March 28, 2007

Indian cricket needs to look inward

By H Natarajan

World Cup 2007 was a monumental disaster for India. And, predictably, everybody is pointing fingers at everybody. Yet, very few are looking inward – and that includes the cricket administrators and the common man on the street.

If Indian cricket was administered like a corporate, as it should be, the pressure would have been on Sharad Pawar as the chief of the board. The statements made by the BCCI boss, since India’s ignominious exit from the World Cup, is one of confusion. And that only mirrors the state of Indian cricket. Pawar first said that he would take “harsh measures”. Few days later, he stated that India’s exit was “not a debacle” and instead blamed it on the pre-World Cup hype and hoopla by fans and the media. While Pawar’s second statement does have merit, the more serious reasons are elsewhere.

This is not to single out Pawar, whose administration has taken more progressive steps than many of the earlier regimes. Most of India’s problems have been in existence long before Pawar came into the BCCI fold. One of the endemic problems in Indian cricket is that the best team is rarely picked because of narrow, regional interests. Will the board members who have launched sensational broadside against the team, take a public oath and get others in the board to do the same that they will not interfere in matters of team selection and shun parochialism of any kind? That is looking inward.

The selection of the team for the World Cup generated the kind of anger that has few parallels in Indian cricket. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the team was not what Greg Chappell wanted. I guess it does not require a Sherlock Holmes to unravel the names of players the coach was not in favour of. Now that the team has flopped miserably to not only cause nationwide anger but also affect several thousands crores in terms of business, will those responsible for the flop stars have the gumption to admit their mistakes publicly? That is looking inwards.

Manager Chetan Desai’s report following India’s tour of South Africa needed serious introspection. Desai may have erred in advising the team management on selection matters, but he has to be lauded for his courage to write about the Sehwag-Chappell spat in his tour report. The manager stood in contrast to those who pandered to the players to be in their good books. But Desai faced scorn. It was shocking to find Rahul Dravid questioning Desai’s credentials.

The Indian captain’s unshakable faith in Virender Sehwag was hard to comprehend despite getting just one score above 20 successive ODI innings prior to the World Cup. When a player gets so many chances, he has to come good at some time. But is that fair to performing players waiting in the sidelines.

Had India included Ramesh Powar, things may well have been different. But Indian cricket is run like a private limited company. There is a very unhealthy protectionism of the senior players and that is evident in the manner Sehwag and the consistently non-performing Harbhajan have been retained at the expense of more deserving players. Harbhajan was a total flop. Will the persons responsible for his selection raise their hands? That’s looking inwards.

Indian cricket will make progress when it believes in accountability. The board may be a private body, but the players represent the nation. It’s national honour at stake.

What about the public? Extreme reactions are not doing any good to the game or the players. In what way are the fans helping Indian cricket or Indian cricketers if they are going to cause physical harm to their innocent family members or their properties? It’s also very well for fans to contrast the corporate functioning of Cricket Australia to the archaic BCCI, but they should also look at how disturbingly different they are compared to the Aussie fans when it comes to accepting losses. That’s looking inward.

What would be the percentage of Sachin Tendulkar fans that will accept that their hero is well past his best? How many will accept graciously the decision to drop him, should the selectors take that step in an effort to build a team for the future? I dare say, very few. That is because, as a nation, we place greater emphasis on individuals than the team. Cricket Australia has a history of asking their best players to make graceful exits. For them, its national interest and the nation’s future that matters most. They do not believe in players surviving on past glory. That is looking inward.

One increasingly gets the feeling that Greg Chappell will be one of the sacrificial goats. When the high priests sit on judgment of the coach, they need to set their personal preferences and prejudices aside. They need to find out if the coach was given the team he wanted. They have to get from him an honest assessment of the team and the individuals. Both John Wright and Chappell have been thorough pros whose only agenda was to improve Indian cricket. Were they given the free hand to discharge their duties, or were they challenged by aggressive forces within the team and stymied by political forces outside?

This is not the first time India has lost to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The losses may well have been forgotten had India advanced in the World Cup. If India has to learn their lessons from this World Cup, it has to take tough measures that may not be entirely popular. Therein resides a new hope for Indian cricket.

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