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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.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

From Adelaide to Bangalore

"Twenty-four hours after what was one of Indian cricket's lowest points in the last twenty-four years…" is how I planned to start this article/blog. But then, looking back, I realize, for me at least, this is not entirely true. Yes, Indian cricket hit a major low on the 28th of March 2005 but for those of us Indians to whom defeat to Pakistan is not the worst shame in the cricketing world, it was just another very bad, hugely forgettable day in the office for the Indian cricket team.

Don't get me wrong. It hurt – and it hurt real bad. If India, chasing 383, had gone gamely for the target and been bowled out for 350, Indians would still have been very disappointed, it would still have pained many diehard Indian fans. But there is pain - and there is anguish. The Indian performance yesterday evoked anguish and anger in equal measure to start with – and very soon anger overtook anguish as wave after wave of hostile public sentiment was targeted at the Indian players who would probably wish they could turn the clock back by twenty-four hours and start all over again.

If it was a forgettable day for Indian fans, it is not like they are going to be allowed to forget this day very easily. For years, Sharjah 86 and Chennai 99 were the Pakistani highlights in cricket talk against Indians. Now Bangalore 05 will join them and Indians will wince. Whatever trouble the Indian players on the field have negotiating the Pakistani bowling, their fans off it will have far more trouble fending off the jibes. Hopefully it is all in good taste and there will be a balance in opportunities to have a go at each other. That is what fan clubs are all about.

(For the record, though yesterday's defeat was painful for me, it does not even come close to the emptiness I felt when India, chasing 120 for an away series victory at Bridgetown, Barbados a few years ago, was shot out for 81. That was about as low as it got for me. True Chennai 99 hurt real bad because India had come so close to victory but Bridgetown 97 left me numb for a while).

What now ? Nothing.

There will be a huge hue and cry for a few days, a few heads may roll – or they may not, depending on whether this is indeed required to appease an angry public. There will be a few games played, the BCCI team (at least for now I do not want to call it the Indian team) will win a few, there will be some records created and all will be well again. Public memory is short if anything, and until the next Bangalore, life will be back to normal.

That has been the story of Indian cricket – and nobody should be surprised if the story plays itself out again. The first couple of games in the World Cup 2003 tournament invited tremendous public wrath against Indian players, they immediately put up a better showing and soon they were returning home as heroes for having made it to the final.

For every Bangalore, the Indian players manage to pull off, from time to time, an Adelaide. And the country goes ga-ga over them. So all I can say is, let's wait for the next Adelaide.

The danger with the Adelaides of the world is that you could very easily get carried away in the euphoria of the result. These games very easily lead you to draw misleading conclusions about the quality of the Indian side. After all, beating the Australians on their home soil is something other teams can usually only dream of. If India has actually done it, it must mean that they are a notch above the rest, that they are world-beaters, that they have excellence in all departments of the game.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. If you carefully analyse each of these Adelaides, Multans and Rawalpindis, you will find that, at the root of each of them, are either a few individual performances, or some moments of indiscretion on the part of the opposition, or helpful pitch conditions or some such aspect of the match that gave India the edge. It is rarely sheer hard work or brilliance sustained over the entire duration of the match that resulted in the victory. But, in the euphoria of the moment, we do not want to dampen the mood by analysis.

I do not, for one moment, want to downplay any of these wins. A win is a win and is something to be cherished. But when we ignore the underlying fabric and concentrate only on the silky sheen, we do grave injustice to ourselves because we are under-prepared when the silk is worn out and the ugly fabric stares at us, all exposed. We have to acknowledge the fabric for what it is and, even in "good times", fix it if we want to have a better chance of sustained success.

Fix it ? Easier said than done. In the corporate world, where shareholders elect the Board of Directors and have the right to change them if the results are not to their satisfaction, there is power in the hands of the shareholders (at least in theory). In the cricketing world, where the public neither elect the selection committee nor select the players, they can do little more than wringing their hands or banging their heads against a wall when the players put up a sorry performance. (The more frustrated and adventurous amongst the public may not stop at these hopeless gestures of failure but, tempting as it may be, any more drastic step is something that I would not be at liberty to recommend in this column).

This is where the problem therefore lies, to start with. There is only one team representing India – and therefore just one team on which the aspirations of millions are placed. The public lives and dies with these players' performances – but not for the players themselves, but for what they represent – Team India. This is very important – players come and go, but the public loyalty to Team India is much deeper and stronger than sentiment for any one individual. Each cricketer better get this clearly into his head - he is worshipped because he plays for Team India and brings glory for Team India. The day he stops doing this, he must be replaced for another player who can do the job better. The corporate world is ruthless in its pursuit of success and struggle for survival in a competitive world, there is no reason why the cricketing team representing the country and carrying the hopes of millions should be treated any different. On their part, the public should stop glorifying individual performances over the team cause.

Another point which the cricket establishment would do well to realize is that you can only pick the best from what you have. And if what you have is rotten or average, stop kidding yourself - you will never have a world-beating side. Again we can draw an analogy with the corporate world. The quality of its employees manifests itself in the results of the corporation. Many companies hire the best or ensure they have training programmes or even in-house educational institutes that act as a feed for employee development. There are a few cricket academies in India at the moment but, while they are probably doing creditable work, the tangible output (in terms of value for Team India) has not quite met the requirement. One Srinath or a Prasad, is, I am afraid, not good enough.

A third point to consider is performance-based compensation. I cannot help feeling (and maybe I am out of line here) that, barring a few exceptions, most Indian players are quite content with doing just enough to keep themselves in the squad. They do not seem to have the hunger to go all out to excel. This is possibly because, as long as they are in the squad, their revenue stream is assured and they are anyway well compensated through channels of income other than just their salary from the cricket board. This is a major dampener for the team performance and does great injustice to the fans who expect each player to give his best at all times. In corporate life, usually the terms of employment dictate that the employee shall not engage in any earning activity that may conflict with the interests of the employer or that may interfere with the ability of the employee to perform to the best of his ability.

I know this has been tried by the BCCI and has failed due to the power of the star players involved. But either the BCCI should consider re-inforcing this (and if a player refuses, well, he just cannot represent the BCCI or Team India) or the BCCI should make its player compensations so attractive as to make it worth the player's while to stick with BCCI. This is probably not going to fly (since it involves commercial considerations and market forces) but, instead of concentrating on the process, the BCCI can easily concentrate on the output. If the BCCI raises its performance bar much higher than it is at the moment, players will automatically need to deliver more to be part of Team India and since it is their currency with Team India that makes them attractive for product sponsors, it will automatically require them to push themselves to perform better.

So, if all this is in place, will we see a better performing Team India ? I believe much more is required than just this. All this will help but the fire burning in your stomach that makes you push yourself is something that cannot be educated or trained into an individual – either you have it or you don't.

Till we have our underlying structure in place, we will just bumble and stumble along –with a Bangalore to match every Adelaide, and more positively spoken, with an Adelaide to match every Bangalore.

Until the next Adelaide.

Yours,
Raja Swaminathan

The myth of captaincy

There has been so much written about Saurav Ganguly in the media. Print media, online media. I must be out of my mind to come up with yet another piece on him. But there is more to this than just one individual, there is the bigger issue of Indian captaincy at stake – and that is enough for me to write this piece, even if the subject has been beaten to death a million times.

Like millions of other Indians, I reveled in the glory years of Ganguly. When he made his debut hundred at Lord’s almost nine years ago, I was “over the moon”. He followed it up with another hundred in the next Test – and I became one of his biggest fans. For years, India had depended on two batsmen – Tendulkar and Azharuddin. Now, there were two more to hold the fort – Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. (That series was also Dravid’s debut series and he also did very well although he did not get a hundred).

For the next few years, Ganguly was one of India’s frontline batsmen – and even after Azharuddin’s fall from grace, we spoke of the troika - Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly.
This was before VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag entered the fray to stake their claim in India’s batting hierarchy.

I suspect it was sometime during India’s disastrous 1999-2000 series in Australia (where even Dravid did not get a fifty) that I remember reading about a chink in Ganguly’s batting armoury – that he was suspect against short-pitched fast bowling.

This may be untrue – and Ganguly insists it is – but the fact remains that the opposition has used the short delivery to its advantage and Ganguly has, time and again, played right into their hands. If this was a psyching tactic, in Ganguly’s case, it has worked wonderfully for the opposition.

This has been going on for about five years now (which is a long time in today’s busy schedule in international cricket) – and although he has got a few hundreds and fifties to show – Ganguly’s batting average has plummeted from a 50-odd excellent figure to a still-good-but-nowhere-near-impressive-enough 41-odd. If Azharuddin fell from grace for reasons which had nothing to do with his batting, Ganguly seems to be steadily falling from grace for reasons which have everything to do with batting alone.

It is difficult to see a player you like struggling so much – especially when you have been enthralled so often by his clean, dominating batting. Who can forget the 1999 World Cup thrashing of Sri Lanka ? For years, Ganguly had the cleanest cover drive in the game and his taking on of spinners had become legendary. It just does not seem to happen anymore, at least not in Tests.

He continues to do well in the limited overs version of the game – a sign that where the need is not to play out a long innings, he can still be reasonably counted upon. But in Tests, where you sometimes have to just stay there for a session or two, Ganguly seems to have increasingly lost the plot.

I am not unused to this. Over twenty years ago, I saw my then-favourite batsman Gundappa Vishwanath struggling to get runs that he could have got in his sleep just a few years before. The classic square-cut, the exotic late-cut, the fluent flick past mid-wicket – trademarks of Vishy – suddenly became something to yearn for as they got increasingly rare. His struggle was extremely painful to watch – he himself refused to accept it as anything other than a temporary loss of form. Finally, when he was not selected for the 1983 World Cup squad to England, a decision that came to him and the country as a huge surprise, it was the final writing on the wall for him. I still have memories of a picture in a magazine of that time where Vishy was at the airport (Bombay or Delhi, I don’t remember) wishing the Indian team the best of luck for the tournament. He was bitter, no doubt, but he was too big-hearted to allow his personal disappointment to come in the way of wishing the team success. The caption for the picture read “End of an era ?”.

I am digressing. We are discussing Saurav Ganguly and, as is typical of me, I have gone back to the days of Sunny and Vishy. Put it down to the bane of carrying too much cricket history in my head.

Back to Ganguly. I am not suggesting for one moment that Ganguly’s career is coming to an end or that his best days are behind him or that he should be replaced by somebody else. My only point is that there have been precedents of players going woefully out of form, some for extended periods, and many have not survived the dip. Ganguly has been fortunate in that he is in the strongest Indian batting side ever, so his own limited contributions in the last five years have been compensated by abundant contributions from the others. Added to this is the fact that he is Indian captain – which serves as considerable (if not absolutely water-tight) insurance for retaining his place in the side. Vishwanath did not have this luxury. Neither was he captain during his lean period, nor did others necessarily carry the team if he failed.

Which brings me to the subject I really wanted to talk about – Ganguly’s captaincy. I am going to become extremely unpopular by the time I am done but I will risk this. For I have to say what I think, even if it defies popular belief.

Inspite of Ganguly’s batting failures in the last few years, I believe he is better than his recent performances indicate. I can accept that he is going through a rough patch and will prove his detractors wrong – that big innings is just round the corner.

What I just cannot accept is what so many people all over the world believe - that Ganguly is a brilliant captain.

Figures and opinions will be thrown in my face to prove me wrong. After all, Ganguly has the most successful captaincy record in Indian cricket. Many leading ex-captains and commentators go ga-ga over Ganguly’s captaincy. He comes across as an aggressive captain, seems very passionate about the game, does not hide behind excuses and has transformed the Indian side into a performing unit. That is what I am repeatedly told.

I beg to differ. If the ICC player rankings are anything to go by, India has some of the world’s top batsmen and top bowlers at the moment. A really top captain would have leveraged this abundant wealth of talent and skills to win not just the odd Test but almost every Test India plays. Maybe this is overly ambitious and optimistic and I do admit that a team like Australia is definitely in a league above India, but India, under Ganguly has not half-achieved what it could and should have. Sure it is third in the ICC rankings but looking at the quality of teams below it, anything lower than third would be a disgrace.

Whenever we talk of Ganguly’s captaincy, one point is immediately brought up – under him, India has become the only real challenger to Australia, having beaten them in a home series in 2001 and almost beaten them in Australia in 2004. So Ganguly deserves credit for this.

Utter nonsense. India’s 2001 performance had everything to do with Laxman and Harbhajan Singh. Its 2004 performance in Australia had everything to do with a whole host of performances from almost every Indian player and a weakened Aussie side.

When Australia visited India late last year, they set the record straight. Ganguly missed a couple of games but he was overall captain and must take responsibility for India’s dismal showing.

Under Ganguly, India has done well notably well in 4 series of consequence :
- against Australia at home in 2001
- against England in 2002
- against Australia in Australia in 2004
- against Pakistan in Pakistan in 2004

In all these series, my argument is that India would have done whatever it did, whether being led by Ganguly or by anybody else.

By the same token, if Ganguly is such a brilliant captain, why did India lose the away-series in the West Indies in 2001-02 ? I remember it being a very average West Indian side. Reason : The Indian big guns, notably Dravid and Tendulkar and even Kumble, did not fire consistently and Sehwag was missing. Ganguly’s captaincy counts for nought if his talented team has an off-day or off-series.

Sure, Ganguly led India to the World Cup final in 2003. Again my argument is that any other captain would have done the same – there was nothing special that Ganguly did.

If Ganguly is such a brilliant captain, how is it that India could not capture four Pakistani wickets on the last day at Mohali ? Sure Kamran Akmal and Razzaq batted very well and the wicket was flat, but could not Ganguly inspire his bowlers to finish off the game, considering the prize at stake ? Any other captain in his place would have got much more flak than Ganguly did. But then he is the “blue-eyed” captain, so this total failure was conveniently glossed over.

Everybody knows that this is the weakest Pakistani side to ever visit India and still India is struggling to win the series hands-down. Surely the captain should take responsibility for this.

As for Ganguly’s aggression and passion, it counts for nothing. If aggression and passion is all it takes, anybody can demonstrate these qualities and claim captaincy. It takes effort to make ordinary players do extraordinary things, to envision and lead to victory a side when every other team player has lost hope and looks totally down and out. Ask Allan Border and Imran Khan, two captains who had far less skilled players at their disposal and who turned them into World Cup winning players. True, Ganguly may have led India into the World Cup final of 2003 but let’s face it, India had a very strong squad with Tendulkar in full form and the one team that could have thrashed India, did so very convincingly. What great captaincy skills did Ganguly exhibit when Australia were thrashing India from the first ball of that final ?

I am ending this blog now. It is not organized in any manner but I am glad I have written this. It takes a load off my mind.

My take on Saurav Ganguly is somewhat different from that of many others. Most people criticize his batting but praise his captaincy. For me, it is different.

I can tolerate Saurav Ganguly’s repeated batting failures. Hopefully he will come good soon.

I cannot tolerate this hype about his “great” captaincy. He is leading a team with top players and has not shown the results he should have. Mohali hurts real bad for me, even today.

I would like to still see Ganguly in the side, playing under somebody else. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, whoever. I don’t expect the results to be any worse than what Ganguly has produced – this, for me, will be the final explosion of the myth of “Ganguly’s great captaincy”.

Mohali : Day 2 : Uphill task for Pakistan

It must be a sobering thought for Bob Woolmer that after a tough tour to Australia his players still have no respite unless they play close to their best.
It is just two days into the series and while the honours had been pretty even at the end of the first day, the game seems to have tilted quite pronouncedly towards India by the end of the second.

Much of this turn of events can be attributed to the Pakistani showing on the field rather than any superlative performance by the Indians out there in the middle. This is not to take anything away from Sehwag but the chances he offered should have been taken by any team keen to make a statement and prove their detractors wrong. You let Sehwag off at your own peril – everybody knows (and none better than Pakistan) that he does give you chances and you have got to grab the first one that comes your way. From an opposition and match situation point of view, the biggest danger of Sehwag being around is not just that he tends to score big but the rate at which the runs come often take the game away from his opposition.

If the Pakistani players look at themselves in the mirror, they will admit that they could and should have put up a much better showing. It cannot be a particularly heartening thought to go out there to do battle with Sehwag and Dravid, knowing that there is still plenty to come from where these guys leave off.

Having said this, the game is still far from over – and even if a Pakistani victory seems rather remote at this stage, a rejuvenated performance from the Pakistanis (or a collapse by the Indians) can get the match back on even keel. Even otherwise, with rain already robbing India of a few precious hours and some more rain forecast on other days, it may be the rain gods who have the last laugh here.

As for me, while many have already written off this Pakistani side as the worst ever to tour India and a few observers have even predicted a clean sweep for the Indians, I have always considered Pakistan as the most unpredictable side in world cricket and would not be surprised if they come out today as if yesterday never happened.

For the sake of Mr. Woolmer - and many of our Pakistani fans here, I hope we see Pakistan playing to their potential. For they are much better than what they showed us on this second day of this game.

Pak in India and a website anniversary

We have just a few days to go before the next mega cricketing spectacle begins and I, like millions of others, cannot wait. With due respect to the Ashes series (of which I myself am a huge fan), I strongly believe there is nothing as eagerly anticipated as a contest between India and Pakistan, be it a Test match or a one-dayer. If you have any doubts about this, just follow the passion on this site during an Indo-Pak cricket game and you will know what I am talking about.

During and immediately after India’s tour to Pakistan last year, I wrote a couple of articles on this site, discussing the magic of the moment and thanking Pakistan for being a wonderful host. All the misgivings before the tour turned out to be unfounded as the players and other Indians were given a warm reception wherever they went, the games were played in the best of spirit and a huge amount of goodwill was generated – best evidenced by the sight of Indian and Pakistani supporters sitting next to each other, waving their respective flags in a fiercely competitive, yet friendly atmosphere. This picture will remain imprinted in my mind for ever.

For me personally, having grown up trying to convince many around me that there was nothing to fear in building good relations with Pakistan and that there were but a few rabble-rousers - on both sides of the border – who had a vested interest in keeping the countries apart, there could have been no greater vindication of my belief. Short of saying “I told you so”, I did take an opportunity to gloat (read my article, “Thank You, Pakistan”).

I still believe that the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis have very similar day-to-day concerns in life and have little interest in stoking fires of passionate hatred towards the other’s nation. We are extremely competitive about sports when we play each other (be it cricket or hockey) but we have the sense to separate competitiveness from hatred.

Or, do we ? If the daily messages in the media, both Indian and Pakistani, are anything to go by, the portents for the upcoming tour do not look very promising. I am not talking about the cricket itself – I am convinced that the cricket will take care of itself. It is the other aspects of the tour that are quite worrying.

By now, we are all used to the BCCI’s handling of a cricket series. We would have been very surprised if everything had been well-organised. But this time the BCCI seems to have surpassed even its own standards. Eventually everything will sort itself out (as it always does), but, as far as I know, there is still uncertainty at this moment about the venues and the TV rights. If the media is anything to go by (and I am always a bit skeptical about this), there is a report out there that some PCB officials who visited cricket grounds in India to assess their suitability for the series, were not given the most professional of treatment. Whether this is true or not, we can do without this sort of negative publicity for what is already a very sensitive situation.

But more than all BCCI’s shenanigans, what worries me is the jingoistic tone in some of India’s political establishment. It is not entirely unexpected and I would like to think of this as being only a minority voice but it is worrying nonetheless. Already there has been attempt to damage the pitch in Mohali and security was tightened at the Green Park ground, Kanpur today to prevent a vandalism attempt there. Security has also been heightened for the Feroze Shah Kotla ground in New Delhi.

The sad thing is that it does not take much to succeed in an act of vandalism or a more serious act of destruction. Which is why I respect the views of the Pakistan Cricket Board if they do not wish to play at Ahmedabad. The Gujarat Cricket Association may huff and puff about this and threaten to have the whole tour called off but the Indians need to see where Pakistan is coming from. Whether the objections are justifiable or not, if the Pakistanis do not want to be anywhere near Ahmedabad, I would say – so be it. After all, the Indians also did not want to play a Test in Karachi – much to the disappointment of millions of localites. Ultimately, the one-dayer played at Karachi was of the highest standard – not just in terms of the game, but also in terms of the atmosphere. Perhaps Ahmedabad could learn from this.

I have not even discussed the actual series yet but I will do that at another time. The performances and the results of this series may be a huge deal to millions of cricket lovers but to me, they do not even come close to the real responsibility that this series bears on itself.

It has to carry on from where the series last year in Pakistan left off. It has to continue to build on that spirit of friendship and goodwill. India has to prove that it is as friendly a neighbour as Pakistan proved to be last year. The bridge-building must continue with full fervour.

If the tour can go on without any disturbance or disruption, it would be a success, regardless of the outcome of the matches. And that should be the focus of the Indian government, the BCCI, every local cricket association and the people of India – all of who are responsible to make this a reality. Even the Indian and Pakistani players need to play their part – and if Inzamam’s comments are any indication, he is taking his ambassador role very seriously.
I am hoping against hope that everything goes off smoothly.

Lastly, talking of bridge-building reminds me of the site that first introduced me to following cricket matches online. It was 2004 - on the eve of India's tour to Pakistan that year. A group of young enthusiasts, who believed that cricket could play an important role in building a bridge between India and Pakistan, started this website called indopaktour.com. It became quite a success - the tour was a landmark success itself - and the ball is now rolling for frequent India-Pakistan exchanges. The site has since been renamed to cricbuzz.com.

It is the first anniversary of that site today and I am very happy for the site. I am sure the site creators can take great satisfaction from what they have built over the last year. For, with their limited resources but huge aspirations, they have built a bridge among cricket lovers of India and Pakistan like none other. I, for one, am indebted to them for introducing me to many Pakistani cricket lovers. And, I must say, not just Pakistanis because the site also boasts followers from Australia, West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Bangladesh and England.

The tsunami

The new year is less than two weeks old and normally this would be a period of continued celebration in most places, going on almost into the last week of January.

But this has been the most somber start to a year that I can remember, and for perfectly understandable reasons too. The huge tragedy of December 26th , which took just a few hours to unfold, but will take years for many to live down, has got the world in a state of disbelief and shock. The pictures come streaming into our living rooms and, however impactful they may be on our psyche, their effect on us is nothing compared to the trail of loss, damage and pain left behind by the tsunami on the millions that are left to contemplate their lives from here on.

While there may be criticism in some quarters (isn't there always ?) of the speed at which the world at large has acted, I believe the reaction has been about as swift as one can expect, considering the magnitude of the task on hand and the accessibility of some of the affected areas. But then, I am ensconced in the comfort of my living room and am not out there in Banda Aceh, waiting in a queue for a handful of rice. So perhaps I should just keep my opinion to myself.

For most of us, myself included, apart from financial support and prayers - both for the dead and for the well-being of the survivors - there is not much else to do to alleviate the pain of these millions. I am not a particularly religious person but I have learnt in the last three weeks to count my blessings a million times. It may appear selfish but I do it with utmost humility. For the significance of life cannot have been lost on any of us - that it required an event of such horrific proportions to bring this into focus is a reflection of how self-obsessed and often frivolous in its pursuits modern society, of which I am undeniably and perhaps slightly ashamedly a product, has become.

Having said that, it has been like a wake-up call and, governments apart, the common man has come forward as never before to contribute generously to the cause of rebuilding the affected regions. We can only hope that, with the funds pouring in, the world is able to ameliorate living conditions for the unfortunate many. I suspect this will be a long and arduous process but it has got to be done – in today's fast-paced world where attention span tends to get measured in fractions of seconds, it is important not to let the images of the calamity, however repetitive they may be, ever engender a sense of ennui. For they remind us of the task on hand and the responsibility that the world carries upon itself. Until the regions are rebuilt, at least to acceptable living standards, the task is not finished.

If at all any good could have come out of this (and yes, even in this darkest of tragedies, one must look for that ray of light), it would seem that the united front that the world has put up holds a beacon, however faint, for better understanding and relations across the globe. For once, politics was on the backburner and while I have no doubt the world will be back with its wars and tensions, there is hope that new partnerships will be forged and existing ones fortified, especially in Asia where there is a sense of family bereavement, with the members coming together and sharing their grief. That would be small consolation for the huge price that the world has paid but at least that would be a step in the right direction.

I can write more (I am usually not lost for words) but my mind is tsunamied at the moment with thoughts of the tragedy. I need some time.

Of Dust, Ganguly and the Ranji Trophy

This is my first blog in quite a while – I am spending valuable time with family in India and I must admit that cricket is not necessarily the first thing on my mind at the moment.

Having said that, cricket is never particularly far from my mind either and I am voraciously lapping up cricket news in every Indian newspaper and magazine that I can lay my hands on. There is no doubt that the Internet offers a world of riches in providing electronic content but there is something about good old-fashioned print that seems to still attract old-timers like me. This may seem difficult for some to understand but those who have not been born in or into the Internet era but have inherited it rather late in their lives will understand where I am coming from.

So what cricket have I been following and what are my cricketing thoughts at the moment ?

I arrived in Bangalore on the morning of the start of the Mumbai Test. That day was almost entirely washed out but I was fortunate to be able to breathe in (on TV) all of two days of Test cricket. And, if I may say so, two very remarkable days of cricket. Sure, the wicket was controversial but it was fun for me since I was able to watch the match on TV, follow the commentary on this site and chat on this site with others. It was great fun – and I must say I was pretty impressed by the speed and , very importantly, accuracy of the commentary out here.

The wicket became a “dustbowl” – the Aussies bit the dust – and understandably a lot of dust was raised in the press, both in Australia and in India. Many illustrious personalities, including current and ex-cricketers have commented on the pitch – so I will not dwell too much on this. All I will say is that, not since the dream Warne delivery to Gatting many summers ago, have I seen a ball turn this prodigiously. The very first delivery that Nathan Hauritz bowled had me going “wow !”. And, with due respect to him, Hauritz is no Warne.

While on this, an interesting comment in the editorial of a leading Indian newspaper (yes, this subject made it to the editorial – so serious is cricket in India) was that, even if the ball turned square and made batting very difficult, that in itself does not mean it is not a pitch suited for cricket. After all, the Perth pitch is tailor-made for fast bowlers and for chin music and nobody seems to complain about that. So why complain about a pitch tailor-made for spinners ?

I thought this was an interesting take – everybody is entitled to his own opinion of course.

Anyway, the dust has now settled on this series and I must congratulate Australia for a well-deserved series win. Many Indians will claim a moral 2-2 result for the series since they feel robbed of victory at Chennai but I am sure they will all agree that Australia was by far the superior side in this series. One can virtually count the sessions that India actually dominated. It was virtually Australia all the way. So let us give credit where it is due.
Both the Indians and the Australians have moved on now and are looking forward to their next challenges.

India will be playing a one-dayer against Pakistan in the coming week and will then host South Africa for a two-Test series.

Fresh from its ‘final frontier’ conquest, Australia will be hosting New Zealand in what should be an interesting series. I cannot help feeling that Australia are overwhelming favourites but New Zealand have proven me wrong on many occasions and they always seem to raise their standards against Australia, so I would not be too hasty in predicting an Aussie walkover


What else ?

Plenty else. One of the best things about following cricket in India as compared to following cricket from outside India is that you tend to feel the heat and dust (this is the nth time I am using this word, pardon me) of local events much more strongly. I am obviously referring to the current first-class (as in class of cricket and not necessarily first-class, per se, you get my drift) cricket happening in the country. The Ranji Trophy games are in full swing and I am enjoying every minor detail of these games.

But before I get into the Ranji Trophy, something else that I have to talk about. One of Indian cricket’s favourite topics : Saurav Ganguly.

You may hate him, you may love him but it seems you just cannot ignore him. Neither can the Indian press. Throughout the Mumbai Test (in other words, three days) and every day thereafter, there has been major coverage in the Indian press about Ganguly. There was this article that he was supposed to be in Kolkata for hip injury treatment while the Indian team was battling it out in Mumbai. But, apparently, instead of undergoing the treatment, he flew back from Kolkata to Mumbai – not to support the Indian side – but for some ad shoots or social event associated with some of his sponsors.

Then there was this headline item which went something like “Another surprise ! Saurav in Bengal side” with a big headline in red saying “Dithering Saurav runs out team-mate” or something to that effect.

It was a reference to Ganguly suddenly announcing himself at the last moment “available” to play for Bengal in its Ranji Trophy home game against Karnataka. Nikhil Haldipur, the Bengal opener, was rested and Deep Dasgupta made to open so as to make a place for Ganguly in the side.

Ganguly did not have a particularly great innings – he was shaky throughout – and in typical fashion, was indecisive about a run, thus causing a run-out.

Manna from the skies for Ganguly bashers (and their tribe seems to be increasing by the day). The article referred to above did not hesitate to point out that Ganguly’s sudden “availability” for Bengal was starkly reminiscent of his sudden “non-availability” for the Nagpur Test against the Aussies. Shrouded in secrecy and controversy – a delight for the media.

As if this attention for Ganguly was not enough, another thing appeared in the press which I found very odd. Apparently, the Bengal coach, Karsan Ghavri seems hell bent on making a point that Ganguly is now fit – without his having gone through a rigorous fitness test yet. Apparently Ghavri even made the statement that “Ganguly seemed to be hitting the ball well in practice and does not need to do a fitness test” but “if he does do one, he will definitely be fit”. Sorry, maybe I am thick but am I missing something here ?

A player calls off “unfit’ hours before a Test, misses that game and the one thereafter, and then suddenly decides to play in another match – and is admitted into that game as if everything is hunky-dory with his condition ? He does not have to go through a rigorous fitness test to prove he is match-fit ?

I am not a physio but I cannot help feeling that in India fitness is also something that is used or abused to suit individual interests. In my humble opinion, every player has to prove himself to be match-fit – otherwise he has no business playing. It does not matter which match it is, it does not matter which player it is. The same rule applies for a Sachin Tendulkar or a Saurav Ganguly or a John Doe, the same rule applies for a Test match or a Ranji Match. If you have missed a match because you were ruled “unfit”, you have to prove yourself to be fit before you can be considered for the next game.

No wonder the Indians had so many “injury” cases in the recent series against Australia. Compare that with the fitness levels of McGrath, Gillespie and Kasprowicz – all much older than the Indian fast bowlers and all of whom came through the series without any injury whatsoever. Says a lot about the attention the Aussie physio pays to fitness levels and tests.

So much for Ganguly. To be fair to him, much of this is not his fault – it is the media that seems to follow him everywhere and his consistently poor performance seems to be the perfect ground for the media to have a go at him. The best thing he can do is to put up a match-winning performance against Pakistan or against South Africa – hopefully that will shut up some of his detractors. The media worships heroes and Ganguly needs to return to heroic ways.

Now, onto the Ranji Trophy itself.

The games are still in progress and I am following the details closely, speculating not just on the games themselves but on some of the players.

There is Gautam Gambhir who had his baptism by fire in the Mumbai Test but who seems to have shrugged that off with a big hundred in the Ranji game. I wonder whether he will go on to deliver at the Test level or whether he will turn into an Ashok Mankad or a Parthasarathy Sharma - prolific at first-class level but flattering to deceive at the highest level of the game).

Then there is Y Venugopal Rao. We heard a lot about him in the last season and he continues to show excellent form with another fine century in the Ranji game for Andhra. And he even picked up some crucial wickets (I did not even know that he bowls).
Sure, his being a middle-order batsman makes it a bit tough for him to get into the Indian Test side but if the Indian middle order continues to be shaky and he continues to bat like this, who knows ?

As if to remind the Indian selectors of his existence, Wasim Jaffer has got another big hundred in the Mumbai game. I have heard that he is a Vengsarkar favourite and I suspect his Test career may not be entirely over – especially if he continues like this and the Indian opener slot is as shaky as it is at this moment.

But the Ranji match that has got most attention in the local press is the Bengal – Karnataka game. Understandably, since I am in Bangalore.

Bengal began very well, Karnataka fought back but then Bengal wrested the initiative back with some excellent bowling. In the second innings however the ball began doing things and that old Karnataka faithful, Sunil Joshi, once again bowled immaculately to get a five-for. At the moment of writing, the game is interestingly poised and could go either way.

I know many will not agree with me but I think Joshi deserved a few more chances for India - especially in one-dayers. He has always been a decent spinner of the ball and can whack it a good distance – he has even batted at No. 4 for Karnataka. He is not a Bangalore lad but from a remote Karnataka district – that perhaps makes his credentials a little less attractive than, for example, Rohan Gavaskar. Of course, Joshi’s time has come and gone (and with Murali Karthik around, his time has almost certainly gone) but I cannot help just feeling Joshi was a little wronged.

This Bengal-Karnataka game has also got me a bit nostalgic, taking me back to the Ranji games of the seventies and eighties. When Vishwanath, Brijesh Patel, Kirmani, Chandra, Prasanna, Sudhakar Rao and Binny played for Karnataka while Bengal had its own heroes in Ambar Roy, Gopal Bose, Palash Nandy, Sambaran Banerjee, Subrato Guha, Dilip Doshi and Barun Burman. Mumbai then had players of the calibre of Ramnath Parkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ashok Mankad, Padmakar Shivalkar and the lesser-known opening bowler Ismail while Delhi had an all-star cast of the Amarnath brothers, Kirti Azad, Madan Lal, Bishen Bedi, Rakesh Shukla, Surinder Khanna and many others. The Ranji Trophy (as also the Duleep and Deodhar Trophies) used to be fiercely contested then – I am not sure the same fire burns in the bellies of today’s Ranji cricketers.

All in all, it has been an enjoyable week in Bangalore – and I am looking forward , like most Indians and Pakistani cricket lovers all over the world, to the November 13 one-dayer between these two cricket-crazy countries.

Before I forget, it is festival time in India and Pakistan – I would like to wish all my friends here a very Happy Diwali and Id Mubarak.

Indian take-away from Bangalore

Ok, we have been beaten in the first game.

We can scream from the rooftops about the umpiring - and that may or may not have made a difference - but let's put all that behind us and look ahead.

Will the team management now go for surgery or will they tinker with the team ?

My gut feel tells me there will be changes but nothing particularly dramatic. The bench itself does not exactly scream to be selected – it is comprised of either experienced but out-of-form players or a bunch of youngsters, knocking on the door, but unlikely to get the nod in this all-important series, at least not at this stage.

Or would the selectors remember that 1969-70 home series against Australia when in a similar situation, one-down from a defeat in Bombay, India gambled on a 20-year old promising young man from then-Mysore to play in the second Test at Kanpur. He got a duck in his first Test innings – and then, under tremendous pressure in the second knock, where another failure could have meant India losing this one too, played one of the finest innings by a debutant for India getting 137 glorious runs. For the next 13 years, he did not do too badly either – saving India from many a difficult situation, enthralling everybody (including yours truly) with his classy batting. That youngster was the one and only Gundappa Vishwanath of course.

But I am dreaming now – back to reality.

It does not look too rosy at the moment but it is not too bleak either. True, the entire team needs to raise its spirits and its performance, but there is definitely reason to hope for a turnaround. Today's fightback was symbolic if not decisive and a perfect tonic for the entire team. It shows that there are indeed chinks in the Aussie bowling - something that should be quite heartening for the Indians.

So what does India take away from this game ? Putting every player under the microscope, this is what I come up with. I share my opinion about the player in a few cases but my main objective is to see whether the player will make the cut for Chennai.

1) Chopra ? Well, the opener issue is still simmering. It would be harsh on Chopra if he were dropped, seeing as he received a doubtful (I will not say wrong !) decision in both innings. But that's how the dice rolls and, with change very much the (cric)buzzword at this moment, he may well find himself out in the cold. For whatever it is worth, if it does happen, we can console him by saying "you can never put a good man down". He may well bounce back - but he does need to work on increasing his scoring repertoire.
OUT

2) Sehwag ? Yes, question marks still. Not on his place in the side, methinks, but on his form. Again a harsh decision in the second innings did not allow him to display his skills and he was out to a very good catch in the first innings. But whatever it is, we are still waiting for that big innings from him. It appears to me that it is just round the corner (I have in fact tipped him to get two hundreds in this series) - but that corner seems to be elusive. For the sake of India - which desperately now needs Sehwag to click - let us hope he finds that corner in Chennai and turns it.
IN

3) Laxman ? Not for nothing has he earned MFP (no, not Most Favoured Partner but Most Feared Player) status from the Aussies. His record against them is simply awesome. In this game too, he showed signs of his class but got done in by very good Warne deliveries in both innings. So round one goes to Warney. Unless these dismissals get to Laxman's psyche and he loses the mental battle with Warne, I think India need not worry about his form.
IN


4) Which brings me to Dravid. His first innings duck was exactly what I feared - he failed in both innings of the India Seniors v India A prep game, prompting me to call this his out-of-form season. But Dravid would not be the world's best batsman if he did not have character - and he showed plenty of it, second time round. Ok, he got just 60 - but in the context of the match situation and most importantly his own confidence, it could have been a hundred. He played some glorious strokes, especially against Warne, and hopefully he has won round one of the Warne v Dravid battle. India need not worry about his form too.
IN

5) Next man in (and critics will often say, out) Ganguly. He is captain and does have captaincy qualities. But India has never had the luxury of carrying a player - and has probably never needed all eleven to perform like it does now. So let us look purely at his batting and whether there is any cause for worry here.

Yes, a little perhaps. Against a lesser team, a 40 or a 50 may be par (after all if you do this all your career you end up with an average between 40 and 50 - which is a decent average).

But, in India's current situation, especially with Tendulkar not around, Ganguly needs to raise the bar for himself. He needs to lead by personal example - and get a hundred. That will raise the spirits of his team no end - and will do much more than any other gesture or talk from him. Unless you are a Mike Brearley, you cannot get away with just “captaincy” on your resume.

I remember in 1980, Aussie skipper Greg Chappell, was under tremendous pressure on a tour in Pakistan. A Pakistan tour is never easy, his team was one-down after the first Test having been rolled over by Pakistani spin, he had himself not done much till then, and was being hounded by reporters. I still remember his classic line to a reporter “My bat will do my talking for me".

And he went out there and got a double hundred (235 to be precise). OK, it was not the greatest of Tests but, very importantly, his performance raised the sagging morale of his side.

We all know that Ganguly is a great admirer of Greg Chappell. So, come on Ganguly, if GSC can get a double, SCG can get at least a hundred, right ?
IN.

6) After Ganguly it gets a bit fuzzy. There is Yuvraj at the moment – just about hanging in there. He is one of the candidates to be axed – with Kaif as the experienced player waiting to step in. This is anybody’s guess – Yuvraj will not really be called upon to bowl in Tests, so this is purely a judgement on batting. It is too close to call – but knowing that Yuvraj is one of the golden boys of Indian cricket at the moment, I think he will be persisted with and Kaif will have to sit this one out too.

But if I were Yuvraj, I would not sit too comfortably at the moment. His place in the team is courtesy Sachin Tendulkar. And like John Buchanan correctly pointed out, Ponting’s replacement Katich has delivered far more than Tendulkar’s replacement Yuvraj. So Yuvi, it is high time we saw a big innings from you.
IN (if Chopra is out, Yuvi may open and Kaif may come fill this spot).


7) Onto Parthiv Patel. Most people on cricbuzz know my opinion of him. I think he may be cute and young and a gutsy batsman and all that – but his primary job in the team is to keep – and, at best, he has done only an average job of this. I strongly believe the keeper’s job is one of the most important in the side. If one batsman fails, another can cover for him. If a bowler fails, another can cover for him. But if a keeper fails, you are stuck. A keeper gets more dismissal chances than any other player in the side and a grabbed half-chance or a dropped chance can make all the difference. I have nothing against Patel – I genuinely hope he realizes the responsibility of his keeping role in the team. If he raises his keeping and effects some incredible catches or stumpings, I will be thrilled – and glad to be silenced.

Luckily for him, I am not an Indian selector – so I think he will comfortably continue into the next Test. His batting at Bangalore was impressive – and this will be enough for the Indian selectors.

For the record, I am expecting him to drop a few more big ones in Chennai – and expecting him to continue to play because he is “oh so cute” and “so young, and still he bats so well”. For India's sake, I hope he proves me wrong !
IN.

8) Irfan Pathan. With every match my admiration for him only increases. People were initially comparing him with Akram, now they are comparing him with Kapil. I do not want to compare him with anybody. (People compared SS Das’s technique with Sunil Gavaskar and we all know where that went).

At Bangalore, Pathan produced his usual good bowling but really excelled with the bat. We knew he could bat – he had shown glimpses earlier – but this time he played like a true all-rounder, playing each ball on its merits, defending the good one but not afraid to smack anything loose. If he does not go the injury route (like so many other Indian players) and is not over-bowled, I think India finally have a top-quality bowler allrounder.

His place in the side is assured – no need to even discuss this.
IN.

9) Anil Kumble. One of my blow-hot, blow-cold favourites. He frustrates me like hell sometimes but I cannot help admiring the way he keeps coming back. He may get hit by Gilchrist and Clarke for a few sixes but you know he is always just that ball away from a breakthrough. So, despite some people grumbling about his effectiveness, I usually stand behind him – and would do so for the rest of this series.

I think, so will the selectors – he should be a certainty, not just for Chennai, but for the rest of the series. On Indian wickets, you write off Anil Kumble only at your own peril and I do not think an already battered India will take a risk on this.
IN.

10) Harbhajan Singh. Any doubts anybody may have had have been summarily dismissed (like eleven Aussie batsmen) at Bangalore. He seems to be back to his 2001 wicket-taking ways – and that should make some Aussie players squirm a bit.

His bowling is of course the main reason he is in the side, but his batting, by no means copybook (puritans will be turning in their graves !), can also be quite entertaining. In his own way he manages to get quick runs – you never know when this quality comes in useful in a Test. But, for me, his main contribution has to be with his bowling and I would gladly trade in his batting for a few wickets from him.

Definitely a certainty for the rest of the series.
IN.


11) Zaheer Khan ? I think he will be lucky if he still finds himself running in to bowl in Chennai. If he does, it will be more a reflection of India’s bench strength (or rather perception of bench strength) than his own merit. He did not bowl terribly badly at Bangalore – but against opposition like this, you need eleven top performers if you have to win – and Zaheer hardly looked like the part in Bangalore.

I feel sorry for him – he has been injury-prone and , if I were a selector, I would give him another chance. But maybe that is because I have absolutely no faith in Nehra and Salvi. Agarkar may be just about the only guy I would consider to replace Zaheer but he is about as reliable as a Shoiab Akhtar or Brett Lee opening spell.

OUT (The Indian team management loves to experiment with its opening pair and I think Zaheer will be dropped).


So I come up with just 2 changes in the team : Chopra and Zaheer out, Kaif and Nehra in. Of these Chopra may still just retain his place - if the selectors continue with this "stable opening partnership" fear.

Mind you, this is not my personal preference – this is how I think the Indian selectors may play it. Let us see.

When everybody is a loser

India is on the brink of defeat. Barring a miracle or rain, the Aussies should sweep aside any Indian resistance tomorrow and go one-up in the series.

I have been witness to many Indian defeats in the past. Normally I would rationalize this one also along typical grounds – the Aussies outplayed India and so are deserving winners.

But why do I find it so difficult to do it this time ? Why is this defeat going to be so hard to take ? Why am I so upset with this game ?

The reason is simple. In my humble opinion, this game was never allowed to develop into quite the game it could and should have been.

The Indian team may be way out of form and struggling with injuries but it is still the only team that, in Tests, tends to take on the Aussies head-on. India may struggle against other teams but when it comes to Australia it somehow manages to raise its level. For that reason alone, the India-Australia series has something special about it. For months the series has been discussed in various forums, with heavy speculation on all fronts – about the results (will Australia finally conquer this "final frontier" ? ), player reputations (will Warne, at least this time, prove his many Indian detractors wrong ?), . The last series saw an Australia without McGrath and Warne – this time, although Ponting is missing at the start of the series, Australia is at virtually full-strength.

So much is expected from this series and the curtain-raiser at Bangalore would have been the perfect start for answering many of these questions.

The game itself has seen many good performances. In spite of huge concerns before the game, the pitch has played reasonably steady. Batsmen have managed to get runs if they have applied themselves and there has been quite a bit for the bowlers too.

But then why do I have this sick feeling in my stomach ? Simply because, somewhere in the back of my mind, I feel we did not see a pure game of cricket – a contest between bat and ball. We have been made to witness an adulterated version – where the contest was between bat, ball and luck. Sure, luck is an integral part of the game but not the luck that is at the discretion of the two men out there in the middle. They have no business dispensing luck, it is their duty to manage the proceedings and to announce the occurrence of an event, not create it. The event is that somebody gets out, the umpire is just suppose to announce it with his sign-language. He is most definitely not supposed to create the event !

This is not the first time that the quality of umpiring has been a heated subject of discussion in a game. With improved technology available today, umpiring decisions are subject to scrutiny like never before. Umpires are therefore under a lot of pressure and, being human, do err. (I do not for one moment subscribe to an increasingly vociferous viewpoint that certain umpires are biased towards certain players and teams. Maybe it is the idealist in me or something else but I feel that umpires are indeed neutral – it is just that the decisions they need to take sometimes demand extraordinary human abilities. Was it a bat-pad or only pad, was that just movement of the ball or was there a nick, would that ball have gone on to hit the stumps or just missed it ? To do this for 90 overs in a day – yes, you could easily get the odd one wrong).

Having said that and fully understanding the complexity of the task, I am afraid I cannot find myself justifying their errors – for one main reason. We have an alternative. Technology. It is available in many areas now and can be used to help the umpire take the right decision. There is nothing to be defensive about. Nobody is threatening the umpiring profession. And yet the game has been slow in adopting technology. Why ? I really don't know. After all, all we want is better decisions – and who would argue with that ? And yes, if you feel machine should not take over man, by all means let the man have the final say.

If the umpire is having a tough time and gives a wrong decision, spare a thought for the batsman who is the victim of the decision. Think of the bowler who has worked hard and finds he has to start all over again because of the wrong decision. Think of the impact on the game in question. Think on the impact on the game of cricket.

Today things have gone too far for me. No excuse like "it evens out at the end of the day" will help. I don't care whether the decisions were totally against India or totally against Australia or evened out.

I would much rather see India being thrashed by Australia for a poor performance. At least then I know they were totally outplayed – and deserved to be thrashed.

Now, I will have this lingering "what-if" feeling – about Sehwag (second innings), Chopra (both innings), Langer (first innings), Pathan (first innings), Patel (second innings). Maybe even if the decisions had been different, the result of the game may have been the same. But for me it is not the same. There are question marks – and that bothers me.

Australia would not have liked to win this way. McGrath, Clarke (what a debut !), Katich have all done excellently in this game. As has Harbhajan. Each of these needs to be remembered whenever this game is talked about. But no, all of this will be brushed aside. This game is now in danger of being remembered for one thing and one thing alone – the appalling quality of umpiring, the number of dubious decisions and the sheer bad taste this has left in the mouths of millions.

We still have three Tests to go. If we do not want this series to be referred to as the "umpiring" series (in the same vein as the infamous "bodyline" series which side-tracked a lot of genuine performances in that series) , we need to ensure no repeat of this , for the rest of the series. Umpiring cannot be allowed to take the series hostage. If it is too early to talk about making dramatic changes in the process, fine – then get the best umpires in the business - RIGHT NOW. Otherwise, the chance for one of the most exciting spectacles in Test cricket will be lost. On the contrary, it will only leave bad memories of the series.

My being Indian exposes me to remarks like "He cannot take defeat and is indulging in India's favourite pastime – finding fault with the umpires". Frankly, I couldn't care less ! I know how much respect I have for umpires - I have always stood by them. I don't have to prove this to anybody.

I have seen many defeats over 30 years – this could well have been just another one. But it is not – today has gone too far - and that is the only reason for this blog.

India is not the only loser today. Cricket is the bigger loser. And that is why I am sick in the stomach !