game against Australia his strike rate was under 100. You expect things to change because he’s such a quality player, but will they change, is a different matter. I don’t see things changing drastically for the near future, but I wouldn’t say it’s curtains for Yuvraj in international cricket, although it’s going to be very tough for him to come back. The World Cup is ten months away but realistically it’s only twelve or thirteen games away. Will Yuvraj be part of that squad? I’m really unsure.
PP: When do you feel it will be the right time for Virat Kohli to take over from Dhoni as India’s captain in the various formats?
AC: Dhoni is the man to lead India into the ICC World Cup 2015, without a shadow of a doubt. India hardly plays any T20s, so it doesn’t make much difference who is the captain in that format, so let Dhoni continue in that format too. The Test captaincy is what the selectors should be looking at very closely. It could be the tour of England that Kohli takes over as Test captain but ideally I would like to see him take over the reins in a home series. When you are handing over responsibility to Kohli, try and hand it to him when things are in his and the team’s favour.
I think the selectors can toy with the idea of making Kohli the Test captain during the winter and after India’s tour of England.
PP: What are your thoughts on two of Pakistan’s young batting talents, Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad?
AC: The best thing about both of these batsmen is that they are laden with talent. These are really, really talented cricketers and the moment you see them bat, you think wow these are good cricketers. But then when you scratch the surface, particularly with Umar Akmal you realise he’s played 100 plus One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and has only made a couple of hundreds in that format, that’s not really doing justice to the talent that he possesses. That is when you start questioning the importance of having a talented player or not in the side. If you aren’t converting those great starts into big scores then you start questioning whether you want a talented batsman or a hard working batsman who will make runs on a consistent basis. That is where Umar must find himself.
Umar is at that stage of his career, where he must turn it around. Kohli is a great example to Umar of when you are on a roll you just don’t let up and you keep the momentum going with big scores. Once you taste the blood of making big scores then you continue in that vein, you do not let up and you ensure you are in a rich vein of form for as long as possible. Everyone goes through a bad patch, that is acceptable but good players ensure that their good patches last a long time and when they are in good form they make the most of it.
I think it’s a case of mind over matter with Umar. Everything comes with deadlines and the selectors could say to him that ‘if you don’t start performing on a consistent basis then we’ll have to look elsewhere.’
Ahmed Shehzad has impressed me more than Umar because he seems to have that hunger and desire to score big runs. He seems like someone who wants to be there till the end of the innings and remain unbeaten. The hundred against Bangladesh in the world T20 comes to mind where he didn’t throw it away, he remained unbeaten and that is the hallmark of a good player in that you are trying to be there till the end of the innings. To have the intent of being there till the end without being selfish is something that stands out in Shehzad. He’s a young guy, he’s not a seasoned campaigner yet so he will make mistakes and he will throw his wicket away which is the Pakistani culture unfortunately because you don’t see people around you keeping their wicket and you learn from your peers. Kohli is that example for the Indian team, he’s raising the bar for everyone else, but the likes of Inzamam and Saeed Anwar aren’t around for Pakistan to set that example and players seem to be left to their own devices.
PP: What advice would you offer Umar Akmal regarding his batting?
AC: I feel that he suffers from a rush of blood when he is batting. He thinks he can take the attack to the opposition whenever he wants to. He has all the shots and the temptation all too often is to go after the bowler, go for the big shot, and play to the gallery. You tend to find that he gets caught more often than not going for a big shot and he needs to stop playing to the gallery.
I would just say to him whenever that thought of playing the big shot crosses your mind, tell yourself that I will give myself three overs to settle down and not go for the big shot. Then after three overs I’m sure he will have calmed down at the crease and the thought of going for that risky big shot will have disappeared. It’s that moment of temptation which is his problem and which he will be regretting later. Allow that moment to pass and I’m sure three overs later he won’t be tempted by that shot again. Things will have changed during that time, he may have hit a couple of fours, run a few singles, and nine times out of ten you will have sailed through the storm.
PP: Ravichandran Ashwin and Shane Warne have recently raised the topic of suspect bowling actions by spinners. Do you think some spinners are ‘getting away with it’ in terms of their bowling actions?
AC: Yes I think some bowlers are getting away with it. If a spinner is operating at 80 to 85kph and then suddenly he bowls one 30 kph quicker without increasing his run up or an increased follow-through, then there is only one thing that can change that speed and that is by illegally bending your elbow. There is no other way to increase that pace without having the momentum that a fast bowler can generate.
PP: Some experts say the doosra cannot be bowled legally, do you concur with that school of thought?
AC: What’s interesting is that most of the bowlers who bowl the doosra bowl in long sleeved shirts. That is not a coincidence as it’s happening across the world. There’s room to investigate as there is some scope of doubt and that’s why the ICC is working on a chip that will change everything. The chip will be plastered on the elbow of any bowler who falls into that grey area regarding his action and who the umpires have concerns over. The chip will provide real-time data and how much the elbow is bending.
You can get a bowler in the laboratory and wire them up and ask them to bowl, but things change completely when that same bowler is bowling and is hit for a six or when the bowler is bowling 145kph. I’m not saying everyone is trying to cheat but the fact is that your instincts take over. The chip that I’m referring to may be the answer to deal with questionable actions, but until then there will be some debate and speculation as to who is doing what and we’ll be unable to pin things down regarding these dubious actions.
PP: There’s speculation that Pakistan and India could be playing a series next year in the UAE. Surely that is a mouth-watering prospect and good news for players and fans alike?
AC: India versus Pakistan is always brilliant irrespective of where the matches are played. These matches should start happening and the sooner the better. Let’s hope the series happens and cricket is the centrepiece. Unfortunately cricket becomes a victim in all of the politics. It’s normal service with everything else but cricket. Why should we make cricket the victim! It doesn’t make sense.
Let’s get the series on, the sooner the better but I would urge some caution too. Don’t kill the golden goose by playing these matches too often like we did between 2003 and 2007/08 where we played each other twice a year sometimes and it became too much. India and Pakistan playing Test cricket will always attract a lot of attention but they need to find the right balance and not play these series too often.
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