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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Monday, September 13, 2004

India and the GFG Index

After being at an all-time high in end-April earlier this year, the United Nations GFG (Global Feel-Good) Index has been lying low for the last two months. There was an occasional spurt on 27th July and one on 5th Sept but these have been aberrations in an otherwise consistently depressed index.

On being interviewed on the subject, the U.N spokesperson attributed this to the extremely low sense of well being currently being experienced in one of the largest and most significant populations that impact the index. India, comprising almost a sixth of the world population, and with its increased developing-country based weightage to boot, has been largely responsible for the southward trend in this index. The spokesperson however emphasized that he expected this to be a transitory state of affairs and expressed confidence that the index would bounce back soon.

All right – before somebody considers me uni-dimensional or, even worse, hastens to sue me on behalf of the United Nations, let me quickly come clean. This is obviously just a cock-and-bull story. There is no such thing as a Global Feel-Good Index (at least not one that I am aware of - although considering the various economic indices that are developed everyday, some of rather dubious origin, I would not be entirely surprised if one such index has found its way sneakily onto the statistician’s computing chart).

And, I must say, for those who consider India’s “feel-good” factor to be far more multi-dimensional than just based on its performances in the game of cricket, I must agree with them. There is much more to the country and its people than just the game of cricket. The feel-good factor is affected by, inter alia, things like the monsoon rains, price of fuel (or should this be fuelling prices), industrial production, political and communal stability, the box-office results of the latest Bollywood starrer, Olympic results and so on. But, without sounding too shallow, I think I can reasonably safely add that the performance of India in the game of cricket has a massive impact on a large section of the population and can make a rather telling impact (whether positive or negative) on the general feel-good factor in the country. It was not entirely without design that the former government in power arranged an Indian cricket tour of Pakistan just days before the national general elections.

The last two months have not been good for Indian cricket. After heady days in Australia and Pakistan only a few months ago, the Indian team has rather inexplicably slumped to defeat in tournaments in Sri Lanka, the Netherlands and England. Indian supporters, always a demanding crowd and even more so after the dream performance in Pakistan, suddenly find themselves hard done by and cannot quite fathom the sudden change in fortunes. Their reaction vacillates between extremes – from the extremely disillusioned and vocally angry supporter who, without the slightest hesitation, swears action on players, to the increasingly rare, die-hard supporter who still stands firmly behind his team and believes the current string of defeats to be only a passing phase in the path of more glory to come.

There is not much moderation to be found – in an atmosphere charged with emotion, moderation is the casualty.

As a long-time follower of the game, and one who has seen several such ups and downs in Indian cricket, I am making this attempt to step back from the heat of the moment and rationally assess the state of Indian cricket today. I do not expect many to agree with me but then nothing is more welcome than a healthy debate on a subject so close to the hearts of so many.

In my opinion, the current poor showing of the Indian cricket team is a culmination of several factors. Some real, some suggestive but, all in all, an extremely potent mix which could derail the best of teams.

Let us look at these in isolation.

The R-word and fitness in general
After the Indian team’s spectacular performance in Pakistan, the players enjoyed a break of almost four months from the game. Well-deserved you may say – and you would be right. With one small caveat – this is a bunch of professionals; so one would expect that even if not called to do duty for the country, they would, in their own ways, keep themselves in fit condition to do so. After all, in today’s high-performance world, there is no room for lethargy.

From the first match this season that the Indians played in Sri Lanka, it became clear that they were not in match-fit condition. While shortcomings in physical fitness have become so routine that they are almost (in my opinion entirely unjustifiably) expected, the fluency in all departments of the game seemed to have been left behind with last season’s amazing run. The poor showing in Sri Lanka, one amazing victory notwithstanding, was attributed to “rustiness”.

The Sachin factor
Whether one likes to admit it or not, the very presence of Sachin Tendulkar in the Indian team has a reassuring feel about it. He may be out of form and for many he may be nowhere near the force he was a few years ago, but his sheer impact on the Indian team and, very importantly, the opposition is something very difficult to describe.

Well, after an average showing with the bat in Sri Lanka (but surprisingly doing wonders with the ball), Sachin Tendulkar suddenly sprang the worst imaginable news on his team and the Indian cricket following public. On the eve of India’s first game in the Netherlands against Pakistan, Tendulkar pulled out, citing a “tennis elbow”. The absolutely stunned public had barely recovered from this news (which was followed by a thumping defeat for India) when worse was to follow. It became clear that this was not a one-off match that Tendulkar would be missing. He missed not only the game against Australia but also all three NatWest Trophy games against England in England. What probably will hurt many Indians most is Tendulkar’s non-availability for the ICC Champions Trophy, considered by many to be “the one that really matters”.

Many Indian supporters, already disillusioned by repeated poor performances by the Indian team, have already written off India’s chances in this tournament without Tendulkar as the driving force.

Form or, rather, the lack of it
As a consolation to a top player’s poor performance, one often hears the statement “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Just tell that to the player himself. It is not particularly comforting for a player to find that, all of a sudden, the fluency and form that he had by now almost taken for granted have suddenly forsaken him like bad companions of a man fallen on ill-times.

When that happens to a number of players en masse, it is frightening – rather like an epidemic. Suddenly top players like Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman are struggling to get bat to ball without ending up popping it to the nearest fielder as if for catching practice.

Never great at the best of times, the Indian bowling too has been similarly afflicted by the lack of form – the only difference probably being that not much was expected from it anyway, so the letdown has been less dramatic.

While the above reasons are all public and undeniable, there are some typically insidious and not entirely substantiated comments too making the rounds.

That the Indian players have suddenly lost the need to fight for their financial security, now that a new contracts system is in place to provide this to some extent to the players.

That some of the newly wed players (most notably Virendra Sehwag) have other priorities now while earlier their primary motivation in life was cricket.

That Rahul Dravid, till now the darling of Indian cricket who could do no wrong as batsman-keeper for India in one-dayers, is over-burdened by this dual responsibility and is therefore not able to handle it any more.

That some of the players have no business being selected for India in the first place, either because they have long passed their sell-by date (as in the case of Anil Kumble) or because they are being accommodated purely by virtue of being captain (Saurav Ganguly) or because of some nepotism (Rohan Gavaskar).

The cry to give a whole host of players waiting in the wings a chance to show off their plumes gets louder and louder with every poor showing by the Indian team.

This is not something I am unused to. The 1978 disastrous tour of Pakistan by India saw the end of the illustrious careers of captain Bishen Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. Even Bhagwat Chandrasekhar lasted just a handful of Tests thereafter.

In my opinion, the Indian public needs to show a little more understanding. Form is indeed temporary. In a long career, it is not uncommon for almost every player, whatever be his quality, to go through a lean patch. Denis Compton, one of the best batsmen ever produced by England, also had one of the most shocking form losses ever when he mustered just 53 runs in 7 innings in the 1950-51 Ashes series Down Under

Rahul Dravid will do well not to let this sudden desertion of form get to him. He is a top-quality batsman, one of the very best in world cricket at the moment, and it is only a matter of time before he begins to time the ball sweetly again. You cannot keep a good man down for too long. Virendra Sehwag may have a slightly different and possibly more arduous climb back to form – but he is also too natural a player to be kept quiet for too long. All it takes for him to regain his confidence is one typically perky innings.

The public would also do well to refresh their memory with regard to Anil Kumble, Saurav Ganguly and Rohan Gavaskar. The first two have had long and successful careers and, despite a recent wretched run of form, continue to evoke respect in opposition camps. Rohan Gavaskar, a late starter in terms of international opportunities, did come good in the few chances that came his way in Australia. In my opinion, any claims that he owes his place in the side to his famous surname, do great injustice to him.

Having said that, let us also recognize the high degree of competitiveness in cricket today. There are several talented players waiting in the wings. This can only be good for India as it means the reserve bench will exert pressure on the players out there in the middle.

I would also like to make one observation. This is especially for those diehard Indian supporters amongst us who think that India has some of the best players in the world and by dint of this – and the fact that they put up an excellent show in Australia and Pakistan – can rightfully claim to be second-best in the world.

Let me tell them - you are only as good as your results. And, however much Mr. Ganguly and the Indian press may like to underplay the Asia Cup and the Videocon Cup as being “warm-up” games for the main event, the fact remains that India was thrashed fair and square in these events. As the adage goes, nothing succeeds like success. By the same token, nothing fails like failure. If Australia win, it is partly because they win. Every win makes them more unused to failure. Going to England, Mr. Ganguly and co. would have done well to have a few successes under their belt, warm-up or no warm-up. A defeat plays games with the mind and much of what happens out there on the field is a mind-game.

And this is precisely why I find the “rustiness” excuse so lame and unacceptable in a professional outfit. A professional team prepares itself for every game with one overriding objective – to win. It is an insult to the tournament organizers, the spectators and the millions of supporters worldwide to approach a game with a condition (mental or physical) suggesting anything less than a hundred per cent.

Saurav Ganguly insists that, despite the indifferent results, it is not for want of trying. The whole team, he insists, is working very hard – it is just that some players are not clicking at the moment and India is not able to deliver.

If we accept this statement at face value, perhaps we need to accept another harsh reality. That other teams are better prepared than India. After all, it is not all about talent and quality. Ask any person who has been in a competitive situation (be it an examination or a sporting event) and he will tell you that it is not how good you are that matters but how much better than the competition you are that counts. Perhaps other teams, especially Australia, England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, have just oiled their machinery better than the hugely-talented but oh-so-erratic India. It takes a bit of humility to admit this (especially because chest-thumping is so much the norm nowadays) but I cannot help but feel humble at this moment – the Indian team has not given me cause to feel otherwise.

Coming to talent. I would like to make an assertion that talent is nothing if it does not translate to consistent results. I am rather tired of talented players (especially from the sub-continent which seems to produce them in vast numbers) who think that the odd, attractive innings showcasing their talent will wow their audiences and give them a place in posterity. To all these hugely-talented players my simple message is - you play for the team and it is your responsibility to be part of the engine that makes your team win. If you cannot do this or lose steam midway, you do not probably deserve to be part of this endeavour. The team is far bigger than the individual.

At the risk of becoming persona non grata for most Indians, I want to make a suggestion that many Indians will find very unpalatable. According to me, the current loss of form may be only temporary and is not half as worrying as possibly a more dire thought – that India is just not as good as everybody makes it out to be. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, especially when we are talking about one of the finalists in the World Cup of just a little over seventeen months ago. But I am afraid my yardstick for measuring success is consistency – and not the odd sporadic win, be it against even Australia. And India, even its most diehard supporter will admit, is notoriously inconsistent.

If India has to return to winning ways, it has to first be humble enough to take a leaf from other teams, especially the tremendously consistent Australia. It is all very well to call yourself a world-beater (it is good for your ego) but you have to deliver on this, this time, next time, every time. Until you do that, you are no better than any of those other teams out there.

And, loyal as your country folks are, until you do that, odd fluctuations notwithstanding, the GFG index will continue to hover in the long-term at a level no higher than its current level – whether the U.N likes it or not!

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