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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

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.

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