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Give us a break!

AUSTRALIA are enjoying a well-deserved break from international cricket. Likewise Pakistan and the West Indies. England have just begun their season after a break and New Zealand have had a holiday as well. South Africa have some time to recover after the England series and the Sri Lankans have planned some rest. Of all the major Test-playing countries, Indi are alone in having no break planned now or in the near future.

There was just that small pause between the tournament in Bangladesh and the arrival of the Australians. Even such a brief break seemed to have done the team a world of good. But after that the grind has begun -- the team is about to come to the end of second of two meaningless trination tournaments -- and it is clearly beginning to have an effect on the players.

The defeat against Kenya can be dismissed as an aberration. But bear in mind that this was a more comprehensive victory than that which the Kenyans registered over the West Indies in 1996. It can be put down to the level of experimentation which is going on, with numerous players being tried out. But then again, there should be reserves who are good enough to take the place of the regulars and carry on in similar strain.

No matter that Bangladesh and Kenya are yet to gain Test-status, the final against Kenya is a matter of prestige and only because India lost to them so comprehensively earlier in the tournament. The selectors have immediately called for the regular XI; there is no second line of defence at all. A good many careers are going on the rocks because of this continuous grind but then nobody in Indian cricket officialdom seems to be particularly bothered about that.

Australia has done some thinking about the business of players breaking down -- and their schedule gives them much more rest than does the one planned for India. A roster system has been proposed with players being chosen for tours in such a way that they can perform to their optimum during that tour. The players aren't too happy it appears but then it would be eminently sensible to have two fit pace bowlers go through a whole tour rather than have to call out replacements every two weeks.

The continuous chopping and changing that happens when players break down on tour disturbs the rhythm of a team. A captain has to keep rethinking strategy because the replacements may not fit exactly into the game plan he has. The new players have little time to acclimatise to the climactic and other conditions; sometimes they have to come straight from the airport to the dressing room. The breakdown of Javagal Srinath in the West Indies last year and the inexplicable despatch of Noel David is too well-known to bear repeating.

Taking these things into account, India's series win against Australia has a downside; it will only ensure that things such as creating a second string who can be slotted in when required are not given even a thought. Only a prolonged drought -- and one which encompasses several sound thrashings -- will lead to any thinking about long-term planning. Till then, the Indian team will have to repeat the ridiculous itineraries of previous years. Those who look for comfort can take refuge in the myth that they are helping to spread the game far and wide.

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