January 18, 2007

Indian cricket in rewind mode

By H Natarajan

The idiosyncrasies of Indian cricket are distinctly unique. No cricketing nation manages such exhilarating highs, only to follow it up with abysmal lows in incredibly quick time. The reverse is also true. And it’s not a characteristic exclusive to this Indian side under Rahul Dravid or, for that matter, since the side came under Greg Chappell tutelage. There is a historic ring to this strange truism in Indian cricket.

Another unflattering characteristic of the Indian cricket is to produce fast bowlers who are arrive on the scene as genuine quickies, but who ease themselves into the medium pace category fairly quickly. It’s a disturbing trend and something that is in sharp contrast to the happenings around the world over where young pacemen bowl faster with growing experience and fitness levels.

In both the examples stated, it’s obvious that skills cannot be in question. So where is the problem? Is it in the attitude? Are the players taking things for granted? Do they ease themselves into comfort zones? Do they feel indispensable?

Maybe there is truth in all the points. But then it’s in this very team that we also have players like Anil Kumble and Dravid, to name just two, who have been exemplary team men with an inspirational attitude that has remained consistent right through their long and meritorious career.

The yo-yo effect in Indian cricket was seen in all its inglorious ways on the recent tour of South Africa where the side came back from a disastrous one-day series to post a fantastic Test win at Jo’burg. What followed was an immediate slump in the next Test at Durban and which finally culminated in that infamous missed opportunity at Cape Town. Patience was wearing thin. The axe effect was on the cards. And it has happened.

Virender Sehwag, who was given one of the longest ropes ever in Indian cricket history, was dropped. Even a quick Ranji Trophy hundred against Haryana immediately after returning home did not save him from the guillotine when the one-day squad to take on West Indies was announced.

The information that I have from people in the know-how of things is that the Board intends to get tough. It remains to be seen if intent is translated into consistent action, but a start seems to have been made. Sehwag’s attitude has been in question for a while. The writing was on the wall when he was stripped of the vice-captaincy after the one-day series. Any surprise with regard to his exclusion now is that it has taken longer than expected.

Reportedly, he is not the only player whose attitude is in question. And progressive men in the Board realize that the message has to sink into the players that it’s not Chappell but players with poor and questionable attitude as well as those who bask on past performances than present form that will have to go. That is exactly how it should be. On the one hand, it’s standing by a professional coach with high-degree skills as player and coach and on the other hand, getting the message across that it will not stand up for anything unacceptable that is counter productive to the larger interests of the team.

The selectors even had a subtle message for Dravid when naming Tendulkar as his deputy. Dravid’s captaincy came under the scanner during the South African tour and some of his decisions – especially in the decisive third Test – were contentious and unproductive. If the selectors feel that he is not pulling in his weight as captain, a change may be necessary.

The vice captaincy is bestowed on someone young who is groomed to take over as captain when the reigning captain retires, resigns or is sacked. But it’s an indication of the sorry state of things in Indian cricket that the selectors had to go back to Tendulkar, who is not only much older than Dravid but also someone who did not exactly distinguished himself as a captain.

Mohammad Kaif, who led India to victory in the World Youth Cup, would have been a good choice to take over as captain, but he has never been seriously considered as a Test player even after close to seven years in international cricket. In fact, he has played just 13 Tests. He was not long back dropped after scoring 91 against Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff. And on the tour of the West Indies last year, he scored 148 not out at St Lucia, but lasted just two more Tests and has not played any Tests since returning from the tour. Contrast that against the chances other players in the team have got despite repeated failures and a clearer picture will emerge.

Sehwag, who was favoured ahead of Kaif for the vice captaincy, did not endear himself to the selectors as someone who can be counted upon as a leader of men. Subsequently, he has even lost his place in the team.

VVS Laxman was more of a stop-gap vice captain during the recent Test series. Dilip Vengsarkar, the selection committee chairman, has been openly critical of Laxman's fitness and running between the wickets. He is not in the one-day side for the matches against West Indies and, unless things deteriorate further for India between now and the World Cup, Laxman may well end his international career without ever biggest one-day championship in cricket.

Kumble’s slowing reflexes have also not appealed to the selectors while Ganguly has just earned a comeback and thus cannot even be certain of a place in the side.

Under the circumstances, Yuvraj Singh would have been the best candidate for the vice captaincy. He has age on his side and the necessary experience to take over the mantle of captaincy. Unfortunately, he has been rendered hors de combat and out in the sidelines. It would come as no surprise to me if he does not make it to the World Cup. It’s a serious injury that takes a very long time. Injudicious haste in coming back would only meet the fate that Ravi Shastri met at the 1992 World Cup. And that’s something Dr Anant Joshi, who also attended on Shastri prior to that World Cup, will impress upon Yuvraj as he make a frantic bid to get fit before the quadrennial showpiece.

Tendulkar’s stature to be a question is beyond question. He commands the highest respect of every member in the team. But the big question mark is: Will he be able to hold his place in the team till the World Cup? The pressure is unquestionably mounting on Tendulkar with every passing day and the great man faces a huge challenge ahead as a player.

Indian cricket has taken several steps in recent times that cannot exactly be termed progressive – be it the reinstatement of several senior players or the choices and switching of several vice captains. While most of the recalled players have justified their inclusions, the fact remains that it would not have happened if talented young players were making forceful claims. What is particularly sad is that Irfan Pathan, one of the biggest talents that the nation was blessed with in recent times, has far too suddenly and inexplicably lost his way and confidence.

This Indian team, to make matters worse, is far from a cohesive unit. It’s a deep-rooted malaise in Indian cricket of a different era when there was strong North-West divide within the team. Modern cricket has no place for such elements. Unless the rot is weeded out from the roots, it can only spread and cause extensive damage, far greater than it has.

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