February 10, 2006

The Belittled Champion – No way to treat a national treasure

H Natarajan

``When you are driving a car you must move on before amber turns red or shut your engine and park aside,'' Sunil Gavaskar once said. What he implied was, either a player saves his career by delivering the goods or quits. What he did not say - but always strongly believed in - was not to give the selectors the opportunity to drop.

Gavaskar maintained in his playing days that he would quit when the going was good. And he did exactly that. And how! His final Test innings was, arguably, the greatest of his fabulous international career: eighth out, for 96, on a treacherous Chinnaswamy Stadium turner where Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed were turning the ball square and made it leap over both the batsmen and ’keeper. The Little Master then chose the MCC Bicentenary World XI vs MCC match at Lord’s as his final first-class outing where he scored to score 188. And for good effect, his last but one innings in One-Day International saw him score a belligerent hundred in a World Cup game. That's what quitting in style is all about.

If Gavaskar scored more Test runs and hundreds than any other batsman in Test history, then Kapil Dev had set a new mark for the most Test wickets. Their respective careers, however, had contrasting endings. Kapil hurtled down from the peak of excellence to the plateau of mediocrity and finally to the precipice of an inglorious exit. In his last seven Test series, not once could he get four wickets in an innings. In four of that seven series his bowling strike rate went well over a 100! It is out of deference to his monumental stature that the selectors, manager (coach) and captain for long adopted a diplomatic public posture – without conviction, though - to justify his retention in the team under the circumstances.

There were no disputes about Kapil's enormous achievement nor were there any doubt about his skills that, in the years gone by, had made him one of the game's premier all-rounders. But no player, however great, can hold his place purely on past performances.

Kapil could have found a place at least in the Indian ODI team on his merits as batsman, but he went without even a half-century in his last 105 ODIs. It was a great fall for a man who gave Tunbridge Wells international recognition by slamming an unconquered 175 after India were 17 for five against Zimbabwe and facing an unceremonious exit from the 1983 World Cup. It was his magnum opus that was principally responsible for helping India to go on to win the trophy and record its finest hour in cricket.

Times have changed since the days of Kapil and it’s humanly not easy for most to give up on crores that players rake in now. The megabucks that come in by way of endorsements are interlinked with mileage they derive as part of the national team. Also, leaving the limelight is never an easy decision. Salim Durrani was a good-looking and flamboyant hero – on the field and on the screen – with a great fan following. But now that he leads a life in Sunset Boulevard, how many would even recognise him when they come face to face with him? In the days bygone when the sport was more of a past-time than a money-spinner, Indian cricketers announced their retirements from international cricket. Players bidding farewell now have become exceptions than the rule.

When Ravi Shastri quit international cricket quite prematurely, Wasim Akram reportedly came up to him and said: ``When I call it a day, I would like to go like you.'' It's better to die a martyr's death than eke out a sympathetic survival. But it’s easier said than done.

The touchy aspect of timing the retirement has surfaced yet again in Indian cricket with a section of the people crucifying Sachin Tendulkar in a very insensitive manner. It’s true that the unalloyed aggression has given way to selective stroke making. Patience has made way for plunder. It’s also true that he is not as consistent as he was in the past. But does that justify baying for his blood? Moin Khan talked through his hat with an insinuation against Tendulkar that has rightfully seen many question both his cricketing intelligence and integrity.

My mind goes back to the cries of apocalypse after Malcolm Marshall knocked the bat out of Gavaskar's grasp in the opening Test at Kanpur of the 1983-84 series. Gavaskar answered the critics in a fitting manner. He plundered a hundred in 94 balls – the fastest by an Indian batsman till Virender Sehwag bettered it on the ongoing tour of Pakistan - in his very next outing and then supplanted the highest-ever Test score by an Indian batsman at Chennai with an innings of 236 after walking in to bat at 0 for two. Not bad against an attack that had Andy Roberts, Marshall, Michael Holding and Winston Davis.

I thought that Tendulkar batted well in the Test matches at Pakistan. One saw no traces of heebie-jeebies in his demeanor. Of the four innings he has played so far in Pakistan, he was twice unlucky. A 100 in 112 balls at Peshawar did not discredit to him by any stretch of imagination. In fact, had an unfortunate umpiring decision not truncated his innings, he could have helped add another 15-20 runs and emerged a hero in India’s victory.

Let’s view Tendulkar’s performances objectively. Since January 2004, he has figured in 38 ODIs and scored three hundreds. But what has got tongues waging is the fact that, in these 38 innings, he has failed to get past the teens in as many as 20 innings. Though he has averaged over 36.77 in this phase, it’s the downswing from his own high standards that’s caused heartburn among a section of the people. Virender Sehwag suffers in comparison, but he has not invited the kind of criticism the “Little Champion” has. In the last 31 ODIs, Sehwag has scored 795 runs at 25.64 with no hundreds and two fifties. But he has escaped censure because of his excellence in the Test matches. But the fact remains that though both masters have been under-performing, they have not looked lost as batsmen tend to in the midst of inevitable poor patches in their careers.

Tendulkar went through a lean trot 2002-03 against New Zealand and Australia when a stretch of 12 innings yielded just 209 runs. But he silenced his critics with successive innings (of 44, 241*, 60* against Australia and 194* vs Pakistan at Multan). Then came another run-famine in which he could score just 136 from 10 innings. Tendulkar came out of that spell with an unbeaten double hundred against Bangladesh and followed it with consecutive scores of 94, 52, 52 and 41 against Pakistan. There’s absolutely no doubt that the old consistency and authority are missing, but there is no need for us to become prophets of doom. Is there anybody remotely close - even with his diminished abilities - to replace him? His highest Test average was 59.17 (in his 93rd match), it’s now 56.14 after 129 outings. His top average in ODIs was 45.35 (324th game); after 35 more ODIs, his average now stands at 44.19.

Let’s compare Tendulkar’s position with Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist. Hayden’s Test average had plummeted from 58.97 in 2004 to 51.31 by the end of the fourth Ashes Test at Trent Bridge last year. But Australia kept faith with Hayden for the final Test. The burly opener, who drew comparisons with Sir Don Bradman not long back, began another hot streak with scores of 138, 0*, 111, 77, 37, 118, 110, 46, 47, 87*. Gilchrist’s Test average plummeted from a 61.48 in 2004 to sub-50 last year. The Australian selectors, who do not hesitate in asking their greats to leave when they feel it’s time to leave, have persisted with Gilchrist. Players like Tendulkar, Hayden and Gilchrist are a class apart and deserve special treatment. Remember: Form is temporary, class is permanent.

I would like to believe that Tendulkar will not stay a minute longer if he doubts his own abilities. Let us treat a man who has given so much for the country with the reverence he deserves. If there is one thing common between Viv Richards and Tendulkar it is their abilities to answer in a manner few can hope to. Somebody is going to pay for the humiliation heaped on Tendulkar. If I were Michael Vaughan, I would be a worried man.

February 05, 2006

Chris Cairns – up there with the best, but…

By H Natarajan

His height and build could have been an asset in making him a powerhouse in rugby. Indeed, he may well have gone on to play for the famous All-Blacks had he sustained his interest in a game that won him a place as a fullback on the national under-17 team against Australia.

But cricket was Chris Cairns’s calling card – a game which his father, Lance, had played with distinction for New Zealand. Cairns Sr was just four years into retirement when his son Chris followed him into the New Zealand side. The son was talented, but when he looks back at his 16-year-old international career, it would be with an unmistakable sense of remorse – even if he does not publicly admit it. From the time he made his debut as a precocious youngster till the time he bade farewell, he had figured in 62 Tests. But what is staggering is that in the intervening years he missed out on 55 Tests, primarily because of a plethora of injuries ranging from back, knee, shoulder and groin problems, stress fractures, kidney ailment, ruptured spleen etc.

Cairns chose to end his Test career in mid-2004 against England at his adopted home away from home - Nottinghamshire. And despite missing so many matches, he finished alongside Sir Garfield Sobers, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan, Ian Botham, Sir Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock in the exclusive club of Test all-rounders with 3000 runs and 200 wickets. It was widely believed that he would take one last crack at the World Cup and try and help his nation the one title they had always promised to win but never managed to. But with just about a year to go for the quadrennial showpiece in the Caribbean Islands, Cairns brought an unexpected end to his international career by exiting the overs-limit format as well. The abridged version was right up his alley and at the time of retirement he had played 215 ODIs in which he took 201 wickets and just 50 runs short of completing 5000 runs - a double only Sanath Jayasuriya and Jacques Kallis have achieved.

One of the abiding memories I have of Cairns came at Pune 10 years back. India and New Zealand were locked 1-1 coming into the fourth and penultimate One-Day International of the series. New Zealand chose to bat first but got into big trouble losing their top four best batsmen - Nathan Astle, Mark Greatbatch, Martin Crowe and Stephen Fleming - with just 75 on the board. In walked Cairns into the crisis and pummeled into submission an attack comprising Javagal Srinath, Manoj Prabhakar, Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble with pyrotechnics as brilliant as any that I had ever seen. He hammered 103 off just 87 balls and added 147 for the fifth with Roger Twose. Cairns was not through. He came back to pick up three of the five Indian wickets that fell (Prabhakar, Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja) for 37 runs in his quota of ten overs, but his fantastic all-round effort was not good enough to win the match for his team. It’s was a script not too unfamiliar in his international cricket career.

New Zealand’s biggest win on the world stage was Champions Trophy title at Nairobi, Kenya, in 2000. The mastermind of that victory was Cairns who scored a man-of-the-match-winning 102 in the final against India after his team was in trouble at 132 for five, chasing a target of 265.

Cairns's piece de resistance came on the tour of England in 1999. His 6-76 saw New Zealand's win by nine wickets at Lord's and in the decider at The Oval he got 5-31 in the England second innings to raise New Zealand’s hopes of a series victory. But that looked a distant dream as New Zealand were reeling at 39 for six – just 122 ahead - when Cairns came in to bat. When he was finally dismissed, he had scored 80 from 93 balls. Craig McMillan with 26 and two other batsmen with ten each were the only others to get into double figures. Cairns’s counter attack shattered England’s spirit as the hosts lost the Test and the series in which the Cairns played a decisive role with both bat and ball.

On his day, he can be as devastating as the best batsmen in the world. He can be audacious as well. He once took on Shane Warne facing the square leg, and drove the ball straight out of the ground over the square leg for a six!

The 87 sixes he hit in his Test career is a world record that he shares with Adam Gilchrist but in a lot fewer innings than the Aussie. He is also among the handful who has hammered over 100 sixes in ODIs – 153 to be precise. The skill and aggression were genetic blessings from his dad. Lance Cairns, at one point of time, held the fastest half-century in ODI, reaching the mark in 21 balls against an Australia attack of Dennis Lillee, Geoff Lawson and Rodney Hogg at Melbourne in 1982-83 and is the only player with a minimum of 20 ODI appearances to retire with a 100-plus batting strike-rate.

The younger Cairns was a flawed genius, in some ways similar to George Best that would have made him an interesting subject for psychoanalytical study. Cairns had a major row with coach Glenn Turner that led to his infamous walk-out on the 1995-96 tour to the West Indies and then there was also the infamous incident when he reportedly came back in an inebriated state in the wee hours of morning during the course of a Test match. Probably what he needed was a father figure like manager who would him and got the best out of him - someone like Matt Busby who nurtured the maverick Best.

Cairns leaves with lots of memories to cherish, but one cannot help feeling what he could have achieved had he not missed so many matches. I would like to quote what S Rajesh, my friend and a wizard with cricket numbers, has to say: “New Zealand played 119 Tests since Cairns's debut, of which he didn't play in 57. Extrapolate his rate of scoring runs and taking wickets, and Cairns would have ended with career stats of 6372 runs and 418 wickets, becoming the only man to achieve the 6000-run and 400-wicket double.”

It’s a pity that such a talented player has left the world stage as a relative under-achiever.