It is one of the terrific ironies of life that Pakistan's cricket coach on its forthcoming tour of India is a certain Bob Woolmer. The last time he vent his spleen on conditions in the Indian sub-continent was five years ago when he was the cricket consultant of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. Spitting venom, he stressed: "For the western stomach, the subcontinent is a place where the word `runs' takes on a completely new meaning.
"The water there," he said, "is below standard generally, and you take ice in your drinks with trepidation. Everywhere we went, the question was asked, `is the ice filtered?'"
"The other abiding memory is the sheer chaos on the roads and the wonder that there are not more accidents. It would seem that in order to pass the Indian driving test, you have to drive with your hand firmly attached to the horn - and because cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, you stop as they walk across the road.''
Bob Woolmer (right) duruing his previous 'avatar' as South African coach with the late Hansie Cronje
Woolmer probably thought he had seen the last of India, for on that tour the South African coach was Graham Ford. Woolmer was then flying high. Although the South African team whom he had groomed on their return to international cricket was not the best team around, he had worked wonders with its brilliant fielders, quality fast bowlers and a barely average batting line-up.
Woolmer, he of the laptop fame, did not enjoy much success as an international cricketer. The Englishman, though, made his mark as the coach of the South African side. His wards and team were, however, exposed pretty badly when they toured India in 1996. So much so that one top retired Indian cricketer, taken aback by Woolmer turning up at cricket venues with a computer and also working furiously on it, poked fun, asking if it taught his batsmen to play spin bowling. The South Africans were at the receiving end in that series, but the in-puts that went into Woolmer's gizmo came in handy when they toured India again, in 1999-2000. They thrashed India 2-0 in the two-Test series and ran them close in the One-Day series, which was later tarnished by accusations of match-fixing indulged in by Hansie Cronje and others.
In that series, the South Africans won the Mumbai Test by four wickets inside three days and went on to crush India by an innings and 71 runs in Bangalore. The visitors banked heavily on accurate fast-medium bowling and a string of all-rounders who provided depth to the batting.
The lines the fast bowlers bowled were plotted by coach Woolmer. These strangled the Indian batsmen. Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, Hansie Cronje, alongside Jacques Kallis and Lance Klusener proved so potent with the tactics that Nicky Boje had little to do other than bowling a tight line and length and contributing with the bat.
It was obvious even then that Woolmer had done tremendous homework and his plans paid off. At least eight Indian players from that series -- Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Mohammed Kaif, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble, Murali Karthik and Ajit Agarkar-are around. And that must be heartening for Woolmer who, going by the composition of the Pakistan team, might well be banking on a similar strategy to fox the Indians.
The 'new' Woolmer - with Pakistani legend Imran Khan
The absence of fiery rebel Shoaib Akhtar might actually be a boon for Woolmer. For, it is difficult to imagine a fast bowler of Shaoib's bloated ego and temperament having the discipline to fall in line with the team's plan. But the other pacemen, Mohammed Sami, Naved-ul-Hasan, Abdul Razzaq and Mohammed Khalil will certainly adhere to the instructions of Woolmer. Off-spinner Arshad Khan, Danish Kaneria perhaps, and maybe even Shahid Afridi will concentrate in blocking one end, much in the manner of Nicky Boje of 2000 vintage.
The Pakistani batting line-up of skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yusuf Youhana, Younis Khan and a whole lot of youngsters looks far more impressive than the one Hansie Cronje carried with him to India in 1999-2000. Pakistan's support team of trainers, coach, bowling coach and manager is a decidedly no-nonsense one (in that it is not retirement benefits given to ex-stars).
India need to be on guard. Woolmer knows that crowd pressure can cut both ways. If he puts India under intense pressure, the crowd could well turn against the home team. The South Africans used this to good effect in 1999-2000. There is no reason to doubt that the Pakistanis, egged on by Woolmer, will do any different. Manipulating the crowds and situations could be the watchword in the series.
India therefore have to ensure that their most experienced batting line-up, Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Sehwag are in the fray to handle the most stressful of situations. The time to milk their combined experience is now. For it is only when the batsmen put up huge runs on the board can the Indian bowlers exert pressure on the rival batsman.
And once that happens, Woolmer, for whom fate has ensured that there is neither ice nor open drinking in Pakistan, can contemplate during his `runs' in the sub-continent that it does not pay to have a foul tongue.