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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).

1 comment:

gogarbaba said...

Hi Raja
enjoyed your account.