The next few months are going to be extremely challenging for the Indian cricket team. It would hope to trump New Zealand in the final of the inaugural World Test Championship, and then there will be plenty to ponder ahead of the five Tests against England in August.
Former India batsman V. V. S. Laxman believes that India starts as the favourite in the World Test Championship final. In a chat with Sportstar, Laxman opens up on the WTC, the Test series against England, and why it is important to have a contract system for India’s first-class cricketers.
Q. What are your thoughts on the World Test Championship final?
A. I think it’s a wonderful initiative by the ICC. In the past, for someone who has played a lot of Test matches, we never had one tournament like a World Cup, where at the end of the year or at the end of the cycle, you have a champion. Yes, you had the No. 1 position, you got the mace, but you were never recognised as a world champion in Test cricket. So, I think this is a wonderful initiative, and I am sure that with a little tweaking here and there, this will be much better.
Which team has the edge in the final?
I believe that both teams are evenly matched. I believe that because this is a one-off match – and not a series – whichever team bats well in the first innings, will have the edge and that side will dictate the terms throughout the match.
Both the teams are good, but I think India will start as favourites because of the way the Indian team has played – not only over the last couple of years, but over a period of time.
They have embraced the challenges and have overcome whatever obstacles they faced – as recently as the Australia series – and there’s a lot of talent and depth in this Indian line-up. But having said that, since it’s a one-off match, I feel whichever team bats well in the first innings will hold the ace.
New Zealand is playing two Tests against England before the final. Does that give the team an advantage over India – which didn’t have much game time with the red ball?
Well, theoretically, that’s an advantage for New Zealand, because whenever you play any Test match in overseas conditions, you at least would like to play one – if not two – (practice) matches before the main match. There’s no doubt it helps you to get acclimatised to the conditions. That’s always been the norm for so many years.
Especially for the batsmen, it will take time to get used to the new conditions. So, theoretically, New Zealand has the advantage.
But India has not taken a backward step, irrespective of whatever challenges they have faced. The series win in Australia was a testament to their character and their positive mindset. I have never seen a bigger challenge for any team like the Indian team faced in Australia, where they lost the first Test after being bowled out for 36, and their regular captain (Virat Kohli) was not available for the remaining matches. All the senior players started getting injured one after the other and then you had the almost second-string Indian team taking on a mighty Australian team in its backyard. Irrespective of all the challenges, they went on to win the series in such an emphatic manner!
So, even though theoretically, New Zealand – who is already accustomed to the English conditions – may have the advantage, I am sure the Indian team will maybe have intense training sessions before the final. The intensity with which they will practice and being switched on mentally for each and every session, will help them to counter this disadvantage they have.
In the first Test against England, debutant Devon Conway has given New Zealand a flying start. So, ahead of the WTC final, won’t this boost the confidence of the New Zealand batsmen?
There’s no doubt that New Zealand are a good side and they have got a lot of experienced players, especially in the bowling department. As far as the batting department is concerned, they depend a lot on Kane Williamson, even though they have got a decent batting lineup. Conway has been a sensation over the last few months, both in white-ball cricket and also the way he batted to get a double hundred on debut!
I have huge respect for the New Zealanders because they punch above their weight and always try to maximise the opportunity and the potential they have at their disposal.
“True role models” – Virat Kohli (left) and Kane Williamson. – AP
Some of the Indian batsmen – including Cheteshwar Pujara – do not have a very good batting average in England. So, ahead of the long tour, what are the things that the Indian batsmen should keep in mind?
Sometimes, when you have been on a tour previously, you know what you can do and what you can’t. So, all these experienced and talented batsmen will definitely work out a plan based on their previous experiences on how to score runs.
I’m sure that those experiences will help them to develop a game plan, not only for the Test championship final but also for the series against England. All of them are quite experienced, and a majority of them have already been to England twice (or more) in their career – barring a couple of players. So, I am sure they will feed on that experience.
How do you see the competition between the two captains – Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson?
Well, I don’t think that there is a competition between Kane and Virat. Rather, there is a lot of mutual respect and admiration. Both of them are true role models, who have become an inspiration for the younger generation – not only in their country, but all over the world.
The way they have led their respective sides, the way they have optimised their potential and talent (is incredible). They have been instrumental in taking their team forward. Kane was instrumental in the smooth transition of the New Zealand team after Brendon McCullum and senior players of that side retired. It was similar for Virat.
Both of them take a lot of pride in playing the game of cricket. It does not matter if they are playing for their country or in the IPL or club cricket, the way they prepare for each and every match is (incredible). While commentating for Star Sports, I have said so many times that Virat prepares so well for whatever challenge he is going to confront. And I have seen from close quarters how important preparation is for Kane. Only players who take pride in their performances and the game, prepare so meticulously and that is why I think they are true role models.
New Zealand has been perennial chokers in the ICC events since 2000. Do you think this is their opportunity to break the jinx?
Personally, I don’t think that they are chokers. I played for Otago in a first-class match before our Test series in 2009 and was amazed to see how their first-class cricket is not as professional as what we have in India, Australia or in England. Even though they have very limited resources, the way they maximise the potential they have and always perform to the best of their abilities and remain so consistent over so many years is a remarkable achievement.
And it clearly shows how mentally tough they are, and how much they appreciate each and every opportunity they get at the highest level. It’s a great opportunity for both New Zealand and India because this inaugural final will always be remembered. We still remember M. S. Dhoni’s T20 Indian side because they won the 2007 inaugural T20 World Cup. I still remember Kapil (Dev) paaji lifting the World Cup because that was the first time an Indian team won the World Cup.
This is the first time we are having the World Test Championship, it’s a great opportunity for both the teams to become the first side to win the trophy. I believe that is what both sides will be focussing on.
“We still remember M. S. Dhoni’s T20 Indian side because they won the 2007 inaugural T20 World Cup.” Dhoni celebrates India’s win in the final of the World T20 in Johannesburg, in 2007. – GETTY IMAGES
The concept of Test Championship is not new. Between 1998 and 2000, two editions of the Asian Test Championship were held. But the tournament stopped after that. Going forward, what should the ICC do to ensure that the World Test Championship survives?
I feel in recent years there have been very few bilateral Test series that have been highly competitive and meaningful. Unfortunately, there is a vast difference between the teams. There are at least four teams who are very strong, the other teams are not matching the quality of those four teams. That’s why more than bilateral series, having a Test championship concept is very good, but the point system is something that needs to be looked at. You know how tough the competition is when England or Australia plays The Ashes or when India plays Australia. Those are usually four or five-Test match series but the point system remains the same when you are playing a two-match series.
I also feel overseas Test wins should be rewarded a lot more than winning at home. So, there is definitely a lot of disparity and that’s one area the ICC surely needs to look into.
Also, the number of matches or the series each country plays has to be the same. If some country plays a lot more matches than the other or plays less and still gets to qualify – that’s not right. I understand that they had to change the qualifying criteria a bit due to COVID-19, but going forward, the point system and the number of matches each country plays in the cycle of the World Test Championships, will be very critical.
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Is a change in format needed to make Test cricket more interesting?
Not at all. We have seen some high-quality Test cricket over the last few months, so, I do not think that the formats need to be tweaked. When India beat Australia in Brisbane, it was almost the last hour of the match and that made the difference. So, the Test format is excellent, but maybe, change in the toss rule is something that can be thought of.
Since the home team anyways enjoys a home advantage, maybe, in the first Test of the series, the touring team captain can be asked to decide what he wants to do.
So, are you suggesting that toss should be done away with at least in the beginning of the series? If you could elaborate…
Yes, definitely for the first Test. I have always enjoyed playing overseas because it actually pushes a player out of his comfort zone and you also want to perform in tough conditions. That always gave me and my colleagues a lot of satisfaction, but performing in the first Test was always challenging. You have to get used to the conditions and now with a packed schedule and a pandemic playing a huge factor – in terms of quarantine and living in a bubble – it’s never easy for a visiting side as they will not get enough time to prepare. Now, India will be playing the World Test Championship final without a single practice match. It’s fine that it will be played at a neutral venue, but in terms of bilateral series, with paucity of time, no practice matches in times of the pandemic, it would be good to relinquish the home advantage.
Home advantage comes in terms of the pitch the match is played on, so whichever team wins the toss, will definitely have the advantage. So giving away the home advantage will at least help the touring side and it will give them a fair chance to do well in the first Test. At least you are giving them the best chance to compete.
The toss should be done away with at the beginning of the series, believes Laxman. – GETTY IMAGES – Getty Images
In the past there have been controversies over the wickets. Do you think the ICC should be more particular about the pitches going forward?
ICC has already got the norms in place as far as Test cricket is concerned. As a former cricketer and someone who wants Test cricket to be alive and kicking, I feel that it is important that the quality of the wickets are taken care of. We do not want matches to be over in two days. It’s good to produce competitive and challenging wickets, but it should not be such where matches are finished within a couple of days.
India will have a month’s time after the WTC final. Does that put the team in a better position ahead of the England Test series?
Definitely. I just feel that the more time you spend in any place and get acclimatised to the conditions, the better it is. There will be intense practice sessions, match simulation, so yeah, one month is a long time. But it is also important for the team management to ensure that players don’t peak very quickly. That is also very important and I am sure, they will organise sessions in such a manner, that the players peak at the right time.
Indian cricketers have a packed schedule over the next six months – WTC final, England Tests, IPL, World T20 – how challenging will it be to manage workload for the players? Should India follow a rotation policy like England?
I definitely feel that rotation policy is critical going forward, at least till the time the pandemic is on. It is never easy to be part of the quarantine and especially, if you are not doing well as a team or a player, then it becomes tougher because there is no chance for a player to mentally refresh or rejuvenate himself. Rotation policy will be very critical not only to look after the physical fatigue but also the mental fatigue of a player. Unlike some other countries, India has a very good bench strength, so India can focus on rotating the players till the time our battle against the pandemic is on.
Moving on from the World Test Championship final. India will be sending a red ball team to Sri Lanka in July. How do you see this concept of having two different teams? The last time it happened was in 1998 when one team featured in the Commonwealth Games and the other one played in the Sahara Cup in Toronto…
Yes, in 1998, we went to the Commonwealth Games and the Sahara Cup. What happened over the last couple of years in Indian cricket is very exciting. We have a very strong pool of players to choose from. Our domestic structure is so robust that there is so much opportunity for unearthing a lot of talented players.
The India A programme under Rahul (Dravid) and the contribution of NCA and of course the IPL – these three – are the reasons why we got so many quality players. And the best thing is that by default (may not be by design) a lot of these players got opportunities to showcase their talents and that’s why the confidence level is so high.
I believe that India is very lucky to have so many talented players. It may be a problem for other countries because the talent pool is not as deep as it is available for us. So definitely, India can look at fielding two teams. We are fortunate to have some experienced players who will be going to Sri Lanka, who can walk into any international side.
Let’s talk a bit about domestic cricket. Do you think that the pandemic will spell the end of traditional tournaments like the Moin Ud Dowlah Gold Cup, Buchi Babu Trophy and other such tournaments?
I don’t think it will be the end of these tournaments because there is a lot of history behind them. In fact, I still remember before the first-class season started, Buchi Babu Trophy, and Moin ud Dowlah Gold Cup were actually the selection matches for me and a lot of my colleagues to get selected for the Ranji Trophy team, because of the quality of the teams which participated in these tournaments and the quality of the wickets we used to get, so overall it used to be a fantastic tournament.
Even though I never played in the JP Atray Trophy, I have heard a lot of positive things about that tournament. I don’t think these tournaments will be done and dusted. I just feel that it’s a temporary phase and I am sure that once everything is back to normal, these tournaments will again emerge. And, these tournaments are very important for the domestic cricketers because it gives an opportunity for the State teams to test the bench strength and also for the main players to go and get some kind of practice before the first-class season starts. So, I don’t think that these tournaments will be going away anywhere soon.
How much of a blow is it for the ecosystem not to have junior cricket for two years in a row?
I feel that it’s quite tough for the cricketers because junior cricket or grassroots level cricket is the heartbeat of Indian cricket. A lot of players have to choose at the age of 16 or 17 in our country which profession they want to take and if they lose out here, it’s obvious that the parents will tell them to choose a profession where academics is given more prominence than cricket. Unfortunately, the situation in which we all are in, the well-being of the player is more important than thinking about their career, that’s why probably it’s the right decision not to have age-group cricket, until it is totally risk free. It will take some time for us to have that kind of confidence.
The domestic first-class cricketers have struggled immensely over the last year and a half. With no tournaments and so much uncertainty, do you think that a compensation package is the need of the hour?
I definitely feel that compensation has to be made to these players. In the past, a lot of players used to have good jobs in a central or State government organisation or private companies. Unfortunately, now the jobs that the players are getting are very scarce. A lot of them have taken up cricket as a professional sport, it is no longer an amateur sport.
The moment professionalism comes, it means they have to get paid and unfortunately last year, because of the pandemic, some of them were not paid like they would if the entire season would have taken place. I believe there should be some kind of a package which should be worked out by the BCCI for cricketers, especially the first-class cricketers, who don’t play the IPL, who don’t get to play international cricket.
I think it’s very important to look after them.
I still feel, and I have been telling this for a long time, that first-class cricketers should get contracts from their State Associations keeping in mind that they are sacrificing everything and they are dedicating themselves to this game. It is very important that a contract is handed over because what happens to a player if he suddenly gets injured? Suddenly there is no income for that player and if that player doesn’t have a job then how is he going to look after himself and his family?
So, I just feel that a contract system – like it is there for the international players – has to be there for the domestic players. It is very important. Especially in the current situation, I believe that it is mandatory and definitely the need of the hour. It is very critical to look after the domestic players’ well-being.