Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bare Cupboard?

I recently made another career switch - a risk, and something which even a few months ago, I would have never comprehended doing. There were lots of wrongs with it - starting another life afresh with absolutely no clue as to what was I was getting into, leaving the last job which I was disliking thoroughly, but where I was professionaly considered to be capable of doing very well, leaving that job without giving it sufficient time, and so on. However, as a good friend pointed out, maybe that allowed me to get closer to actual content-production, independent of any medium. Blogging already allows me to write, for myself. Maybe being in my current profession will allow me to create platforms for sportspersons (had just the temperament of one, never the skill). I will just need a way to satisfy the other big craving - films - role-playing in particular.

Cricket has been my passion since I entered the teens. In fact, I had written an entire post on how I had grown up with Sachin (my own Freedom at Midnight, hehe), hence articles like below sadden me, that whether I actually have grown into what I wanted to be. I guess it will forever be a dream for me to see Sachin do what Dravid, Ponting, and even Lara, Fleming and Inzy keep doing.

India has had a mixed bag in the Dravid-Chappell era. Our famed batting 'five' of the 2002-04 vintage lost form, hence our Test team had already gone into decline under Ganguly. We never had the bowling to blast teams out, it only was a good support cast to chip away on helpful tracks, or buy wickets with the cushion of heap of runs. However, in one-dayers, the success continued with the formation of another batting 'five' - Sachin and Dravid from the Test arena, the addition of Yuvi and Dhoni who by virtue of excelling in the shorter-version claimed Test berths, and very surprsingly, Irfan Pathan who played some crucial knocks 0n different occassions.

India performed poorly in Test matches, and excelled in ODIs. There were a record number of ODI chases (when we were traditionally poor in the department), and we thrashed teams with tennis-like scorelines. There were experimentations galore with the batting lineup, some fantastic individual performances like always, and a young brigade that justified their inclusion in the team in place of old hands, by giving Indian fielding an edge like rarely before.

However, the entire ODI team structure started dismantling in the Caribbean, where Sachin was out-of-action. Greg Chappell, being a true blue Aussie, told the opponents after they had collectively strived to ensure their defeat in the first ODI, that they had forgotten how to win (and he was probably right there). Lara keeps pointing to this remark, as West Indies have defeated India in six out of seven matches hence.

Without Sachin, we just did not have stability at the top, as Sehwag has been failing in one-day cricket for the past three years. There was no experience in the form of Ganguly and Laxman, and once Yuvi and Dhoni lost form, it was a hell of a battle as the others had to step up. I liked Raina in the couple of good innings he has played, and I definitely think he has it in him to be a long-term India prospect. Even the Indian thinktank agrees with me, as they prefer him over Kaif, who has all the ingredients to be a captain, except for his batting (so ironical).

Sachin's return has been of no help, and we have continued losing. Most importantly, he has flopped in all the matches - regular or crunch - against his once favourite opposition, Australia. Dravid's loss of form has been devastating, as this has not happened in the last few years. Thankfully, he stepped up the ante in the crunch Champions' Trophy match against the Aussies. The worrying fact in that match was that even Sehwag could not take a risk to get the run-rate going, as even though India had an extra batsman, they were not unsure of a batting collapse.

India has crashed out of the Champions' Trophy, and Jyoti Randhawa won a big tournament (and purse) in golf. While this is great news professionally, personally it saddended me. The final nail in the coffin was when the new Chairman of Selectors, Dilip Vengsarkar, said the cupboard was bare. If I remember correctly, the last time this had been said was when he had returned from our first trip to South Africa, just before Azhar started his golden run at home by thrashing the English.

We have gone back to some conventional choices - Zaheer and Kumble (am not sure of Kumble's utility with his ten overs in the ODI team, especially at the expense of Powar; hopefully Kumble will prove me wrong again). Laxman still gets no place, which I think might be unjustified. We need at least one more experienced batting hat, and if Ganguly had been getting runs, he could have been the man. Jaffer gets the nod over Gambir, when the latter has got runs in both Australia (the India 'A' trip) and India. And Raina keeps his place, because he is better off with the team rather trying to defend his state-side's Ranji title.

Which brings me back to my favourite moot point - the only way we can minimize more of such heartbreaks is by pumping money and putting systems into our domestic structure. The idea is to ensure that when Gambir gets his runs, they count; and Raina and Pathan can go-back and rediscover their form by playing some meaningful and competitive cricket.

This cannot happen through cosmetic changes. Better pitches, elite and plate leagues, kookaburra ball, are a step in the right directions. But we actually need a PHL here - the step below international cricket has to be competitive enough to produce internationally-capable players. And this cannot happen with the current 27-team Ranji structure, where even Saurashtra gets to field its players. It will also imply cutting down on meaningless international assignments, and raising the profile of domestic games by getting more 'stars', Indian and even international as in County cricket, playing. This will also ensure higher audience-involvement with the domestic teams.

I am not sure whether a city-based league will be the answer. There is a lot of untapped demand in the smaller towns, which even now have decent turnouts for Ranji games. I put in a link, where something similar has been done in South Africa to make them more competitive: http://content-ind.cricinfo.com/southafrica/content/current/story/262395.html

Till then, we can just admire the Aussies, who keep producing new stars for different occassion. We can also keep lamenting when the cycle will turn in our favour, and if India's performance will ever match its commercial clout in the cricketing circles.

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