I’d like India and Pakistan to play more often: Aakash Chopra

“The IPL to carry on but carry on, with a good image,” says Aakash Chopra © AFP

By Saj Sadiq

Aakash Chopra represented India between 2003 and 2004, during a period now written into the folklore of Indian cricket. 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 Sourav Ganguly to express themselves.

In his debut series, India secured a draw against New Zealand at home. He was then selected for India’s tour against the great Australian side where India drew a fiercely-contested series. Chopra played in all four Tests. He also participated in India’s historical victory in the 2004 Test series in Pakistan.

In 2009, Chopra ‘s 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. Chopra also participated in first edition of the IPL, representing the Kolkata Knight Riders.

He 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 the IPL and the ongoing Champions Trophy.

Speaking with PakPassion.net, Chopra discussed Pakistan‘s and India‘s chances at the Champions Trophy, areas for improvement for both teams, the India versus Pakistan match on June 15, MS Dhoni’s future as captain and his possible replacements, as well as speaking about India’s pace ace Umesh Yadav.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion.net (PP): India vs Pakistan, June 15. The match that everyone is talking about and were talking about even before the tournament started. Your thoughts on what promises to be a great occasion?

Aakash Chopra (AC): It’s a big game. The enormity of the occasion can be judged by the way tickets were
sold. I am told that while we are currently covering the game between England and Australia, the first game of 13 encounters this summer, on the day of the match even till the innings break some tickets were still available to be bought at the venue.

When we talk about the India-Pakistan game, I am told that it was a complete sell out six hours post the release of the tickets. That’s the kind of passion which is involved when we talk about an India-Pakistan game at a neutral venue. It’s a good thing because you want to play in a cordial atmosphere; it adds that much more to the drama because you roughly get an equal number of fans.

Then there is of course the rivalry. The two teams are doing well. Pakistan, although they didn’t start the tournament as strongly as they would have liked are still a tough side. They’re a good side and I have rated them quite highly and have picked them as my favourites to reach the semi-finals. I’m expecting a very good game of cricket on June 15.

PP: India’s match against South Africa. A near perfect display by India apart from late runs from the South Africans when the game was already won. Any areas where you think the Indians need to improve?

AC: Yes, there are a few areas. When the tournament started, there were two definite areas of concern. One was the opening combination because we came into this tournament with a completely new opening pairing since both Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag were not picked for this tour. Murali Vijay’s best in ODIs is 33 while Shikhar Dhawan‘s a rookie when it comes to the international stage, even though he started his Test career with a bang when he made that big hundred against Australia at Mohali.

To come to England, it’s always a challenge for openers, hence that was one huge area of concern. Fortunately, that’s been addressed now, at least for the time being. Shikhar [Dhawan] has scored a fantastic ton [he followed that up with another hundred against the West Indies on Tuesday] and Rohit Sharma, who actually pipped Murali Vijay to the post, has also done well. Though that was a very tricky decision because both of them hadn’t scored any runs in the warm-up games. So it was down to what [coach] Duncan Fletcher and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni wanted. They ended up going with Rohit Sharma in place of Murali Vijay.
Both have delivered, so that’s a good thing.

The other area of concern was the fast bowling department, especially the death bowling. That was exposed even in that game when we won comfortably against South Africa. We leaked a lot of runs. In fact, every pace bowler, if I am not wrong, went for over seven runs an over and that could be a huge problem. Batsmen will win you a few games as long as the sun is out. But if it’s cloudy and the batting conditions aren’t great, then you need your bowlers to really step up and deliver. That’s one area India still needs to address.

PP: Put yourself in Misbah’s shoes. You’ve lost the first game. Before Pakistan play against India, they have to play against South Africa [Pakistan lost that game as well]. What changes would you expect to see from the Pakistan side, both in terms of personnel, approach and tactics?

AC: The beauty of this tournament is that if you start on a winning note you can sit pretty. You realise the importance of that victory in the first game just before the second game. You know that you are not in a do or die situation. It’s not a knockout tournament yet. Hence the confidence of playing freely without the fear of getting knocked out of the tournament allows you to express yourself quite nicely. Pakistan is in a different boat. They lost the first game, albeit a very close one. They will obviously have to come all guns blazing against South Africa. In fact, I am again tipping them to actually win against South Africa. I think they are a better side. Moving forward, if they go on to win that match, it’ll be perfect because that’s where you want the India-Pakistan game to happen — where a lot is still at stake.

If Pakistan is already out of the tournament, the game may still be a good one, but from the tournament’s perspective, it’ll be of academic interest. That’s what you don’t want from the Pakistan side. I wouldn’t change anything regarding the personnel for the match against South Africa, but I expect the batsmen to change their attitude.
 
Pakistan have got such a wonderful bowling attack at their disposal that they can still back themselves to defend low totals, but for how long? Is it actually possible to do it on good batting pitches? I don’t think so. That’s one area that they need to address. They started really well with a couple of warm-up games where a lot of the guys got runs. They went to Ireland and even though they had a couple of collapses, they still bounced back and scored runs. I think that’s what they need to do. If they manage to put 260 plus on these pitches in England, they have the attack to win games.

PP: Moving away from the Champions Trophy and to Indo-Pak cricketing encounters. Everybody wants to see India playing Pakistan, whether it be in India, whether it be in Pakistan or anywhere in the world. Putting the politics aside, the world of cricket is missing these matches. Pakistan has been to India recently to play a limited over series. Would you like to see Pakistan and India playing against each other more than they currently do?

AC: Yes, I’d like both these countries to play more often, but not to the extent that it becomes an overkill because that’s what happened between 2004 and 2007, where they played each other every single year. That’s too much. Just to keep that rivalry going and keep it fresh, you need to give a reasonable amount of break in between two series. If you keep playing them every week, it will cease to have the same level of interest. Although, it’s great for the players since they can go out and play without too much pressure or expectation. Fans are not expecting or keyed up for every single encounter. From the game’s perspective, I’d say, ‘Yes, play more often, but don’t reach that level where you are playing each other every week’.

PP: India’s producing a lot of fine cricketers at the moment. We’re seeing the likes of Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, and Umesh Yadav come through. That production line seems to be in progress now which is something that the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India] has strived for. You must be quite pleased as a former Indian cricketer to see that production line in development now?

AC: Credit has to be given to the First-Class circuit that we have. We probably have one of the most robust first class circuits around the world. We have as many as 27 teams who play against each other. We’re talking about a pool of 550 First-Class cricketers every year. The numbers are never a problem. It’s a great thing that we are still producing a lot of great cricketers and the young cricketers are still coming through.

Then we have the IPL [Indian Premier League] where these cricketers brush shoulders with the best in the world. That also gives them another sense of belonging to the arena. The only issue which we will have to address as we go along is the kind of cricketers that we are producing. Are we producing the kind that are more suited to the shorter formats of the game or are we still producing enough to suit the longer format of the game? That’s one challenge we’ll have to address as we go along, but so far so good.
 
 
PP: We mentioned Umesh Yadav, a bowler capable of bowling over 90mph. It must be exciting to have a genuine pace bowler available to India?

AC: Absolutely. Nothing delights an Indian fan more than an Indian bowler touching 90mph. It gives you a high because it’s not something we’ve seen very often. Obviously our neighbours are blessed when it comes to fast bowling resources. Pakistan keeps producing a lot of good fast bowlers — they have a factory there! We don’t, we have a small cottage industry and Umesh Yadav is a revelation —he’s come as a breath of fresh air.

PP: Let’s move onto MS Dhoni, how much longer do you see him continuing to captain India in Tests, ODIs and T20s?

AC: That’s a good question. I personally believe he should have considered relinquishing the Test captaincy before the series against Australia at home. The time was right — the Indian Test team wasn’t doing that well and we had reached our lowest ebb. That was the time to hand it over to someone like Virat Kohli and play four Test matches at home against Australia, who aren’t the side they once were, giving him a run of matches at home instead of throwing him in the deep end come the tours of South Africa, New Zealand and England. That hasn’t happened so that question will have to be addressed at a later stage.

Now that Dhoni has led India at home in all three formats, plus he’s captain of his IPL team, I don’t see him quitting the captaincy any time soon but yes the time was right when India was playing at home — he could have handed the baton to someone younger to concentrate on his one-day, T20I and IPL captaincy.

PP: Do you think Virat Kohli, who’s a totally different character to Dhoni, is the right man to take over from him as Test captain?

AC: It doesn’t matter. You are not looking for prototypes. Every captain comes with his individual set of strengths and weaknesses. Dhoni is definitely one of those guys who is calm and collected and he doesn’t get ruffled. He doesn’t express himself that freely when on the field, or at least that’s what it looks like from the outside. His predecessor was Sourav Ganguly, who was animated and aggressive.

There are different needs for the times you are living in and also there is no set formula for success and we won’t know how good or bad Kohli is until he is handed the captaincy. Since he was a certainty in the side, he’s looked like not only the present, but the future of Indian cricket. I think it was the right time to test the waters and see how it goes — if he doesn’t do well, you can always move on to the next one, but you can’t do that until you make the initial change!

PP: The recent news about Sreesanth must have come as a shock to everyone involved in Indian cricket.

AC: For starters, we must emphasise that he is innocent until proven guilty. These spot-fixing allegations are as yet unproven so it’s a hypothetical situation at the moment, we are speculating.
 
However, the allegations did come as a shock together with sadness and disappointment. He’s in jail at the moment, he didn’t even get bail [he has at this point of time] and he’s done a lot as a player — he was responsible for India’s Test victory in South Africa. He was also the guy who took the catch to win the 2007 World T20. He certainly had a lot of promise and I also thought his international career wasn’t over, far from it in fact, and it comes as a huge shock but that is the time we are living in. We are seeing quality cricketers going astray. We know what happened with Mohammad Amir and [Mohammad] Asif, both quality cricketers who got into wrong things. It’s very unfortunate and sad.

PP: If the allegations of fixing are true, how hard is this going to hit the image of the IPL?

AC: I would say no more than how badly Test cricket was affected when a couple of guys were found guilty of spot-fixing. You have to admit that whilst credibility is one thing we have to protect and continue piling on and head in the right direction, this game is played by humans and humans are susceptible to greed and you are able to stop people cheating, it’s something you have to live with.

However, it’s important that all of the processes are put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You must educate the players on the consequences of such actions, who you shouldn’t be meeting, who will be making approaches and how. Also ensure whoever is found guilty is punished so severely that it serves as a deterrent.

PP: Amir, Asif and Butt received five year bans. We will of course have to wait and see how the Sreesanth case concludes, but would you like to see cheats banned for life?

AC: Yes, I would like to see cheats banned for life. That’s the strongest deterrent possible. You can find them — it could be a monetary fine or you can ban them for a few years — but then the same people come out and play again, I say ban them completely and make sure they don’t get associated with the sport at all. To the extent that even when you talk about their records, there should an appendix there saying “here’s this man’s record, but note he was a cheat.”

PP: N Srinivasan, has had a lot of negative publicity recently. He’s had to step aside from his position of president of the BCCI. Your general thoughts on the BCCI and what has been a bad few weeks for them?

AC: It has been a season of turmoil of sorts. Ever since the spot-fixing allegations were levelled by the Delhi police and they charged a few cricketers based on their evidence, more things have come to the fore. An owner, who has claimed to be an enthusiast now, was allegedly involved in betting. Another team owner has also allegedly been involved in betting, that’s Raj Kundra, co-owner of the Rajastan Royals.

When we talk about the BCCI, the IPL, and you have to admit the IPL is a wonderful product. It is the best T20 league in the world in terms of payments, in terms of employment that it offers and the kind of opportunities it brings, you need to do everything it takes to ensure the tournament stays relevant, stays credible and has transparency. That’s what everyone is craving and working towards – you need the IPL to carry on but carry on with a good image. If the image of the IPL or BCCI is sullied, then fans will eventually turning their back on the game.

(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)