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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.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Oh, those Men in Blue

After 32 years of following the game, I must have finally grown up.

I suppose when you kick off your life with a slap saying “42 all out” all over it, it is not unreasonable, with inflation and all that, to get a slap saying “100 all out” , all of 32 years later.

I (just about barely) lived through the 42. I think I will be able to live with the 100.

That I did not get to see this innings is probably a good thing. The memories would have been doubly painful if I had seen it. As it turned out, I followed the innings only on the internet.

It was supposed to be an exciting day of cricket – when the last day of the last Test of the series would go to the wire and would, in the dying moments of the day, be decided – either in England’s favour, or in India’s. Or, as many predicted – in neither’s. But it would keep us on the edge of our seats all the way.

With a professional performance to beat all professional performances, and with a similarly pathetic performance to beat all pathetic performances, the two teams, England and India, contrived to seal the series halfway through the second session of the day.

It takes a particularly inept batting display to manage to get all out for a 100 miserly runs on a none-too-difficult wicket when you are sitting on a, in retrospect, princely score of 75 for 3 at lunch. That India managed to produce one such display is as much a testament to its spinelessness as an acknowledgement of the fact that, in the world of Indian cricket, expect the unexpected to become the expected.

I had made my peace with the game well before this final day. So strangely I do not have the same sense of anger or despondency that I would normally associate with an Indian non-performance of this magnitude. Instead of venting out my anger at the Indian team, I am now in a dangerously philosophical mood. Thinking about my men in blue. But no blues about them. Just painting a vignette , in my mind, of these fortunate few who carry (and often spill) the hopes of a billion-plus people on the cricketing field.

You’ve got to feel for Rahul Dravid. For 99 Test matches he could do no wrong. And then, in what should have been the crowning match of his career, everything that could possibly go wrong for him managed to go wrong. The egg on his face must be an experience he is totally unused to.

But Dravid is bigger than one match and, Mumbai or no Mumbai, is still miles ahead of the next player in the stakes for India’s Most Valued Player award.

The same cannot be said for Tendulkar. “The higher they rise, the harder they fall” is an often-used quote in the context of fallen heroes. Ever since he stepped on a cricket field at the age of sixteen-something, all of sixteen summers ago, this man has sent the public into waves of ecstasy with his absolute mastery of the willow. To see him now struggle, in innings after innings, to put bat to ball is extremely painful for any lover of the game to accept. Whatever be the reason for Tendulkar’s fall from grace and inspite of his recent failures, make no mistake - his boots will be extremely large for any player to fill.

Virender Sehwag seems to have his work cut out for him. Less than two months ago he was carting Pakistan’s bowlers to all corners of the field on a dead wicket in Lahore. Now, in home conditions but on wickets with a little more life in them, and facing bowlers with a manic obsession to get at him, he was about as comfortable as a cat in a kennel. Although he is still far too gifted a player to be written off, it is the manner of his dismissals that are a cause of greater concern than just the drying up of runs from his bat. No, no longer can he assume that his mercurial batting, when it happens, will carry the day for him.

Yuvaraj Singh, until now largely in the shadow of his more illustrious middle-order team-mates, is finally beginning to get a reasonable stretch at Test level and being able to carve out an identity of his own. He is, without doubt, one of the more attractive and aggressive players in the side but it will be a while before he can be considered the backbone of the Indian batting – or whatever there was of it before it got broken at Mumbai.

Wasim Jaffer, returning from the wilderness, on the strength of some powerful performances on the domestic circuit, seemed at Nagpur to fully justify the faith reposed in him by the selectors. His temperament has rarely been in question, his technique unfortunately has. Whatever confidence the selectors may have had in him post-Nagpur must have been at least partly undermined by his subsequent failings and it will not be surprising if he finds himself once again out in the cold, having to work his way back into the side. It will be harsh on this man, for he probably needs a sustained run to be able to deliver some consistency at the top of the batting order. But in today’s world of Indian cricket, if you are not a star soon, your stars are not likely to be with you for long.

Gautam Gambhir will tell you that. He was a reasonable regular in the Indian side till recently but has been on the bench for the last two Test series. Not that he should be worried about this – it is not as if India has a problem of plenty for its opening slots. But when you are sitting out, match after match, it must be preying on your mind that you are missing an opportunity to show your wares and firm up your place in the side. Gambhir will surely be accorded more opportunity – and then it is upto him to make the most of each chance he gets.

Onto that man, who, second only to Saurav Ganguly, seems to attract the most extremes of opinion about himself. VVS Laxman, not so long ago one of India’s most dependable – and attractive – batsmen, has been sitting out the last two Tests, a casualty of India’s five-bowler strategy. Not that he did much in the Test he did play – in fact there is not much you can do if you get rapped on the pads off the first ball you face, plumb in front of the wicket.

I cannot help getting the feeling that Laxman is another batsman for whom bowlers have devised – and successfully executed - specific game plans. He is a delight to watch when he unleashes that silken cover drive so effortlessly or flicks the ball so delicately to the midwicket fence for four. But he is just as much a horror to watch when he is caught, totally wrong-footed, to the one that nips in sharply off the seam. It is almost as if you cannot believe you are watching the same player.

Dravid may emphasise that his partner in many a memorable stand, Laxman, is still very much a part of the Indian scheme of things but it must at least be a series-by-series, if not a match-by-match, situation for him now. Once the opposition bowlers have found you out, you really need to work on overcoming your weakness otherwise you are a sitting duck for them.

Then there is Dhoni. The more I see of this man, the more I like him. I think he is going to only get better and better. True, he played an awful shot in the second innings at Mumbai – and his keeping too slipped a bit – but he has the potential to be the keeper-batsman that India has been looking for, for a very long time. If I were Dhoni, however, I would work on my keeping – for that is the reason he is in the side and he should never forget this. Dhoni is a long-term player for India.

As is Irfan Pathan, the next player to talk about. It is hard to believe that he has had only two full years of international cricket in his career so far, such has been the influence Pathan has had on the side. Of late he has had some fairly innocuous bowling spells – something that has even caused some to doubt his bowling credentials. I think this is rubbish. Pathan came into the side as a bowler, that he has now developed into a real all-rounder is just a bonus. But he is still primarily a bowler and needs to work on improving his bag of tricks in that trade. It will be a huge loss to India if his bowling ceases to contribute to the team cause.

Anil Kumble. Considering the number of overs he bowls in every match, you cannot help feeling that he cannot sustain this for too long now. But as long as he is fit, he seems to be willing and producing the goods for his captain. As an increasing number of opposition players specifically learn how to play Kumble, his spoils may get fewer and fewer but Kumble is somebody who will give his best till the last day that he plays for his country, that much we can be sure of. And if the wickets indeed dry up for him on a regular basis, there is no shame whatsoever in bidding India’s most loyal servant over sixteen years, a fond farewell. He has done his bit – and much more – for the game and deserves the highest appreciation for his contribution to it.

Harbhajan Singh. The penultimate day of the Mumbai Test will give him a lot of confidence, because he badly needed to be in the wickets. Not that he was bowling particularly badly – he had his share of bad luck with dropped catches - but when, on a regular basis, you have nothing to show for a hard day’s work – and, what’s worse, you get fairly easily plonked all over the park, it does not take much for you to have self-doubt.

Sreesanth is one player who, in his first season in the limelight, seems to be enjoying every bit of it. On the field, he is not a shy man by any standards – and fortunately for him, so far he has the results to show for it. He has the accuracy and a reasonable pace – what worries me is whether he will be able to sustain this over an extended period of time. I have seen many Indian fast bowlers in my time – and many of them have started very impressively, only to fall away after a couple of seasons, whether due to injury or just a strange loss of performance. For India’s sake, I hope Sreesanth does not fall in this category.

Munaf Patel is the other exciting fast bowler India can now boast of. In fact his bowling in this series was a revelation – it brought tears to some Indian eyes to see, for the first time, an Indian bowler bowling toe-crushing yorkers . My comment about him is pretty much the same as that for Sreesanth – I really hope Munaf can sustain this for an extended period of time.

Both Sreesanth and Munaf need to take care of themselves. And the Indian selectors need to treasure both these players. There are many players on the bench now and there is no need to play the same players in every game, especially in one-dayers. Part of the reason for having a bench is to provide rotation possibility and the captain would do well to use this as much as possible.

Finally a word about Kaif. If Laxman has split Indian opinion into two, Kaif has not done much worse in this field. There are those who swear that Kaif has never got a fair deal. They will quote instances, like Nagpur, where even a 90 only earned him the axe as a reward. Then there are those who will quote Kaif’s somewhat average first-class average and limited penchant for mega-scores to make their case that he is not quite Test-level material.

I believe that Kaif does indeed deserve more chances. He has never had a sustained run in Test cricket. He has done well in the few chances that have come his way. Just as Yuvaraj is now establishing himself as a regular, thanks to being given a steady spot in the side, Kaif too deserves an extended run. Give him ten innings and I think he may well surprise all of us with a couple of hundreds and a few fifties. More importantly, Kaif has always impressed me as a crisis man – and heaven knows, we need a crisis man in every other innings nowadays. So if India chooses to go with a 6-batsman team, Kaif may be the man who deserves to get the nod – though it may be Laxman who actually gets it.

There are many other players out there on the horizon. It is encouraging to see bowlers like RP Singh and VRV Singh coming through. They, like Munaf and Sreesanth, are not from the traditional catchment areas for cricketers, the cities of India. They are from remote towns – where the game now seems to be capable of producing international players of their caliber. This can only be encouraging news.

All in all, this is what Indian cricket is about. These are all men of flesh and blood, no different from you and me. With their failings. You applaud them when they bring honours to your country, you curse them when they come up short on expectations. It is all part of the game.

As long as we realize that it is but a game and learn to appreciate it for what it is. When you get beaten by another team, hard though it may be, learn to appreciate that the other team may actually have been better on the day. And try to raise your standard to beat that team the next time round. That is what true sporting spirit is about.

Today, as India got beaten by England, fair and square, let us appreciate that England was by far the better side. And the better side won. True, India could have put up a much better fight - and the defeat was about as abject as it gets - but tomorrow is another day and maybe the next time these two teams meet for a Test series – in England in 2007 - it will be India dishing out similar treatment to England. It sounds very unlikely at this moment but stranger things have happened in cricket.

One lives on hope. It keeps us all passionate about the game.

Here’s to wishing Indian cricket better days (and trying to forget this one).

Anil Kumble - player and gentleman par excellence

Earlier this season Indian cricket celebrated an achievement by one of its most popular heroes, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. His hundred in the home series against Sri Lanka put him – all alone - on the top of the list of Test century-makers of all time.

Today Indian cricket has another cause for celebration. This time it is the turn of another of its popular heroes, Anil Kumble, to be felicitated. His dismissal of Steve Harmison was his 500th in Test cricket, putting him in a very select group of just four other cricketers who have reached this milestone in their careers.

Tendulkar and Kumble ply different trades but they have much in common. Both of them started their careers around 1989-90. Both of them have faced career-threatening injuries at some point in their careers. Both of them have had to carry huge expectations from the cricket-crazy Indian public everytime they have stepped on to the cricket field.

But most importantly both of them share a common ethic and attitude towards the game that makes them more than just your everyday cricketer. When they take the field, or even face the camera off it, they come across as level-headed professionals, completely dedicated to their game and the team and very modest in their statements about their own achievements.

The other cricketer, who very easily belongs to this illustrious category, is the current Indian captain, Rahul Dravid. Not only are his achievements on the field comparable with the very best but he carries himself off with great dignity off it as well.

But this piece is not about Sachin Tendulkar. It is not about Rahul Dravid either. It is all about Anil Kumble and what he means for Indian cricket.

500 wickets in a Test career is a remarkable achievement. Warne and Murali, with 600-plus wickets, and Glenn McGrath with close to 550, are ahead of Kumble but that does not, in the slightest, diminish the significance of this achievement.

My mind goes back to the days when I was a young boy. At that time there was just one bowler who had topped 300 wickets – Fred Trueman held the proud record of 307 Test wickets (The Indian record was then held by Vinoo Mankad – 162 wickets).

Soon, Lance Gibbs, the West Indian off-spinner, "huffed and puffed" (an irate Fred's words, not mine !) his way to overtake this record and ended at 309.

Since then, many cricketers have crossed the 300 mark. I have lost count.

The significance of a milestone is that it gives you an opportunity to reflect. And when that milestone is 500 Test wickets, it gives you an opportunity to reflect a lot !

Anil Kumble ! Did I ever think he would go this far in his career when I first met him in Chennai way back in 1993 ? No, honestly, I never did.

This was during the 1993 England tour to India. The Indian team was staying at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Chennai (then Madras). I happened to be a guest at the hotel at that time and ran into Anil Kumble in the lobby. He was certainly not a famous figure then. I must admit I barely recognized him. We talked a little bit about his game, about his recent tour to South Africa and I wished him all the best for the England match. It was about a five-minute conversation, not more. I remember him being very soft-spoken – something I put down to him being a virtual non-celebrity at that time. Navjot Singh Sidhu was a much bigger star at that time and I remember him being a little more vocal than Kumble.

The next time I met Anil was in 1996. The Indian team had just completed a disastrous tour to England. They stopped over in Holland for an exhibition match on their way back to India.

At the cricket ground in The Hague, the atmosphere could not have been more informal. There were only a handful of spectators for the match and most of the Indian players, after the grueling time in England, seemed to be happy to just take it easy for a change. I found myself sharing the same bench as many of the players themselves.

I was sitting on a bench with Ajay Jadeja next to me when Anil Kumble walked by. He was not playing that particular game and was just watching from the sidelines. I got into a conversation with him.

By then Kumble had become a star. He had been the biggest hope for India on that 1996 tour – and, together with Azharuddin, had been the biggest let-down as well. He was in a pensive mood when we talked. We discussed the England series and what had gone wrong, especially with his bowling. He was very honest in admitting that he had had a terrible series and that nothing had worked for him. It was not for want of trying but sometimes things just don't go your way.

He asked me about the development of cricket in Holland, about how the club-level setup was, how the grass-root interest in the game was. He came across as a very thinking cricketer, genuinely interested in knowing more about these matters.

What struck me then most about him, especially comparing this with 1993, was that he was just as soft-spoken now as he had been then. I had been wrong. Celebrity status had done nothing to affect Anil Kumble. By nature, he was a soft-spoken person. And now that he was a celebrity, I must add, very humble too.

I met a few other cricketers on that day (including captain Azharuddin). But it was Anil Kumble who left a lasting image in my mind.

Years later – in 2004 – the Indian team was in Amstelveen to play Pakistan and Australia in a one-day series. I managed to meet a number of players but the one player I did not manage to meet this time was Anil. It was definitely my loss. I would have just liked to see that smile or that glint one more time.

Anybody who knows a little bit about Indian cricket of the last fifteen years knows how much Anil Kumble has contributed to the Indian game. He has been India's biggest match-winner of all-time. The statistics are there for all to see.

He has his fair share of critics. Anybody who carries such huge expectations on his shoulders every time he goes out to bowl is bound to face criticism at some point in time or the other. Such is the unforgiving nature of Indian supporters.

I am myself guilty of this. When Kumble bowled his heart out to take eight Australian wickets in the first innings of the Sydney Test in 2003, and added another four in the second innings, all I could think about was that he failed to break the Waugh-Katich partnership which eventually denied India the game.

Such is the expectation from Anil Kumble. Such are the standards he has set for himself. It is almost as if everybody expects him to get a wicket with every delivery he bowls.

But it is much more than his bowling. It is his quiet, unobtrusive personality that is so refreshing in a time where being "loud" is almost synonymous with being "in". Kumble has always been the gentleman. He has always been humility-personified. I have never known him to be arrogant or brash.

As is to be expected, when he took his match-winning ten-in-an-innings-haul at Delhi against Pakistan some years ago, I was very happy for him. My first thought was "It could not have happened to a nicer man".

If ever there was a role-model for a youngster or an ambassador for the game, Anil Kumble is very much the part. When he leaves the game, as he one day must, his gentleman personality will be remembered just as much as his exploits on the cricket field.

Today, in celebration of his 500 wickets, there will be many accolades awarded to him. The media will be lavish in its praise of him, everybody will be reminded of his achievements over the last fifteen years. I believe all of this to be thoroughly deserved.

As for Kumble himself, he is probably thinking about the state of the Mohali game. About how he should bat tomorrow to help India out of its difficult situation. About how he should bowl second time round.

For the game is still in progress and it would be very unprofessional and very un-Kumble like to bask in his own personal glory, to lose focus and to give anything less than his fullest to the side. He will be toiling out there tomorrow, we can all be assured of that.

For him, it will be just another day in the office.

And therein lies the secret to Anil Kumble's success.

Lions at home, lambs abroad

In all the euphoria about India’s run-chase and a “missed opportunity” for the game to be closed out due to bad light, it is very easy to overlook the ground realities of this opening test of the series. Don’t let that last two-hour chase fool you. Extremely entertaining though it was, it cannot quite cover for the events of the four days that preceded it.

The fact is that most of the match was dominated by just one team – England. They were the team facing a crisis – of injuries, absentees, lack of experience, rookie captaincy. They even had to call upon their players in the West Indies to take a flight and land in India to do duty with the seniors team. In fact, if it had not been for a sporting declaration by Andrew Flintoff, England could have very well shut out and demoralized India completely.

Before the game at Nagpur, nobody gave England a chance. Not that India was the flavour of the moment, what with the Karachi defeat still fresh in many minds, but surely at home, there was no way India was going to end up second-best in a contest. The Indian batting was not exactly dependable but kingpin match-winners at home, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh , would once again knock the opposition over and everything would be back to normal again.
Well, guess what ? Nothing of the sort happened. What’s more, nothing of the sort looked like happening. You can quickly bring up the misfortune of Anil Kumble on day four as evidence that he was hard done by but that would be trying to gloss over what is now fast becoming India’s worst-kept secret. And that is that somehow, somewhere, at some point in time, Indian spinners have stopped “foxing” the opposition. Yes, it hurts – for Indian spinners have been the lifeline of Indian bowling since time immemorial, doing a great job to cover up for inadequacies in the pace department.

But times change and the game changes. Opposition teams visiting the sub-continent are far better prepared nowadays than ever before. They come with specific game plans for every sort of wicket, be it a slow turner or a green wicket or even a dustbowl. They have plans for every batsman of consequence and for every bowler of relevance.

In this context, both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh are open books. They are no doubt masters of their trade but they have plied this trade for long enough to have been thoroughly analysed by any opposition team.

The results are there for all to see. It has become increasingly difficult for them to run through sides, except in conditions entirely in their favour. For obvious reasons, this is not always practical. On overseas tours, wickets are prepared to local strengths and not to pamper Indian spinners. Even in India, there is a limit to which a wicket can be prepared to suit Indian spinners.

In fact, I believe it is a dangerous trend to prepare wickets for specific bowlers or types of bowlers. It demeans the remaining bowlers in the side. What message should they take from this ? That they are not expected to play a match-winning role in the game anyway ? Which bowler , with any self-respect, does not believe that he is a match-winner for his side ?

It is very common nowadays to explain away a bowler’s wicketless bowling performance on the wicket itself. Whether he is a fast bowler or a spinner, the standard comment is “he is getting no help from the wicket”. It almost sounds patronizing.

Isn’t a bowler supposed to bowl in all conditions ? Just like a batsman is supposed to bat in all conditions ?

Murali Kartik summed it up best – and completely bamboozled me with his wisdom about this subject. After the infamous Mumbai Test between India and Australia, on a dustbowl where even part-time bowler Michael Clarke bagged an embarrassing 6 for 9, Kartik was interviewed about his good performance in the game.

When asked whether he was happy that he had been given a spinning track to bowl on, Kartik surprised me (and many others I am sure) by saying “It was not difficult to take wickets on this pitch. I wish it had not been a spinning track. I would like to take wickets on normal pitches”. (Thanks, Kartik, that is what all of us have been waiting for from you – that you take wickets on normal pitches).

The point is - if you really are a master at your trade – whether as a batsman or a bowler – you will not depend on the conditions to make your task easy. You will be more than equal to the occasion, whatever it is. That is the true mark of a champion.

That is why I hold Shane Warne in such high regard. There is no doubt that he is feared on the last day of a Test match but sometimes he has been called upon to bowl even on the first day. And he, on the most dead of wickets, seems to cause the batsmen trouble. He does not turn every delivery, but he does just enough to keep the batsman guessing. And that, as any experienced batsman will tell you, is half the battle.

I am not suggesting that wickets should not assist bowlers at all. In fact, the best wickets have always been “sporting” wickets – with something in them for both batsmen and bowlers. The wickets for the first two Tests in the recent Pakistan-India series were the worst advertisement possible for the game.

It is not as if there have not been wickets reputed for specific types of bowling in the past. The WACA at Perth has always been a fast bowler’s paradise, as was Sabina Park at Kingston, Jamaica till the early 90s. The Chepauk stadium at Chennai (Madras) was the fastest wicket in India in the 70s and was, thanks to Andy Roberts of the West Indies, scene to some of the best fast bowling ever seen in India. Similarly the Sydney Cricket Ground has, for long, had a reputation to help spinners.

But I cannot recall anytime in the years that I have been following the game where there has been such an obsession with developing home pitches for specific advantage. Nowadays an inordinate amount of pre-match time seems to go into just discussion about pitches and how much the grass should be cut to favour which bowler. In the past, if at all there was a discussion on this, it would usually be an in-match discussion about a captain’s choice of using the heavy roller or the light roller.

Perhaps this is just another indication of how the game has changed. Use every weapon in your armoury to beat the opposition – and if you are having a home series, why not tailor-make your wickets to suit your bowlers and batsmen.

This probably applies not just to India but to other countries as well. But there is no doubt that India is well and truly obsessed with this.

I have no doubt that the Indian batsmen will do splendidly in the remaining Tests of this series. England, most unexpectedly, has fired the first salvo. With the entire country’s support, the Indian team will raise its level and fire back. The wickets will be doctored to the Indian team management’s specifications. The series will be won (or at worst, drawn with huge scores from the Indian batsmen).

And, on the surface, all will be well.

The ineffectiveness of our spin bowling will be conveniently forgotten.

The inability of our world-class batsmen to play nipping inswingers will be conveniently forgotten.

And I will continue with my disillusionment at seeing lions being created at home to become lambs abroad.

Oh, for another Karachi !

Past Indiscretions and Present Unease - Future Lessons perhaps ?

This is something that has been beaten to death. But I find myself still able to brave the ennui of the subject and try to work out for myself what this noise is all about and what it could hold for the future.

The future of the game, especially the long-term future, is something I often tend to think about. The present is here and now – to be enjoyed. The future is what we make of it. Deeds of the past have shaped today, and today’s deeds will shape tomorrow.

My experience of over thirty years of following the game, added to my huge interest in the history of the game over more than a hundred and thirty years, has always made me take this longer-term view. It has helped me to put things in perspective.

Forget 2005, forget 2006. They will go into the history books just like 1955 or 1956 did. That is what they are - blips on the radar of time, particles of sand in the sand dunes of time.

The game of cricket will outlive the Gangulys, Dravids and Greg Chappells of this world. Tomorrow’s generations will remember their contributions on the field of cricket – which are easily encapsulated in the form of statistics. But, very importantly, thanks to the increasing tribe of cricket historians, they will also be informed of their deeds outside the playing field. And, judging by the events of the last six months, the statement on their integrity may be more damning than they would like. Whether it is true or speculative, perception is what matters and they need to take cognizance of this.

These are gentlemen who have already made their mark in cricketing history as players. If they want their legacy to the game to extend beyond just their contributions on the playing (coaching) field, they need to think much farther than today, much farther than just the World Cup of 2007 (which seems to be about as far as any of them is thinking at the moment).

We need to recognize certain aspects of cricket history here. For all the hullabaloo about Ganguly, let us realize that it is not at all unusual in the history of the game for differences to exist between players, especially senior players. Between a player and his captain. Between a player and his coach. There are many precedents of such differences - in India and elsewhere.

It is not a secret that Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev had some differences of opinion, in the mid-80s when both players were superstars. It was perhaps nothing major but there were differences nevertheless.

In English circles, it is also not a secret that David Gower and Graham Gooch, both England legends but with dramatically different personalities, led a rather uncomfortable co-existence when they wore the England cap.

Even Sir Don Bradman, for all his exploits on the field, had his share of differences with his team-mates – none probably as high-profile as the mercurial Keith Miller. Again a clash of totally different personalities, I would think.

I could go on and on. From Ranatunga in Sri Lanka to Imran Khan in Pakistan to Brian Lara for the West Indies to Geoff Boycott for England, they have all had differences of opinion – serious differences of opinion – with team-mates or with the captain. Serious enough for players to stay away from the game - as was the case of Boycott in the early 70s when the captaincy went to Mike Denness (many reasons were given for Boycott’s staying away but it is well-known that he could not accept playing under Mike Denness). Or, serious enough for a player to be even indirectly booted out of the game - as was said to be the case with Zaheer Abbas when he “dropped” himself from one Test as a protest against other senior players, especially Imran Khan, and found that the board never gave him a chance to play another Test for his country.

These are all history now – but history is nothing, if not something to learn from. Most of these “differences” blew over after some time. In the course of time, none of them has not had any significant impact whatsoever. When you see Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar together today or Zaheer Abbas and Imran Khan together (both extremely common sights, by the way), it just shows that the game is much bigger than its personalities, time is the greatest healer of them all and that the differences were not insoluble.

Very importantly, these differences were not allowed to perpetuate beyond the day. These were mega-cricketers at that time, absolute stars of their era, especially in their home country where they were worshipped.

Yet each difference just faded away from the public eye. Possibly because, though public passion was aroused at that time, it was not fuelled and fed by the media as much as the Ganguly issue is today. Possibly because there was not as much scope for public discussion then as there is now.

But possibly also because - and this is where I am treading on sensitive ground - the core of any of these past issues has never been as murky as the core in this particular case. The conspiracy theories in this Ganguly case are so muddied that the swamps of Sunderbans look crystal clear by comparison.

Let me explain my thinking.

I have never taken sides on this issue because I do not believe any one person to have been absolutely right or absolutely wrong in this matter. I believe there have been mistakes made, at different points in time, by different parties – which have all compounded an issue which could have been easily handled in a much more diplomatic and befitting manner.

There have been many doubts about the integrity of the parties involved. To start with, I would like to give all of them the benefit of doubt on this. I will start by assuming that they have all had the best interests of Indian cricket at heart.

Having said that, I would be naïve not to recognize the fact that survival is the first instinct of mankind and when survival itself is under threat, a person’s behaviour often does not conform to generally accepted norms. (In the Mahabharata, as legend goes, even Dharmaputra, that epitome of righteousness, had to tell a lie in the battlefield to win the battle back in his favour. We are mere mortals – it takes us much less to stray from the path of righteousness).

We need to get the definition of survival into context. For a player struggling to retain his place in the side, survival means just holding on to his place. For a coach, long on ambitions and expectations, but short on coaching reputation, survival means delivering quick results to prove to himself and the world at large that he is capable of delivering on the longer haul. When you are driven and desperate, you raise the stakes.

I will try to begin with the facts, as I know them. I am afraid I have to depend to some extent on media reports, and with the questionable integrity of today’s media, this itself may be flawed but I have no choice.

I have to start with facts anyway because , for a loaded issue like this, if I begin in any other fashion, and do not have any pre-conceived bias, I will be going around in circles. I need to keep my perspective balanced.

The facts , as I know them are :

1. Saurav Ganguly had been India’s captain for several years. He had been India’s most successful captain. Whether this was attributable to his captaincy skills or to other reasons , is a matter of speculation. The fact of his success cannot be denied.

2. Till he ran into a very bad patch over the last couple of years, he had been a prolific run-scorer for India, both in Tests and in one-dayers. In the last couple of years, Ganguly has had a horrific run of low scores at international level, especially in Tests. Not only have his performances been way below par, there has been increasing mention of technical flaws in his batting.

3. Greg Chappell, as coach, has a vision for Team India. He is ruthless in his pursuit of this vision. He wants to run a thoroughly professional and hardworking unit – no place for slack performers, players poor on fitness or training, non-team players. Everybody has to earn his place in the side on merit and today’s performance, not on past glory. Importantly, every player has to share the vision of Chappell and work towards the same goals.

4. During the Zimbabwe tour, there was a very unfortunate set of incidents between coach and captain. On being asked by the captain who, of two team players should be given a chance to play, the coach suggested that both, being in-form players, be given a chance – with the captain himself sitting out and concentrating on his batting. This came as a bolt from the blue for the captain, who took it as a personal attack on his game. The first (known) seeds of a rift had been sown. When the captain went public on this matter and the coach, in a long e-mail to the cricket board, made the most damning statements imaginable about a captain, it was virtually game-set-match for that coach-captain relationship.

Whether the statements were true or not, although relevant, is extremely difficult to substantiate. You can prove a case based on facts, but never on opinion. Everybody is entitled to his opinion and if the national coach has such a low opinion of the captain, there is no point screaming about the validity of such opinion.

Although the two protagonists of this “spat” made a brave front to appear to have normalized their relationship, they fooled nobody. When it comes to trust and questions of integrity, the schism is always unbreachable. (By the way, the word “spat” is the most commonly used word to describe their row – I believe it does absolutely no justice to the depth of their differences but now finds itself added to the vocabulary of hundreds of millions of Indians and other cricket-lovers worldwide).

5. Rahul Dravid was instated as India captain after the Zimbabwe tour. Ostensibly for reasons of form, Saurav Ganguly was not selected for the one-day series against South Africa and Sri Lanka. This did not convince many supporters of Ganguly since his one-day record is amongst the best-ever.

6. As if matters were not explosive enough, matters reached a head in Kolkata, Ganguly’s hometown. Coach Greg Chappell was caught on camera entering a Kolkata bus and showing a raised middle finger. Whatever his explanation for this, it did not carry much conviction with the Kolkata public who now became even more firmly anti-Chappell. During the Kolkata one-dayer against South Africa, a section of the crowd displayed their displeasure at the turn of events by booing Greg Chappell and even the new Indian captain, Rahul Dravid. To further strengthen their message, they even cheered South Africa to, what turned out to be a resounding, victory.

7. By now, Ganguly had become a national issue – even being discussed in Parliament. The country was divided between crusaders for Ganguly, and those who felt that Chappell was bringing in a professionalism into Indian cricket that Ganguly was just not quite cut out to be part of.

8. Ganguly was included in the squad for the first two Tests against Sri Lanka. How much of this was because of performance, how much was due to public pressure, how much was due to his well-known closeness to former BCCI chief, Jagmohan Dalmiya, is all speculative but the fact is that, after two Tests, he was once again dropped for the final Test of the series.

9. This sparked off a huge wave of support for Ganguly, this time the cry about foul play even more stringent as many felt that Ganguly had not done particularly badly in the chances that he had been given. Besides, his form in domestic cricket had improved in the meantime and there were indications that he was regaining his form.

10. After just about everybody got involved in some way in the matter (including BCCI chief Sharad Pawar), when the team for Pakistan was announced, Saurav Ganguly was part of the squad.

11. The saga of Ganguly continues in Pakistan, with a reported argument on the first day of the first Test with captain Dravid about his batting position.

Considering all the above, my take on the situation is that as long as Ganguly is in the Indian squad and Greg Chappell is the coach, it is going to be an extremely uneasy period of operation. The truce between these two proud individuals is uneasy, at best. It cannot be easy in the dressing-room for the other players, many of whom have been close to Ganguly in the past but now need to curry favour with Greg Chappell.

The final loser as a result of all this politics is the team. As coach of the team, Greg Chappell is well within his rights to demand that any presence or influence that is detrimental to team performance be removed. If in his opinion, that influence is Ganguly, he can insist that Ganguly not be part of the future scheme of things.

Ganguly, on the other hand, still believes that he can come up with performances that will justify his re-instatement in the Indian side. He has taken efforts to work on his fitness and training – and has begun to show results on the field of play. That in itself does not mean selection (many worthy candidates have done an excellent job at domestic level but not got a nod for higher glory) but it does mean that he continues to push for a place in the side – on merit. Like his nickname “the Bengal Tiger”, he is a fighter and will just not walk away into the sunset as long as he believes he still has it in him to play for his country.

So here we have a coach whose opinion of the Indian ex-captain was about as low as an opinion can be (note that it was not just about performance on the field but about character). And we have a player who believes he still deserves a place and who will just not go away.

In this situation, I think the best thing to do would be to stop this fits-and-starts select/drop, select/drop drama. If Ganguly did not figure in Chappell’s scheme of things, he should not have been selected for the Sri Lanka Test series at all. Once selected, unless his performance was particularly poor or there was absolutely no place for him, he should have retained his place.

The same applies for the Pakistan tour. Either he should not have been selected at all, or, if selected, he should be given a fair run. If he fails, then there is a performance-based reason to drop him. If he does well, his performance would warrant his continuance in the side.

Unless the issue with his continuance is not to do with his performance. If Chappell believes that Ganguly’s presence in the team is harmful for the team, and therefore would like Ganguly to be out of it, there is no need for pretences. Having Ganguly in the squad only conveys a wrong message to him that he has a chance to play – and he seriously believes he does.

In all this, I cannot help feeling that a number of answers need to be provided by, not Ganguly, but Greg Chappell.

In allowing things to develop and drift the way they have, Chappell (and to some extent Dravid) must take responsibility. While there may have been a bit of an issue for a while, in my opinion, what really precipitated this drama was Chappell’s e-mail. I am not in his position but I really, for the life of me, cannot understand why, while being in the saddle for just a few months, it was necessary to convey such a strong and damning indictment of the Indian captain to the Indian Board – that too via e-mail.

If the issues with the Indian captain were indeed so serious, what efforts did Greg Chappell make to first discuss them face-to-face with the captain ? Or did he believe that there was no point in doing so ? Did he believe that the only way forward was to have Ganguly out of his scheme of things ?

Even if he did indeed believe so, was the e-mail the best way to communicate this ?

Ganguly, on his part, must realize that current performance is all that matters. In a strong Indian batting line-up it is going to be extremely difficult to accommodate average performers. It is therefore quite possible that inspite of his good scores in domestic cricket, there may not be a place for him in the Indian team, going forward. And this can be a pure merit-based decision.

This is something that even Ganguly supporters need to realize. India needs to field its best eleven. If Ganguly figures in this eleven, that is excellent news for them. If he does not – because, on merit, there are better performers out there – they need to stand behind the selected players and not live in the past.

These are players who have done a great job on the field of cricket. One can possibly excuse them their emotional outbursts and occasional indiscretions. I am therefore inclined to even ignore the Chappell “finger” in Kolkata. But the Chappell e-mail and the subsequent lack of a firm position on Ganguly’s role in the future of the team has caused tremendous damage already over the last few months.

Looking at the future – and then beyond the World Cup 2007 – what will be the impact of this ? Ganguly is in any case in the twilight of his career and the issue for me is not Ganguly himself. It is what this stands for.

Will any lessons on discretion, gentlemanliness, courtesy – all qualities that are not learnt on a cricket field but absolutely crucial to success off it – be learnt at all ? Will coaches in future be judged for more than just their coaching capabilities and their media-savviness ? How about discretion ? For that matter, what exactly should a coach’s role be ? Should he be just the behind-the-scenes worker or somebody as much in the forefront as the team captain himself ?

I don’t know what the answers should be. But I do know that this has been a particularly unsavoury situation which the game could do very well without. It does the game no good at all – and to use a cliché, it is just not cricket.

So, will any lessons be learnt from it ?

I wonder.

With malice towards none

This is meant as a humourous piece. No offence whatsoever is meant to any individual or community or country.


A state of national emergency has been declared in Pakistan. President Pervez Musharraf has convened a special meeting of his Cabinet.

"This is a national emergency" he says. "Our national institutions are being threatened. Our country's international standing is at stake. We have to dramatically improve our capabilities and skills".

"What do you want us to do Sir? Produce more scientists? More engineers? More economists? More army men?"

"No, we have plenty of those. ESPECIALLY of that last category. No, all I want is that all of you go out there - to each village in this great country of ours".

"And what do we do, Sir?"

"For heavens' sake, do I have to spell out everything for you? What an incompetent bunch of ministers I have to work with. All I want you to come back with is ONE BLOODY WICKET-TAKER".

The Minister, Pace Bowling reporting : "Good Morning, Sir".

"What's so good about the morning ? Don't waste my time. What have you got ?"

"Sir I've got excellent news. I have the perfect man".

"Wonderful. Tell me about him".

"Sir, for starters, his name is Imran Akram".

"Fantastic!!! How fast can he bowl?" "Sir, he can bowl 98.9 mph in his sleep !".

"Brilliant! You're my man. Just get him here - I want to meet him personally".

"There is only one problem, Sir".


"Sir, I haven't been able to wake him up yet".


Minister, Spin Bowling, reporting : "Good Morning, Sir".

"It's been a bad morning. You better have something good to say".

"Yes Sir, I have the perfect person for you".

"Yes?" "Sir, his name is Saqlain Kaneria".

"OK. I'm not going to get too excited. I just heard about Imran Akram".

"No Sir, this guy is the real deal. This is no dream".

"Good, what are we waiting for? Tell me about him".

"Sir, he can bowl off-spin like Saqlain Mushtaq and leg-spin like Danish Kaneria".

"Brilliant! That's the man I am looking for. We will teach these Kumbles a thing or two about us. So he can turn the ball at right angles I presume?"

"Er..not exactly, Sir."


"Sir, the thing is he is a very smart man. He likes to do everything as economically as possible. So instead of wasting a delivery bowling off-spin, and another one bowling leg-spin, he's invented a new delivery called off-leg spin."

"What is that now?"

"Sir, in one delivery, he does both - off-spin and leg-spin".

"I don't understand".

"Sir, when he tries both - the ball actually goes straight on".

"So he doesn't spin the ball ? It is just a straight, slow delivery ?"

"When you put it that way...."

"Get out! Right now! What a bunch of incompetent ministers I have here. Where are my pitch curators?"

Butterflies again !

Once again we are on the threshold of a Pakistan-India cricket series and once again I am a bit nervous. I have followed so many of these series by now and yet I have the same butterflies in my stomach today in 2006 as I had when I followed my first Pakistan-India series in 1978.

Then, I was nervous about what Majid, Javed, Zaheer, Mushtaq and Asif would do to Bedi and Chandra. And was not sure about how Sunny and Vishy would fare against Sarfaraz and Imran. (At that time I rated Majid more than any other Pakistani batsman and Sarfaraz higher than Imran).

In later years, my nervousness, now definitely more like anxiety, would extend to fears about India-tormentors like Mudassar Nazar and Salim Malik. When India would get mercilessly thrashed, I would sometimes wish that the team would just pack up and return home. There is only so much of Imran Khan, for all his good looks, that you can take as a diehard Indian cricket fan.

Since the Pak ascendancy days of the 1980s, a semblance of parity has been restored between the two sides. This does make for more interesting following. Not that a Pakistan-India series is ever anything less than compelling (unless you have to watch Shoaib Mohammad and Rizwan-uz-Zaman), but if the teams are well-balanced the outcome lends itself much more to speculation – which is of course one of the favourite pastimes of any cricket lover anywhere !

Coming to the present series, my guess is that both teams must be pretty nervous as well. Unlike the 2004 series in Pakistan (which had "goodwill" and "bridge-building" written all over it) and the return 2005 series in India (which also had reciprocal "we can also be good hosts" written all over it), this time it is (cricketing) business as usual.

I expect that unless the weather becomes a major spoiler, cricket will be fought very fiercely in this series. No quarters given, none taken. Pakistan are on a high at the moment with their thumping win over England, under Woolmer they look a totally transformed side to the one that, under Miandad, played host to India two years ago.

Finally they seem to be playing as a team, many of their players are in good form and the wickets can be tailormade to their advantage.

India, on the other hand, must be hoping against hope that some of their players, especially their batsmen, come out of their slump. In the recent home series against Sri Lanka, almost all the top-order Indian batsmen struggled and it was often left to the Pathans and Agarkars to take India to respectability.

Against a hungry Pakistan, with Shoaib Akhtar firing on all cylinders, Rana Naved ever the under-rated danger man and Kaneria now finally recognised as a genuine match-winner, the Indian top-order batting cannot choose a worse time to lose its way.

Having said that, India has this strange habit of pampering weak opposition and shrugging its shoulders while playing the tougher ones. Thus the Indian batsmen, led by the most exciting Virender Sehwag, seem to relish the Australias and the Pakistans of this world. So it may yet be a contest for the Pakistani bowlers. At least so we should hope otherwise it could become a one-sided show which would do tremendous injustice to all the pre-series hype and expectation.

Talking of the Indian bowling, I do not know what to make of it. I do not have any particular expectations from Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar. They are good bowlers but are they good enough to rock the top-order Pakistani batsmen ? As an Indian, I would like to be optimistic and answer that in the affirmative. And I do believe this to be the case - but for that to happen, not only do they need to produce the odd "dream delivery" (which all of them are capable of producing) but also bowl consistently well. And that is where I have my doubts about this threesome. They bowl very well in spells but are just as liable to bowl short or overpitched ones - which a batsman of Butt's class or Younis Khan's patience will gratefully tonk to the cover boundary. Ask Glen McGrath (or, in a different generation, Brian Statham) - one of the biggest weapons a bowler has in his armoury is to just wear out a quality batsman by sustained, relentless accuracy and variation. The Indian bowlers will do well to learn this lesson for it can reap rich rewards against a side which, although I consider extremely talented, I do not rate very highly on batting discipline.

Coming to the spin duo, Kumble and Harbhajan. In the series in India, Kumble managed to outfox Inzy embarrassingly frequently. That may give some Indians hope. But in the last six months, Inzy has grown several inches and to expect similar results in a repeat Inzy-Kumble contest is perhaps stretching Indian hopes a bit too far. But Kumble is one intelligent bowler and, kookaburra or no kookaburra, will carry a billion hopes on his experienced shoulders when he bangs in that ball and tries to make it rear from that good-length spot.

Harbhajan is often the under-rated bowler of the duo - largely because he often comes across as deceptively slow and easy. But make no mistake - once he tastes blood, he has the ability to transform a game completely by suddenly forcing the batsmen into making mistakes.

The Pakistani batsmen will probably fancy their chances against the Indian pacers, considering they blunted the attack of Harmison and Flintoff just over a month ago. But the Indians do not need the acclimatisation that English players need and there should be no comparisons as such made between England and India. This is a new series against a new set of opponents and it needs to be played with a different set of considerations.

All in all, one thing we can all be very sure of. This is about as high-pressure as it gets. Indian captain Rahul Dravid is reported to be a bit glum in the last couple of days and, while the media and public is quick to point to internal selection issues as the cause of this, it could just be that he realizes all too well the magnitude of the task ahead of him and may be, just maybe, he is beginning to feel the pressure. We all know the qualities of Rahul Dravid the batsman while under pressure on the cricket field – let us hope Rahul Dravid the captain is able to call upon those very special qualities to rise to the challenge.

Finally, it may well be that this becomes the decisive factor. Talent and form is all very well but, as we have seen only too often in India-Pakistan games, the team that is able to better handle the pressure cooker situations that will no doubt come up throughout the series may be the one smiling in a month’s time.

Sachin Tendulkar - tribute to the player and the man

remember 1988 all too well. There was a lot of talk in Indian cricketing circles about this young Bombay boy, Sachin Tendulkar. In fact, for Bombay locals, the talk had begun much earlier as this little boy's exploits in school cricket were gaining more than the usual attention. It was not just the runs he seemed to be accumulating but the manner in which he was getting them that was the discussion subject for many a Bombay cricket aficionado.

India toured the West Indies in March 1989 - and there were many who felt Sachin should have been on that flight. The selectors probably thought he was too young to be blooded on such a demanding tour (he was not even 15 then). As it turned out, Marshall and Walsh walked all over India and India got thrashed.
Sachin had to wait till the winter tour of Pakistan. When he made his debut on the 15th of November 1989, all of 16 years something, the whole country waited in anticipation.

Much like that legend, the one and only Don, he did not exactly set the stage on fire in his debut game. But he stood up to the Pakistani pace battery of Akram, Younis and Imran and there were signs that this was the start of something very big and significant.

A week after his debut, in the next Test at Faisalabad, the young lad took everything that the Pakistani pacemen could throw at him - and scored a defiant 59.

He continued with useful scores in the series, ending with another half-century at Sialkot. The glimpses he showed were almost as if he was toying with us. As if to tease us and say that if we wanted something special, we would have to wait for it.

(As an aside, I have always felt that it is one of the biggest losses to Asian cricket that the political impasse of the 1990s deprived cricket-lovers of what would have been fascinating duels between Akram-Waqar and the little master.).

By the end of the decade, with no disrespect to stalwarts like Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar had become the main attraction for Indian cricket. Everybody wanted to know how much Sachin had scored, everybody wanted to see him batting.

And he was just starting ! On his first tour to New Zealand, he missed a debut century by 12 agonising runs. Once again, the entire country was made to wait.

Not for long though. In the summer of 1990, while Gooch, Azhar and Kapil Dev stole the show in the series opener at Lord's, it was time for the little master finally to announce himself to the world at large.

In very difficult conditions, with India fighting to save the game, the little master showed tremendous skill, concentration and maturity to pull out a special 119 not out. That earned him the Man of the Match - the first of many - but most importantly saved the game for India.

To those whose favourite grudge against Sachin is that he has played for himself and not for the country, Manchester is just one example to prove them wrong.

India's next tour was to Australia. Sachin failed in the first few games but his class could never be kept suppressed for too long. He got a hundred at Sydney in the game that Ravi Shastri got a double but it was his hundred at Perth that had character and defiance stamped all over it. That India lost the game due to a second-innings collapse could take nothing away from this Sachin classic.

Onto South Africa. At Johannesburg, Sachin once again dazzled with a back-to-the-wall brilliant 111 out of a team total of 227 – the next best score was 25. The whole world was watching this young genius, now all of 18 !

The biggest grudge against Sachin in his early years was that he did not put a price on his wicket. He would often provide a cameo and return to the pavilion. No less a player than Sunil Gavaskar commented that later in his career, Sachin would look back and regret the price of some of his youthful exuberance.

England chose to visit India in the spring of 1993 – as if to partake in the building of a legend. At the Chepauk stadium in Chennai, Sachin flayed them to all parts of the ground. I happened to be in Chennai on that day and although I could not be at the ground, I remember the mood of the city and country at that time. Sachin had this amazing ability to make India feel good about itself when he went about his business.

I will not discuss every series where Sachin has entertained us. There are too many of them and it will seem very monotonous.

A few matches and series do come to mind.

The series against the visiting Australians in 1997-98. The way Sachin handled the bowling - and Shane Warne in particular. As it turned out, it was not just the runs he amassed but the manner he got them that earned him the respect of that all-conquering Australian side.

The century against Pakistan at Chennai in 1999. Where, struggling with a painful back injury, Sachin scored a masterly 136 to bring India within a whiff of victory.

The century against South Africa in 2001. The last Indian tour to South Africa had been a disaster for India. But in the series opener here at Bloemfontein, in a game where Sehwag made his debut (and how !), Sachin and Sehwag restored India from a difficult situation to a position of then-relative safety with an amazing display of authority and defiance. Although India lost that Test, I remember that innings from Sachin very fondly.

Final Test, Sydney, 2004. Sachin had been going through a lean patch and he needed some affirmation, for himself, that he could stay out there and play a long innings. What an innings he came up with ! He was very restrained, chose his deliveries carefully, forced the bowlers to bowl on the stumps and came up with a masterly unbeaten double hundred. In that innings, we were witness to character of a totally different level altogether !

All this and much much more. And I have not even talked about his ODI career.

He holds many records in that version of the game but – like with his Test career – they are too many to detail. Who can forget Sharjah 1998 or the last World Cup game against Pakistan ?

Again, I have not talked about Sachin the bowler. The only reason his bowling is not talked about is that it is completely dwarfed by his batting. But he has proven to be a very useful bowler, with an amazing variety of deliveries. Former Pakistani wicketkeeper, Moin Khan, will vouch for that.

Beyond all this is Sachin, the man. He has been in the limelight from the first day that he stepped on the international stage. He has been a star for fifteen years now. He carries his celebrity status gracefully and with utmost humility. To date, I cannot recall one arrogant comment from him. He is aware of his capability, his responsibilities and what he means to India.

As is to be expected, Sachin has had his share of critics. He has not been his usual blazing self in the last few years, leaving some to doubt whether he still has it in him. Another accusation, in some quarters, against him is that he cares for his personal ambitions more than for the team cause. An oft-quoted example is his post-match remark at Multan in early 2004 that he was disappointed that the declaration came at a time when he was just six short of his double hundred.

I find it difficult to find fault with Sachin on these. True, he has not been his former blazing self. So what ? He has matured as a player, he sees himself as the senior most player in the side who needs to play the part. Although he has had his fair share of failures in recent times, on average he continues to be prolific and the source of support for the Indian side.

Coming to accusations about his "selfishness", we need to understand that there is nothing wrong in wanting to do well for one's own self. It is but natural to do so. In that sense, for Sachin, the batsman, to feel disappointed at missing out on a double hundred is a most natural thing. The media and the fans blew it out of proportion and made it out to be a Dravid vendetta or a Sachin-Dravid spat. In my opinion, both these players have a huge amount of respect for each other and are above all this petty issues.

This reminds me of another match, many summers ago. It was the Bridgetown Test of 1997. India, chasing a paltry 120 to win, got shot out for 81. There was a report that, after the match, Sachin actually cried in the dressing room.

Whether this is true or not, I do not know but I am inclined to believe it. For I can believe that such is his passion for India and for the team. In my opinion, Sachin has always tried to give his best to the side – whether batting or bowling or fielding.

In recent times Sachin has had to go through a lot of pain due to injury and has had to miss several games. Such was the nature and recurrence of his injury, that his availability for every series began to be in doubt and there were questions about the sustainability of his career.

Today, as Sachin scales another milestone in the game, the record for the maximum number of Test hundreds, I salute the man. For the player he is. For the man he is. .

I cannot think of a more deserving candidate for this honour and wish him, and India, much more success in the years to come.

Kolkata - Ee Cholbe Na !

It has been a while since my last blog but the state of Indian cricket has never been far from my mind and it is only my time and certainly not the lack of material that has prevented me from dumping my thoughts earlier on this subject.

Trust me, if one had the time and the inclination, one could write a blog about Indian cricket almost every day. There never seems to be a dull moment – and while the drama on the field may not always be eye-catching, that off it more than makes up for it.

What is it about this game that has so many of sub-continental origin so passionately in its clasp ? The more informed amongst the fans follows, and often pretends to understand, every nuance. He speculates about the state of the pitch, whether it will show signs of cracking on the last day of the Test and what rollers should have been used. He speculates about the team selection (which , by the way, is never perfect), he argues about the batting lineup (never perfect either) or the bowling changes that the Indian captain has used (never perfect either).

Each follower has his hero(es) and much of the energy in discussion and debate is often spent understandably in protecting this hero in the face of criticism from others.

While individual allegiance may be divided, usually allegiance to the team is unquestionable. Especially by spectators on the ground who usually make extra effort to display their allegiance – carrying flags and painting their face with national colors. As a player, when you are playing in your own country, you would not be unreasonable in expecting the crowd to support you all the way. It is but natural.

It is precisely in this matter that Kolkata disappointed me. “Disappointed” is an understatement. It hurt me a great deal.

I have always been a fan of Kolkata. As a young boy I grew up in Eastern India and would, every now and then, visit Kolkata. I don’t know whether it was the people or the language or the tram system or just the relaxed feeling I always got when I was there, but, despite the power cuts and the slow-moving traffic, I really loved it – there was a charm about it. I loved looking at the Victoria Memorial building at sunset. Whenever I passed the Eden Gardens, I would take a deep breath of pride – this to me was definitely the best ground in the country and possibly the best in the world. (The fact that it was also the ground where my Vishy scored a brilliant second-innings century against the West Indies in 1974-75 only made me love the ground even more).

Before this ODI on 22nd November, there was a lot of discussion about how the Kolkata crowd would behave. There were many who felt it would be hostile to the Indian team. Even the South African captain, Graeme Smith, joked along these lines, saying it was like playing a home game. Many suggested India should not even play at Kolkata.

I staunchly defended Kolkata. I was confident that the Kolkata crowd would put all these doubters to shame by putting up an exemplary show of support for India. True, the crowd would be hurting that their pride, their Prince of Kolkata, would be missing from the line-up. But they were bigger than that – and when it came to support for the national team, there would be absolutely no two opinions about that. The country comes first, an individual player, however much admired, comes second.

I was wrong. I had misjudged the extent of hurt the crowd felt. They took this opportunity to let the world know that, for what had happened to their Prince, they would spare nobody.
The Indian captain, their darling just seven months earlier when he had been the architect of a dream victory against Pakistan with two stellar centuries and could do now wrong, was boo-ed in a manner he must not be accustomed to for a long long time.

The coach, much more the center of antipathy than anybody else, was, not surprisingly, especially targeted.

For the most part, India was not the team the crowd was cheering for.

Not that the players did anything to cheer about. On a green top, against some immaculate bowling, India just caved in and South Africa romped home, worthy winners. Whether the curator should have considered Indian strengths while working on the pitch is something that has been widely discussed – my take on this is that while it is normal for curators to deliver pitches favourable to the home team, India, which boasts of world-class players, should not have to hide behind favourable pitches to win matches. As a batsman, if you cannot play the moving ball, just work on it. But that is another discussion.

Coming back to Kolkata, I can see where the crowd is coming from. This is not the first time that Indian crowds have shown their displeasure at team selection.

Way back in 1972-73, Salim Durrani, hugely popular with the public, was having an indifferent run and was dropped for the Kanpur Test against England. The crowds came out in protest “No Durrani, no Test”.

In 1974-75, Bishen Singh Bedi, was dropped from the Indian side for the first Test at Bangalore against the Windies due to a ban imposed on him by the Board for giving a TV interview in England in 1974. “No Bedi, no Test” the placards said.

In 1983, Kapil Dev was “penalized” for an “irresponsible” shot in the Delhi Test by being dropped for the Kolkata Test. There were placards of “No Kapil, no Test”.

In all the above instances, the match just went on. Once the match started, I do not recall any problems of support. There was always unflinching support for the Indian team.

This is where Kolkata was different. The crowd took their disappointment and anger just one step too far – by rubbishing the Indian captain.

If Kolkata thinks it has made a point, it is fooling itself. On the contrary, it is damaging its own cause. Just like Sunil Gavaskar refused to play in Kolkata after his treatment at the hands of the crowd in 1983 (he was pelted with oranges for playing a loose shot), there may be more reasons for players and match officials to stay away from Kolkata.

Which would be a real pity. Kolkata is a prime city. It has millions of cricket lovers. It just does not deserve to be given a miss in discussions about big-match venues.

This match did not have any untoward incident as such. Not supporting the home side is atrocious in some eyes but not something the ICC will care too much about. It cannot be compared with the 1996 World Cup drama or the match a few years later against Pakistan, which was also a black mark for crowd behaviour.

My love for Kolkata and the Eden Gardens has made me try to rationalize the crowd behaviour. Would the Mumbai crowd have behaved similarly if a fully-fit Sachin Tendulkar had been dropped from the Indian side ? I don’t know. Maybe it would. So is it then fair to single out Kolkata ?

I cannot answer these questions. They are all hypothetical. All I can say is that I am deeply disappointed at Kolkata.

Another reaction could have been that the crowd could have gone out of their way to support and cheer Team India. To show that, whatever their personal preferences, they stand behind the captain and the team. Kolkata would have made millions of fans overnight.

As it stands, Kolkata continues to get brickbats from the rest of the country. It hurts me a lot – it did not have to be so.

But I guess Chennai is Chennai, Mumbai is Mumbai - and Kolkata is Kolkata. Let’s just leave it at that.

For the sake of Indian cricket

This is what I have sent to the BCCI today. I do not expect anything from this but I considered it my duty, as a fan, to express my views to them for whatever these views are worth.

I titled it "For the sake of Indian cricket".

Dear Sirs,

We, the fans of Indian cricket, are deeply disturbed by the recent events involving the game in India and have been moved to present our opinion to you. We trust you will take the trouble to understand our standpoint and act judiciously and objectively in resolving the impasse that has developed recently.

We are referring to the extremely ugly fracas between the Indian cricket team captain, Mr. Saurav Ganguly, and the Indian team coach, Mr. Greg Chappell.

Over the years, we, the fans, have been subjected to much abuse by our players on the field. True, we have had moments of glory too – but, as diehard fans, we have often found the Indian team falling short of our expectations.

While that has been no doubt disappointing, we have taken that in our stride – as being part of the game. We are very happy if our team just gives its 100% - and if even that is not enough for a win, well, we are not just good enough to win. That is what we have reconciled ourselves to. We cannot ask for more.

But is our team giving a 100 % ? Is this the best that India can offer ?

These are the questions that we, the fans, keep asking ourselves. Of late, we have been increasingly seeing indifferent performances, players taking the field in half-fit condition or crying “unfit” on the eve of a game, players seeming to take their places for granted, players making statements to the press talking of being “victims” of selection vagaries – all signs that not all is well with the mental and physical aspect of the Indian team. If a team is in conflict from within, how can we expect it to perform as one united unit on the field of play ?

When Mr. Chappell was appointed team coach a few months ago, we welcomed this decision. We expected that a person with his playing experience, commitment to excellence and no-nonsense approach would be just the right person to revive Indian cricket.

It is early days for Mr. Chappell in India and we do not think it wise to pass judgment on his performance so far. Before his appointment as coach, he presented to you his vision for Indian cricket and it is this vision that you, the BCCI, bought into when you appointed him in the first place.

One of the important tasks (perhaps the most important task) that Mr. Chappell set out to accomplish for Indian cricket was to raise standards of excellence in the side. This is what he had promised to do in his vision statement and this is what he has begun to do. He did not promise to bring home the World Cup of 2007. He can, at best, build a team that is most capable of bringing home the Cup.

Mr. Chappell seems to be a man with a mission, who does not waste any time while pursuing his goals with all seriousness. He began with a training camp for quick bowlers, he has experimented with a few players during the recent one-day series in Sri Lanka, he has been very strict, almost regimental, with the players on fitness and training levels. He is going about his task in a manner that he thinks will lead to a fitter, better Indian side.

We believe Mr. Chappell needs to be given full opportunity and space to allow his vision to bear fruit. If we impose restrictions on his authority and style, we will never fully benefit from his coaching. And that would be a real pity, wouldn’t it ?

Which brings me to another point – the role of Mr. Chappell.

That seems to be at the heart of the recent misunderstanding between Mr. Chappell and Mr. Ganguly. That Mr. Chappell exceeded his brief by expressing his opinion on selection matters when his role is only that of a coach.

This is the typical line used by those who are uncomfortable with Mr. Chappell’s frankness and style of operation. True, he is officially only the coach and not a selector – but, again, if we “box” him and “cellotape” him, we will not be able to pick that active brain of his. He spends a lot of time with the team, he should be knowing each individual player’s strengths and weaknesses, his physical and mental condition. If, armed with this knowledge, he states his opinion (that too, when asked for it), should we not listen to it and take it into consideration in our future selection decisions ?

We, the fans, believe the coach should be part of the selection committee – who, better than him, has insight into the players’ fitness for the game ?

We have said enough about Mr. Chappell here. We would like to say a few words about Mr. Ganguly.

Mr. Ganguly has rendered commendable service to Indian cricket in the last nine years. We will always thank him for providing us with many memorable moments on the field.

We understand that Mr. Ganguly is going through a very difficult phase at this moment. We empathise with him for his severe loss of batting form in the last couple of years. In this game, it happens to many players and Mr. Ganguly is no exception.

We believe that the best thing Mr. Ganguly can do is to concentrate 100% on his batting – and nothing else. He needs to work on each one of his weaknesses, on his confidence and come out all guns blazing. Nothing would please us more than to see the Ganguly of old. However, we believe the right platform to work on his batting is not the international stage but the domestic circuit – be it in India or elsewhere. The pressures and high stakes of the international circuit do not permit much experimentation – and there is a real chance that Mr. Ganguly’s attempts to work his way back into batting form may be at the cost of India’s success.

We believe this (in different words) is what Mr. Chappell was trying to convey to Mr. Ganguly during that much-publicised pre-match discussion. It is very unfortunate that the discussion took a completely different direction and the incident, fuelled by a scoop-hungry media, sparked off such an unpleasant string of remarks and retaliation. We believe this was totally unnecessary and, for a team which already does not seem to be performing at its best, can only be even more debilitating.

We are aware that this is not the first time that Indian cricket is faced with a crisis that has nothing to do with play on the field itself. There have been crises in the past and there will be crises in future. Such is the nature of the game in India and the passion of its following that there will be reminders from time to time of the frailty of the state of the game in the country.

We can only expect each person or party to do its bit responsibly. The selection committee for example. We, the fans, do not have a say in selection matters, we are not privy to the closed-door (closed ? ahem !) meetings of the selection committee. We have to accept the decisions that the selection committee, in all its wisdom, has taken. We may rant and rave about it, but in the end, we just accept the decision for what it is.

We can only hope that the office-bearers of the BCCI (being the custodians of the game in the country), the selection committee (being the decision-makers on the team composition), the coach (being the technical guru for the players) and, very importantly, the players themselves can understand where we, the fans, come from, how keen we are to see our team do well, how proud we feel when our team does well and, looking at themselves in the mirror, how privileged they are to be in a position to satisfy the aspirations of more than a billion people.

I cannot say more than this.

On behalf of a billion people,

I remain,

Yours sincerely,

Raja Swaminathan

We, the people - Part 2

Another one-day final, another defeat !

The familiarity of the result does not in any way mitigate the disappointment of being pipped yet again at the post, within arm’s reach of that elusive trophy.

The two tournaments that India has opened its 2005-06 season with are not mega in any sense and did not exactly feature top-of-the-drawer opposition (with due respect to a constantly under-rated New Zealand and a lion-at-home Sri Lanka). India was expected to reach the finals of both these events and duly did so. But for a billion-strong public so starved of trophies that any itsy-bitsy tournament will do just fine as long as it ends with their captain holding aloft the cup, it was yet another day of dashed hopes as the Indian team continued to falter at the last hurdle.

India’s position is a ridiculously low seventh in the ICC one-day rankings. For a team which boasts some of the world’s top players this can only mean that all this talent does not get translated to results on the field, especially when it most matters. How else can you explain that Harbhajan Singh, considered one of the world’s best bowlers, often comes up totally ineffective whereas “lesser” spinners, at least on paper, like Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Chandana seem to enjoy much more success on pretty much the same wickets.

Or, take the batting. It would seem that, given his penchant for uninhibited strokeplay and his strike rate, Virendra Sehwag is a natural for the one-day game. Yet, it is amazing how often he has failed to play a match-winning innings for his side.

It is not fair to single out just Harbhajan or Sehwag. The entire team is consistently inconsistent, making the job for coach Greg Chappell a particularly difficult one.

If a player is putting in a consistently poor showing, his place in the side is most certainly up for grabs and there should not be much of an issue replacing him with a deserving candidate (some may argue that there is a particularly glaring exception to this simple rule – I choose not to discuss this).

But the frustrating thing with every Indian player is that he, every once in a while, puts up a performance that gives you hope. He seems to have vindicated himself, proven his critics wrong – and then goes through an inexplicable phase where he puts in an indifferent performance for the next five games. Just when the critics begin to re-group and raise their voices again – bang, he comes up with another performance to silence them.

This game has been going on for too long – and by too many players for anybody to be taken in by the odd performance. The public is tired of the number of chances given to some players and increasingly a cry is being made for fresh blood to be inducted into the side. Sure, the new players may also falter on the big stage but we will never know unless we take that chance. Above all, it will give the incumbent players a sense of urgency to deliver if they are to retain their places in the side.

India needs to look at all its options afresh – without regional bias. Which players deserve to be part of the “core” (whether due to performance or promise) and therefore need to be nurtured, which players, inspite of all their chances, are no better than just “fringe” players who need to either be “in” or “out” but cannot be sitting on the fence for eternity.

Greg Chappell earned a reputation in his playing days for being a tough player and captain. One can only hope that he takes some tough decisions in the longer term interest of the side, even if it means ruffling some feathers in the short-term. There is too much baggage associated with some of the members of this side and somebody needs to tell each player that he starts with a clean slate – his past is history and all that matter is the “here and now”. Even players who are part of the “core” need to get a clear message that there are no permanent positions of any sort – every position is worth fighting for.

I know all this sounds very unromantic and stressful but the game has changed unrecognizably in the last couple of decades and this needs to be reflected in the attitude of the players. While cricket is, in the ultimate analysis, just a game and needs to be kept in perspective, let us not forget that these are highly-paid professionals who are not paid such handsome sums for doing an “average” job. The times may have changed but it is not uncommon to find the Indian team sometimes continuing to exhibit qualities better suited for a different and more laid-back era.

This brings me to another point I would like to make – about the way the non-Indian media and cricket follower tends to perceive the Indian public and media.

There seems to be a feeling among the non-Indian cricket media and public that the Indian public is too demanding of its players and expects them to win at all times. It is felt that the public is too easily critical of the team and that does not help the team’s confidence one bit.

Give the Indian public some credit. They have no say whatsoever in the manner in which the game is run in the country. They have no say in selection matters. The only instrument the public has at its disposal is its voice – so it uses this to the maximum, hoping to get some message across to the administrators and the players.

It is rarely personal. The public may criticize the team, they may lambast each player – but this criticism stems only from a passion and an intense desire to see Team India win.

Let us realize that while the Indian public can be very critical of its players, it also extols these very players to the skies when they achieve something glorious (albeit an increasingly rare phenomenon). When the Indian players returned from Pakistan they were all given a hero’s welcome back to India. So, while the reaction is often extreme and not as balanced as perhaps in other parts of the world, it is fair in its consistency.

From my many years of following the game, I cannot help feeling that this criticism may actually serve as a trigger for raising the team’s performance. If the Indian public does not express its discontent vocally enough, the Indian team, never the most self-inspired of performers, would perhaps deliver even more mediocrity than they do at the moment. It seems to be the Indian public which keeps the bar high – and there is nothing wrong with that.

So it is up to Team India to recognize this and raise their game. If they want public support, they need to earn it.

The key question is – do they really care ?

We, the people

Cricket is a religion in India and anything that touches Indian cricket hits at the heart and soul of many an Indian.

It is hard to believe that it was less than two years ago that India was creating waves in the cricket world by challenging the mighty Australians on their home turf. Following closely on the heels of that successful tour, India went on to underline this with a sterling performance in nemesis-country, Pakistan. Almost all players returned from the Pakistan tour as superstars and Indian cricket seemed to be in the best shape imaginable.

Oh, how naïve and foolish we Indian supporters were ! And how distant those heady days now seem.

The first signs that all was not hunky-dory were already there in the one-day series in Sri Lanka last August. The Indian performance was sluggish in the extreme. But we were still having a hangover from a few months before and refused to recognize the symptoms. The explanation given by the team captain was "we are a bit rusty after a long lay-off" and "we will be fine for the ICC Champions Trophy".

We bought that explanation. After all, this Sri Lankan series was just a preparation for the more important Champions Trophy coming up – we brushed off any concerns we had.

India then went on to play a one-day series in Holland – with Australia and Pakistan as other participants. Unfortunately rain ruined the tournament but in India's one completed game, it got roundly thrashed by Pakistan.
The game had been reduced to a 25-overs match but, as one who was at the ground, I can safely say India never really looked like being in the hunt. It was not so much the defeat but the manner of the defeat that left a bitter taste in one's mouth.

This time the explanation given by the captain was "once the game became a 25-overs match, it was not quite the same thing". Whatever that means !

We bought that too. By now, we were getting a bit restless, especially since we realized that India would miss the services of its class act, Sachin Tendulkar, for the ICC Trophy.

September came – the ICC Champions Trophy happened – and India's performance was anything but champion-like. Although it faltered in the final, England's stock rose rapidly in this tournament when it thrashed Australia. India on the other hand, put up another miserable performance, and were shown the door by Pakistan.

I cannot recall now the explanation given for this performance. In all probability, the absence of Sachin Tendulkar would have been used.

Whatever it was, we bought it. By now, the focus had shifted to the home series against Australia. We were willing to write off all these one-day disasters as long as the main prize - winning this home series or at the worst, not losing it - could still be achieved.

India was outplayed. We can make a fuss about umpiring decisions and about rain robbing India at Chennai but the fact is that a very purposeful Australia, clearly on a mission to "conquer the final frontier", put up a vastly superior show to India.

By the end of the series, both Test and one-dayers, it was very clear that the magic, if at all there had been any, had worn off completely and everybody was beginning to take a more earthly view of the side.

During the series itself captain Ganguly had come in for a fair amount of criticism, for both his form and his mysterious absence on the eve of one of the Tests. At the end of it, his explanations could have been scripted by a five-year-old "Australia is a very good side" and "we need to raise our game".

A weak, inexperienced South African side now visited India for a two-test series. Although India managed to eke out a 1-0 win, it was about as convincing and re-assuring as a Chandrasekhar batting performance. Even a series win in Bangladesh a few days later fooled nobody – there was something missing in this performance.

It was now approaching crunch-time as one of the most important series was coming up. Much as Indian supporters would have hated to lose at home to Australia, there was a realization that this was the world's best team so India was always going to be up against it. But now, here was an opportunity to correct the situation – a not-highly-rated Pakistan team was visiting India and, with memories of their own tour just a few months before fresh in their minds, most Indians were smacking their lips in anticipation.

Forty-five days, three tests and six one-dayers later, India was in tatters. This unheralded Pakistan side had pulled off an amazing Test series draw (equating effectively to a huge moral victory) and , to leave nobody in doubt about the one-day balance between the sides, come from behind to turn the tables on India in a 4-2 win.

By now, explanations from the Indian captain were getting just as predictable as they were getting increasingly unpalatable. More than anything, the body language of the team and the manner of their defeat in the crucial Bangalore Test had left everybody fuming. That the captain himself was going through the worst batting phase of his career did not help his cause one bit. Any daggers that, till then, were still in their sheath, were now out in the open. An entire country felt betrayed.

After the winter of discontent, the Indian team has had plenty of time to reflect. A new coach has been hired. This could be a sign of new faces, new strategies and a new confidence in the side - or so, many Indians thought.

The season is just a couple of weeks old – and so far there are absolutely no signs that this season is going to be any better than the last one. These are early days and any conclusions drawn from a short one-day series in Sri Lanka and another similar one in Zimbabwe would be presumptuous.

We will need to wait and watch before passing judgement. In the meantime, as happens very often, when the performance on the field is nothing to write home about, a lot is written about events or "stories" off the field. Much of this centers around captaincy debates, discipline and attitude issues, the "strained" relationship between the coach and some players. None of this is complimentary, none of this helps the team to perform on the field.

If things do not improve dramatically, Saurav Ganguly may find his luck finally running out. The public is tired of explanations. Lines like "Winning is a habit. We need to get back into the winning habit" ring hollow and seem to be almost contemptuous of the intelligence and patience of the public.

Another line that the Indian captain has used, more than once, is "I will be among the runs soon". I am not sure whether this was reported correctly. It could well be that what he meant was 'I will be among the ruins soon". Looking at the state of Indian cricket at the moment, now that is one statement that rings so true !

Nottingham, here we come !

After the Edgbaston Test, any cricket lover, who had just been served up one of the most nail-biting finishes in living memory, could well have been forgiven for thinking “Phew ! What was that now ? From here on, it can only be downhill !”.

He would be wrong. Not only did the ride from Birmingham to Manchester turn out to be anything but downhill, on the contrary it seemed as if the dream game of Edgbaston was just being played out in front of a different crowd just a few miles away.

The circumstances and the results were very different but the atmosphere was as electric in Manchester as it had been in Birmingham.

At Edgbaston, it was England which had held its nerve to strike that knock-out blow just at the moment that Australia thought it had done just about enough to hammer that final nail in the English coffin. Here at Manchester, when it looked like England would do the unimaginable and go 2-1 up midway through the series, it was Australia which spoilt the English celebration party by holding on, by the slimmest of threads, to its last wicket and ensuring the series would go to Nottingham, still level at one-all. Freddie Flintoff, hero of Edgbaston and massively cheered by his home Lancashire crowd, most of them on their feet, had another wonderful day but just could not finish it off.

Once again, in the post-match analysis, some decisions – both umpiring and captaincy - will be debated and many what-if scenarios will be played out.

Whichever way we look at it, rain could not deprive us of one of the all-time classics in the history of the game. I know I said this only a week ago and it would seem like an overuse of accolades but this game at Old Trafford, rain et al, was every bit as nail-biting as the one at Edgbaston and in my book deserves no less a review. As draws come, this was easily one of the best draws ever and sets up the series just wonderfully at one-all with two to play.

A word of praise for both sides, for the way the players have conducted themselves throughout the series. During the one-day series, the press was quick to pick up an incident involving Matthew Hayden and Simon Jones to predict an ugly, no-holds-barred, hostile Ashes series. While the bowling has been hostile and the batting has been courageous, with neither team giving an inch on the field, there has been no sign of anything but a very respectful camaraderie off it. The memory of Flintoff, in post-Edgbaston glory, going up first to a down-in-the-dumps Brett Lee to give him words of solace symbolizes probably best the spirit in which this series is being played and, in a broader sense, why the somewhat antiquated term of “gentleman’s sport” is still attached to the game of cricket.

If ever Test cricket was in doubt of losing its exalted place to new-kid-on-the-block versions of the game, these doubts must have been firmly laid to bed in the last ten days. What must be most satisfying for English cricket however is that finally cricket is being discussed again in the country, finally it is making it to prominent sections of the newspapers and finally players like Flintoff and Pietersen are gaining eyeball space next to established names like Wayne Rooney. Football will always be the number one sport in England but cricket has done itself absolutely no disservice this summer by throwing up some of the most fascinating and nail-biting games ever seen, and what’s more – for once, England seems to be ahead.

There are ten days to go before the next game at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. Both sides will use this time to rest, to analyse, to re-group and to recover (especially in the case of Australians who have had more than their share of injury worries). Both sides must be acutely aware of the fact that in the last fortnight they have produced something so special on the field that they have already become a part of cricket folklore and that whatever happens from here on, this series will go down in history as the most nerve-racking Ashes series ever.

After three fantastic games, we can safely say we have been spoilt this summer and I will say it again (and hope I am wrong) that “from here on, it can only be downhill”. It is too good to be true – and if Trent Bridge can produce anything close to what we have seen in the last ten days, we should still have a cracker of a game.

Nottingham, here we come !