March 10, 2006

Under-pressure Chappell should watch for political minefields

By H Natarajan

Wittingly or unwittingly, rightly or wrongly, Greg Chappell has given the impression that his differences with Sourav Ganguly are personal. Ever since the issue came to a head in Zimbabwe and polarised the nation like no other matter since the betting and match-fixing scandal, Ganguly has slowly metamorphosed from villain to a martyr.

The man perceived as taking advantage of his proximity to then Board heavyweight Jagmohan Dalmiya, the captain who under siege was written about as having adopted divide and rule tactics, the batsman who was increasingly seen as employing self-preservation measures over the larger interests of the team…well, that and many more accusations have receded in the background as Chappell’s lack of diplomacy in the public domain is viewed by growing number of dispassionate observers as a personal agenda to end the fiery Kolkatan’s international career.
Being frank is one thing and being imperiously aggressive is another matter; there is a subtle but important difference. The mask first dropped from the Aussie’s face when he needlessly made an uncharitable remark in that famous email against his predecessor, John Wright. And in that same email of his to the BCCI, Chappell wrote that he tried to ascertain from team members “what they had thought of Sourav's retirement”. Both showed him in poor light.

Then there was his obscene, one-finger signal to pro-Ganguly supporters, something that was unconvincingly covered up by the team’s media manager. Ironically, Chappell admitted he made that obscene gesture! The vulgar sign may be no big deal in Australia, but Indian culture is far different from the culture prevailing in Australia. In India, one does not publicly see – much less accept - an elderly gentleman of public authority and standing reacting in the manner Chappell did when making the obscene gesture.

Chappell’s latest faux pas came in his interview to The Guardian’s cricket correspondent, former England fast bowler Mike Selvey. To say “…I didn't realise at that stage was how utterly important to his life and finances being captain…” was disgusting. What’s even more galling is that the statement was far from the truth. Ganguly is a very affluent man even before the riches he earned from the game and from the endorsements added many more zeroes to his family’s enormous wealth. Chappell may not have meant what he said, but there was no ambiguity in the way it came across in the interview and understood by those who read it. Chappell’s comments were otherwise honest and typically straight from the heart, though some of the things he said were best avoided.

The interview ensured that the spotlight turned on the interviewer, forcing Selvey to write another article of the after-shocks in The Guardian, headlined: How I Knocked George Bush off the news.”

The controversial interview has stoked the embers of the row between the coach and the man unceremoniously sacked, adding another sordid chapter that is doing Indian cricket no good. Chappell has done himself enormous disservice by bringing upon him – and the team he coaches – undue pressure. The quote-hungry media is always on the prowl and a section of them who believe Ganguly has been wronged by the coach may provoke him into saying something similarly controversial. Should that happen again, it could be curtains for the Aussie. And that is something Indian cricket can ill-afford, with the World Cup just a year from now.

Even if Chappell is cautious, there is no guarantee that Ganguly will let bygones be bygones. The missive he sent to the BCCI following the interview may have forced BCCI chief Sharad Pawar to warn the coach from making personal statements, but one fears that there may not be a swift end to the latest controversy. Dalmiya has not left anybody in doubt that he wants to politicise the issue by leading the charge in the garb of Cricket Association of Bengal President. The Leftists are making the predictable noises. The usual suspects apart, there is a buzz that Ganguly may seek legal recourse to fight Chappell. So, the chapter that was deemed “closed” by BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah may well be kept open by Ganguly-Dalmiya-Leftists combine to make life miserable for Chappell and, in the bargain, for Indian cricket.

Both Chappell and Ganguly are outspoken men and strong personalities. These qualities has projected them as men of valor at times, but there is a thin dividing line between what is temperate and what is not, what is unacceptable and what is not. Both men have been guilty of transgressions into forbidden territories. And that, sadly, has dented their stature as leaders.

The men at the helm of the BCCI have also sent out confusing signals which has not helped matters. Selection committee chairman was reported in the media as saying that his panel will not look back, clearly implying that the doors are shut for Ganguly. But an unnamed BCCI member was quoted in The Telegraph as saying that “we won’t interfere with the selection process, but the chairman (Kiran More) can’t decide on policy…. It’s for the president (Sharad Pawar) or the working committee to lay down what needs to be done…. At no time have we suggested current form and performance won’t be taken into account.”

After the emergency meeting at Nagpur with senior Indian players, Chappell and other Board officials, Pawar himself was categorical when he said: “ far as Sourav Ganguly is concerned, I am sure he will overcome his weakness and will be back in the team. No one can stop him.”

Pawar’s words will not be music to Chappell’s ears. The presentation theme of "Commitment To Excellence" is what got Chappell the job as India coach till the end of the 2007 World Cup. He has to ensure that commitment encompasses discharging his duties in a manner that is seen as fair to the players, as individuals and as a team.

Indian cricket is inextricably mired in regional politics which has a tendency to echo in the corridors of political power. Chappell would do well to appreciate that and stay clear of the political minefields, something he hasn’t been successful so far. If he continues fails to tread this path, it can only bring him and the team certain disaster, even if his acumen as a cricket coach is the best in the world.