Saturday, March 24, 2007

Life-after-Death

Four years ago, on March 23, 2003, India had reached the finals of the ICC World Cup. As a leading two-wheeler company's advertising campaign professed, we had a golden opportunity to do it again, Bees Saal Baad. Our captain, Sourav Ganguly, went in with the tried-and-tested team, when maybe, as a horses-for-courses measure, the then-declining leg-spinner could have been accommodated at the expense of a batsman. Ganguly won the toss, and rightfully played to his fast bowling strength and inserted the opposition. The lead bowler leaked fifteen runs in the first over, yet the Aussies scratched around and to my mind, rode their luck. However, the conditions eased out and the opposition captain (and soon to indisputably assume the mantle of the world's best batsman) played a stunning innings to set us a then considered impossible (surely not now) target. Our champion batsman of the tournament, and the decade before, Sachin Tendulkar, fell in the first over to the Aussie lead bowler, and we packed up within forty overs, to lose by 125 runs.
Exactly the same day four years later, there was an uncanny sense of deja vu. The match was a knock-out, but this time to avoid humiliation, not gain exhilaration. The current captain, Dravid, did decide to adopt a horses-for-courses policy, and again the champion leg-spinner (who refuses to decline, but says now will retire from ODIs) was dropped, because conventional theory says an offie (who has forgot to pick up wickets) is better against left-handers. He also took the right decision to bowl first, always a risk for me knowing what had happened then. Yet, enough happened in the first twenty overs to keep us on tenterhooks. On an average, batsmen were beaten twice an over. As Bob Simpson had once pointed out, that usually indicates the bowlers have been on the shorter side. And as Sangakarra showed by playing everything quite comfortably of the backfoot, maybe Simpson was right. In spite of the helpful conditions, the three vital wickets fell to a catch at third man (Jayasuriya), a blinder down the legside (Jayawardene), and a mishit to long-on (Sangakkara). The young turks of Sri Lanka rose to the challenge, the offie had another off-day (yet bowled his full spell), and we yielded a tricky but achievable score, 105 runs less than four years ago. However, the world's best batting lineup - prone to being the best only on shirtfronts - managed to collapse again. However, they managed to halve the losing degree by 56 runs. The captain, and his recently deposed deputy, were the only ones who kept us in the hunt till the 20th over.
Technically, India can still qualify for the Super Eights, if Bermuda manages to upset Bangladesh. Otherwise, all those who were looking forward to the sumptuous feast to be provided by the Indo-Pak game on Apr-15 at Barbados, please replace it with a Bangladesh-Ireland menu.
In some corner of my heart, as a cricket buff, I am actually happy that India did not qualify, because as Amit Varma puts it. The major stake-holders in the tournament - the television channels and major sponsors - risk losing millions, either in cash or kind, if India go out in the first round. They are not the number one team in the world by a mile. Not even number two. They are ranked sixth in the ICC team ratings and, while that might not always be the best indicator of a team's worth, they have not won a competition of note outside the subcontinent since 1985. Yet the fate of the World Cup rides on them. It's a disaster waiting to happen. (to read his full story, you can click on the link: http://content-ind.cricinfo.com/ci/content/current/story/286676.html ).

However, I am no longer just a buff, but also a professional trying to make a career in the sports media industry. And the loss seriously affects business (as Varma points out). I am just imagining the plight of my ex-brethren at Mindshare, who will be trying to pull off all the Pepsi Hoo Ha ads from different channels. And what do I do with my Blue Billion T-shirt now?

We had it coming, in spite of the favourable reviews, this team just did not look like it. The 2003 team was almost the same, yet appeared a nice blend of youth and experience. Now, the same team looks like a mix of the aged and the wounded. We lost four years back, yet all of us were proud of the achievement of the team, how they managed to turn things around. Today, I am not upset with the defeats to our sub-continental neighbours, but with the total lack of a will.

Where does Indian cricket go from here? I have been crying hoarse about the first-class structure for a long time now. In fact, if a smaller 9-11 team league is far-fetched, just swapping the Elite and the Plate leagues can be a start. Have top ten (instead of fifteen) teams in the elite panel, at least it will become genuinely elite. Also, a few professionals, in the administration and selection, surely will not harm the glorious cricketing democratic process.

I am a great admirer of Rahul Dravid, yet certain elements of his captaincy are increasing baffling me. However, to my mind, he has not done enough wrongs to be sacked. My criteria for a captain is that he should be an automatic, relatively unquestioned selection in both the Test and the ODI teams (am not a great fan of separate Test and ODI captains). Going by this yardstick, he, Ganguly and Yuvraj are possibly the only ones who qualify for the same in the immediate future.

More importantly, Dravid is a player who has turned things around for himself. Who could have thought that in the new century, he will compete with the supremely gifted Lara and Ponting for the title of the world's best batsman. So if one goes by the theory of leaders being inspirational figures, our young cricketers surely need to look up to someone who has learnt to do it the hard way. Am putting the link to his post-match interview below, which again proves that he provides frank admissions and insights, not sound-bytes. http://content-ind.cricinfo.com/wc2007/content/current/story/287008.html

The biggest worry is again Sachin Tendulkar (seen bowled for the umpteenth time in his career, in another crunch-situation failure). Since he turned thirty after the last World Cup, he has been a pale shadow of the giant I grew up with. If the fast catching Ponting, the age-defying Lara, the booing by his home-crowd, and the increasingly questioning stakeholders do not inspire him, then wonder what will? He may still hold on to his position in the team, but should he? Hope I am completely wrong.

Virender Sehwag was a nice natural successor to Dravid, who could have taken up the mantle after the skipper retired in a couple of years. But his attitude and his fitness ensured that the smooth transition plan was disrupted. I think he has managed to resurrect his career to some extent, amd may actually turn out to be a smart captain. But that will need some watching.

Going back to Ganguly as captain will be a backward step, more so at a time when the Prince is enjoying his batting so much. Dada was possibly India's best captain ever, and can now easily play the role of a mentor to the younger guys. Yuvraj is another leader candidate, but somehow, I am not convinced of his captaincy skills. And we just have to remember Dhoni and Pathan, who would have been considered insiders a couple of seasons back.

Greg Chappell will most probably lose his position. And anyways, am not such a big fan of high-profile coaches (though did support him over the other candidates, because his theory do sound good). A coach has a relatively limited role to play in the schema of things, and John Wright got it totally right with his behind-the-scene inputs.

To reflect a Shining, Rising, Posied India, we definitely need an injection of youth in the cricketing team - the Karthiks, the Sreesanths, even the Uthappas (three failures not withstanding). And if the first-class structure is right, it will ensure that the Kaifs and the Rainas go back there not to rot, but to learn and return stronger. The old way has to make way for the new, and Bangladesh can be a good place to start. If SRT is dropped for the first time in his career, Indian cricket can only benefit if the Champion comes back as strong as his former-skipper and opening partner Sourav Ganguly did.

1 comment:

Abhilasha said...

Ok, I get to comment first... I know I should be all despondent and gloomy....but I think your comment on the April 15 match is just too rib-tickling.....lol....
Well, I know what to do with your blue billion T-shirt....give it to me, so that I can complete my blue-billion outfit.....
and there is a typo "who has forgot(ten) to bowl" in your post.....