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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

Passage to India

After the excitement of the India-Pak series, it has been a very quiet period for Indian cricket. There has been nothing happening on the field and the next big game is still a couple of months away.

During this “lean” period, it is interesting to observe how the Indian media fills its space. There is absolutely no doubt that cricket occupies reams of newspaper space and hours of TV coverage in India when the game is on. So it must be somewhat difficult for the media to find enough material to keep its space filled. But the media is nothing if not persistent, and knows that, for anything even remotely cricket-related that it churns out, there is some cricket-crazy chump out there who will lap it up and be happy with that dose for the day.

I am just back from a visit to India and can vouch for this, first-hand. I spent about eighteen days in the country, almost all of them in Bangalore and was, as usual, hungry for all news Indian. India seems to have this effect on me – although, in today’s world, I can quite easily keep in touch with happenings in India from outside the country, I tend not to be very good at this. But once I land in India, I devour every issue of every magazine that I can get hold of – from India Today to The Week to Outlook. Much of the news is the same – there is just a different take in each magazine, which usually underlines its leanings.

This time was no different – and in addition to the time I spent reading I also spent a lot of time watching TV. Not prime time because that was spent with my family (that being the main purpose of my visit) but the time that I had purely to myself. Blame it on the soaring summer temperatures, even in Bangalore, but staying indoors and lazing in front of the TV often seemed to be the most desirable course of action. I had never seen Bangalore this hot in the month of May and complained to family that Bangalore was becoming like Chennai – that was till I landed in Chennai for a day on my way out of India. Chennai was like a smoldering cauldron and suddenly Bangalore felt like heaven. I had heard in the news that Hyderabad and parts of Northern India were enjoying temperatures upward of forty-three degrees Celsius and my thoughts went out to Anoop and others in such places. I had absolutely no reason to complain.

Sitting in front of the idiot box I suddenly realized how much of a misfit I am in today’s India. There are a whole lot of channels to choose from nowadays and yet I am most certainly not the target viewer for most of these channels. While in India, I do not want to watch English films or serials – I get plenty of that outside India. I want to watch Indian programmes – but neither can I sit through Indian soaps (most of them seem to have somebody eavesdropping on somebody) nor can I enjoy the rushes of the latest Bollywood films, most of which comprise of heavy dance and music numbers that tend to be so repetitive that they end up giving me a headache. After all, there is only so much of Esha Deol in Kaal that you can take. If you zap, you are most likely to see Amitabh Bachchan – not so much in a film but in some advert or the other.

It is most certainly not the fault of the channel programming – it is me. India has become a completely different place from the one I left years ago and I need to recognize this. TV caters to common interest and my interests are becoming increasingly uncommon.

Having said that I still managed to catch some programmes of my interest. Ironically, many of them were on Doordarshan – the channel most persons love to hate. I can always depend on Doordarshan to instill nostalgia in me. Many of their programs still have a feeling of the seventies or eighties in them – which for me, was not such a bad thing. They had a decent tribute to music composer Khayyam – I thoroughly enjoyed this as they played snippets from some of his classics of yesteryear.

I also managed to catch some Indian football on TV, which was real fun. I get to see a lot of European football and, after watching clubs like Man United and Barcelona, it was interesting, for a change, to see Indian clubs battling it out on the field. One thing is for sure – the quality of the football may not be comparable but the heart and spirit which the Indian players showed was fantastic to watch and I must salute these players. They earn much less than their cricketing counterparts but are no less deserving of praise. It brought back many fond memories of the 1970s when, growing up in Eastern India, I used to religiously follow the football league scores in Kolkata (then Calcutta) – especially the scores of the big three, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. Football was a religion in Calcutta then – I am not sure whether it is still the same. Between the exploits of Surajit Sengupta, Subhash Bhowmick, Prasanta and Prasun Banerjee and, not to forget, the famous brothers, Mohammad Habib and Akbar (both played for Mohammedan Sporting with great distinction), there was plenty to cheer for a football fan. They may not have been world-beaters but they won many hearts in their local stronghold.

This is all very well but what cricket did I catch ?

I was most fortunate to be able to catch one of the most amazing end-games that I have ever seen. It was rather late at night but this Windies-Saffies one-dayer at the Kensington Oval seemed to have something extra about it. The game went back and forth and Chris Gayle’s batting made it look like a game worth watching. So I stayed up - and was amply rewarded when the game took an extraordinary twist in the last over. The Windies had all but sealed the game but, out of nowhere, Charl Langeveldt came up with some decent deliveries and got a hat-trick, the Windies contributed to their downfall with some atrocious batting and the game finished with the Saffies winning by one run off the penultimate ball. Very exciting stuff although I felt really sorry for the Windies supporters and the players in the pavilion. The tense look on their faces during the last few deliveries and the way they had their head in their hands when it was all over – you had to feel for them. A couple of individual performances notwithstanding, from a team point of view everything had been going wrong for them and again they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Something just does not seem to be right.

On the Indian cricket scene, since there was not much happening, the news was about things off the field. The ICC World XI to take on the Aussies was announced – and the big news was that Saurav Ganguly did not make the cut. But, as he himself quite modestly admitted, on current form, he did not deserve a place in the side. So that was that. No big controversy, no big story.

Another news item was an ICC proposal to change some of the rules of one-day cricket to make it more interesting. I am not aware of all the details but I know that there are changes proposed on the first 15-over field setting and something to do with allowing 12 players to be part of a side, with one as reserve who can come in – something like in football. Surprisingly, I did not come across much coverage on this subject.

To keep cricket news alive in their columns, some newspapers reported on the activities of players in their non-playing season. So Saurav is presumably on holiday in Europe, Sachin on holiday in the US and Dravid too on holiday abroad (I think it was South Africa but I am not sure). None of them is in India – and looking at the mercury levels, I am not surprised. One can only hope that they enjoy their holidays with their families and are fully rested before the next season starts. The news item about Saurav’s holiday in Europe said that he would be at the French Open in Roland Garros, Paris to support Sania Mirza. Sachin was also presumably at the Formula One Grand Prix at Barcelona to support Kartikeyan. Looking at the fate that befell both these sports personalities at the concerned events, perhaps Indian cricketers are just not lucky for Indian sport.

By far the biggest sports news item when I was in India was speculation about the next coach of the Indian (or should this be BCCI) cricket team. It hogged the news headlines – not just on the sports pages but also on the main pages of almost all newspapers. Not to mention the continuous TV coverage on the subject. I doubt if ever so much interest has been evinced in the media of any country on the selection of a coach – for any sport. Clearly there was not much else to report about – so this became the numero uno subject for one and all.

Every day there would be speculation about the subject – and contenders would keep cropping up. Greg Chappell was always one of the leading contenders and all comments, supposedly attributed to the BCCI, seemed to only make the case for him easier. Thus an “informed BCCI source” said that money would not be an issue for the right candidate. Another “reliable BCCI source” said that “it was felt that the players would respect a coach who had himself been a very successful player” or words to that effect. Another “informed BCCI source” said that the first preference was likely to be a foreign coach. Put one and one and one together and you cannot help feeling that it was like a game of dumb charades being played. The answer was known upfront – clues were being given to tease a hungry public.

It did make for a lot of amusing reading and coverage though. A lot of persons are supposed to have said a lot on the subject. Sunny Gavaskar, in his characteristic style, is supposed to have said something like “I don’t think the coach makes much of a difference anyway.” Chandu Borde is supposed to have said “How can a coach teach somebody like Anil Kumble bowling ?”

Anybody and everybody seemed to have an opinion. There was the familiar question of “foreign coach or Indian coach”. Opinion was divided on this. There was even a comment “A foreign coach will be better but we should have an Indian coach”. Somebody please explain that to me.

The list of candidates seemed to change every day. Mohinder Amarnath, in an interview with a magazine or on a TV channel, expressed his desire to coach the Indian team. The next thing you knew he was a candidate. The BCCI announced four names and kept a couple of names secret. I wonder why. Then Sandeep Patil dropped out and suddenly the BCCI announced that Desmond Haynes was a candidate. What were his credentials ? Well, he did not have any experience worth mentioning but, being West Indian, maybe he would be able to help the Indian team for the next World Cup in the Caribbean ? The BCCI clearly said that when Sandeep Patil dropped out they needed to fill his spot, so they decided to include Haynes in the race. It could not have been very comforting for Haynes to think that he was making up the numbers.

Somewhere along the line, Sir Viv Richards, who like Mohinder Amarnath became a candidate when he talked to the media about not being uninterested in coaching the Indian side, fell out of favour for the position. I do not remember when this happened and do not care to remember.

Then Venkatesh Prasad, who has just armed himself with an advanced coaching degree from the UK, threw in his lot in the ring – not so much as the national coach but possibly as the bowling coach for the team. Maybe, if given the chance, he could be a worthy successor to Bruce Reid and Wasim Akram. Why is it that I am not very much convinced about this ?

Then, just about a day before D-day, you suddenly had Balwinder Singh Sandhu (of World Cup 83 clean bowling Gordon Greenidge fame) putting his hand up to be counted as a candidate. He admitted that it was a bit late but thought he could be a good coach. If not given the job of the national coach, he would even be happy with the job of bowling coach.

All this while, Tom Moody was the other foreign coach in contention. His own track record at international level was nowhere as solid as Greg Chappell’s but he had earned tremendous respect in Worcestershire and came with relative youth and experience. He was also apparently the preference of most senior players (except Ganguly who apparently wanted Chappell).

All in all, without a ball being bowled on the field, this was a wonderful soap to follow. Sometimes you did not know whether to laugh or to cry – the situation was so ludicrous. Possibly never more so than when, as soon as Chappell was announced as coach, a leading news channel immediately began getting opinions – and one of the first persons I saw on TV was none other than Saba Karim, former Indian wicketkeeper, talking from the streets of Kolkata on his mobile phone to the channel.

That was when I decided I had had enough.

Chappell, usually circumspect but for once grinning from ear-to-ear, was immediately garlanded in typical Indian neta style. Amarnath initially seemed to take the decision of the BCCI in his stride but later, in typical style, lashed out at them for having bought a “presentation”.

As I was leaving India, I had my usual pangs of pain – at leaving family. It is always difficult. However on another level, I left India a much more relaxed man. So what if I am out of tune with the official entertainment dished out by the Indian media. The unofficial entertainment, all spontaneous, easily more than makes up for it and is in fact what makes India so charming. On one level a lot of things have changed. Yet, in some respects, things are still the same.

I can never be out of place in India.

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