CUP OF WOE: Sachin Tendulkar made to stand down by the AustraliansOn the night India lost the World Cup final, one of the bowlers ran into a friend. “Hard luck,” said the friend. The player exploded, “What hard luck? Why does everyone say that? We played f***-all. Who knows when,CUP OF WOE: Sachin Tendulkar made to stand down by the AustraliansOn the night India lost the World Cup final, one of the bowlers ran into a friend. “Hard luck,” said the friend. The player exploded, “What hard luck? Why does everyone say that? We played f***-all. Who knows when we’ll ever get to a Cup final again?”As it happens, the young man could play in a couple more World Cups but on that bleak Sunday night when gloom crept into Indian souls like the chill of an advancing Johannesburg autumn, his heart wouldn’t listen to reason or reassurance. He could barely imagine it but by hating defeat so intensely, the cricketer was giving himself the best chance to reach another big final. If being the No. 2 team in the world doesn’t feel good at all, there is only one other alternative.The men in blue headed out of their hotel rooms looking for warm food and cold comfort, a cavalcade of the chronically dejected. That night all the glasses came up half-empty but if Indian cricket learns to look into the distance – admittedly, not its strong suit – its African campaign could be a blueprint for future success and, maybe, a cup running over.En route to the World Cup finals Sourav Ganguly’s team equalled the record for the most successful streak by an Indian team in one-day internationals – eight straight wins. It matched the run of the 1985 team that won five matches to take the World Championship of Cricket in Australia and three one-dayers after that. India’s record pales in comparison to Australia’s 17 but collective achievement in Indian cricket is rare. For too long has the sport been ruled by the cult and clash of personality and the mammoth weight of some pretty impressive individual records.advertisementCUP OF WOE: India were made to stand down by the AustraliansCaptain Ganguly, who could well be the first militant Bengali after Subhas Chandra Bose, will have no more of it. He is fast becoming the leading pulpitt-humping evangelist of a new church of Indian cricket.Drinking tea in a train-wreck of a hotel room in Durban, windows open to cooling sea breezes off the Indian Ocean, he said, “Individual performances don’t matter at all if the team doesn’t win. Indian cricket has to realise that the team is first: whether you are looking at the past or whether the team has to go ahead in the future.”The future is the only place to go because the past is never as glorious and golden as it is made out to be. The Australians are already in tomorrow, casting long shadows on those who try to follow. India have responded to the rigours and rewards of a nascent professionalism with the enthusiasm of a child who, after days of sliding around his bottom, discovers the heady benefits of being able to walk.They are quick to give credit to their three-man back-up team of professional coach, trainer and physio, use polar wristwatches to monitor their fitness, know how to download the data from the watches onto their personal laptops, and have discovered the use of computer analysis in team planning. Fellows who would struggle to spell “psychologist” sit down with the famous sports shrink Sandy Gordon to discuss insecurity, fear of failure, ambition and come out feeling wiser, less burdened.Radical? For Indian cricket, yes. Australia has been there, done that – and moved on. Diving and slide-tackling in the field is kindergarten stuff. Their specialist fielding and throwing consultant, Mike Young, an ex-baseball player for the San Francisco Giants, knows nothing about cricket fielding, but uses his understanding of motion from baseball to design drills. His brief is to keep the fielders moving, energised and involved and minimise the time taken for a ball to travel from the fielder to the man at the wicket.When the ball goes to a fielder’s “wrong’ side” (i.e. on the left side of a right-hander), usually the fielder picks up the ball, transfers it to his throwing hand, shifts his weight and then throws the ball back. Young taught the Australians to pick up and pivot, transferring the ball from hand to hand during the pivot before hurling it back to the man at the stumps. The fielder can end up off-balance during the throw, but when Andy Bichel ran out Aravinda De Silva in the semi-final, hours of practice turned into something perfect.Young also turned out to be a handy bard who composed a poem about his adopted home which the Aussies chanted and sang after every victory in South Africa. Coach John Buchanan says, “At the moment we do most things everyone else does but we do them a little bit better and more consistently. There is no question we can get better.”advertisementIt could be a frightening thought for anyone trying to catch up, but then it could be an inspiration too – there is always a way, teams must have the will to discover it. The Indians seem to have found theirs. It took a year of thinking and tinkering for their World Cup campaign to come together. The hiring of fitness trainer Adrian LeRoux made a difference to the strength of the bowlers and consequently the pace at which they bowled in South Africa.Andrew Leipus held the bodies of all the main men together with hours of physiotherapy, yards of tape and the pure power of prayer. No matter how loud the howls of protest, Rahul Dravid was given a year with the wicketkeeping gloves in order to lengthen the batting line-up. An idea of the best balanced team for South Africa was devised and stuck to. In South Africa, only two teams looked like they had made progress from the 1999 Cup: Australia, of course, and, surprise, surprise, the consorts of chaos, India, a testimony to persistence with The Plan.India have done a lot right in the past two years, reckons former South African coach Graham Ford, but to keep progressing they need to replace the one important link that will go missing soon. “They need to get another pace bowler into the squad now because they are going to miss Javagal.”The man himself, who went through the World Cup wearing an unusually sunny disposition all the time and a beach hat at practice, believes fast bowlers are like fine china, meant to be handled with care and wrapped in cotton-wool. Only then can they provide service for years. “An Australian or South African bowler may take two years to develop, in India you have to give a guy 3-3 1/2 years, put him on a fitness routine, monitor his progress. If you are thinking of 2007,” Srinath says, “find a guy now.”Australia reaped the benefits of pure pace in the Cup – Brett Lee broke down batting line-ups after injury stopped Jason Gillespie and tiredness slowed Glenn McGrath down. Lee has been shepherded through Australian cricket since 1995 – when it was discovered he was the fastest kid on the block – and let loose on the world only in 1999. South Africa, looking for its successors to the Allan Donald generation, tried the same with the injury-plagued Mfuneko Ngam and are now working on Monde Zondeki.A team insider says, “What we cannot do is bumble along and hope for someone to turn up. That’s the way it has been with us but that’s not the way it works in professional sport anymore.” It means the traditional animosity between selector and player, board and player, the swell of egos must subside to make the team competitive.advertisementSunil Gavaskar believes the team needs to do more, telling INDIA TODAY, “The 2007 World Cup should be the assignment starting now. We must overcome the weaknesses that prevented us from winning this one and consolidate the gains have been made from this trip.” The gains are both cricketing and cultural.Indian cricket knows now why it needs genuine fast bowlers, all-wicket batsmen and the best support staff the BCCI’s money can buy. But like that angry young man on finals night, it must breed dissatisfaction and stoke hunger too. Because finishing second may be noble, and worthy, but it really is no fun.
Venus Williams beat top seed Angelique Kerber on Wednesday to advance to a Miami Open semi-final against Britain’s Johanna Konta.American 11th seed Williams, who is seeking her fourth Miami title, survived a long first set before she completed a 7-5 6-3 victory over Germany’s Kerber on a calm evening in south Florida.Konta, the 10th seed, had earlier recovered from the brink of defeat to edge third seed Simona Halep in a three-set encounter that lasted two hours, 30 minutes.Halep was only two points from victory in the second set, but could not put away her opponent, who pounced on the Romanian’s evident emotional fragility to prevail 3-6 7-6(7) 6-2.Williams, 36, whose previous Miami titles came in 1998, 1999 and 2001, will meet Konta in the semi-final, while Czech second seek Karolina Pliskova faces Danish 12th seed Carolina Wozniacki.Williams, playing in front of a crowd that included her popcorn-munching father Richard, took nearly an hour to take the first set from Kerber, but made quicker work of the second.Halep, meanwhile, got down on herself after losing the second set tiebreak to Konta.”It was a really tough match, very high level,” Halep told the WTA. “I was so close to winning, I was two points away in the tiebreak, but she played very strong and deserved to win.”Despite the result, Halep took comfort from a solid tournament as she works her way back from a knee injury.”I’m happy to be here after the break that I had. I’m just disappointed I lost a match I had in my hands. But my confidence is there, the game is there, I just need to play matches.”advertisementHer post-match comments were more positive than her negative remarks to coach Darren Cahill after the second set.”This is my character,” Halep grumbled to her coach. “Two double faults at the end of the tiebreak and I miss all the balls.”Cahill told a sullen Halep she was a better athlete than Konta, imploring her to make her opponent run in the third set.”You can write yourself off but I’m not writing you off,” Cahill said. “It’s up to you. It comes from within … be brave in the big moments.”But Halep was completely outplayed in the final set, and she said afterwards her exchange with Cahill was nothing out of the ordinary.”It’s just my personality to be hard on myself. I want to change that in the future. I can say that I’m better than before, and I’m working on it.”