October 11, 2007

Indian Cricket

No one wrote to the Colonel

Mukul Kesavan
Dilip Vengsarkar faces the media after the announcement of the Indian squads for Ireland and England, New Delhi, June 12, 2007
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Dilip Vengsarkar, the current chairman of selectors, has been in the news, most recently on account of his public warning to India's 'seniors' (read Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid) that they couldn't take their places in the team for granted, that they needed to earn their keep.

Vengsarkar has a habit of shooting his mouth off, but this statement was so unnecessary that it drew a double reproach: one from India's cricket board, asking him to stop making public statements about the team and another from the new captain of India's ODI team, MS Dhoni, who went out of the way to praise the performance of India's veterans, saying categorically that the team had no replacements for them.

And well he might, given that Ganguly's recent form and Tendulkar's, has been outstanding in the one-day game. Dravid's form in the four matches against Australia has been disappointing but he played a couple of outstanding innings against England in the limited overs series that followed the Tests, and given that he voluntarily gave up the captaincy in both forms of the game in the very recent past, he's scarcely the sort of player who needs to be told not to be complacent.

This is unlikely to stop the chairman from offering his opinions to the press because indiscretion has been his watchword since he was appointed to his present office. After his retirement from the game Vengsarkar wrote columns for a while, the copyright for which vested with a company of his devising called Dilip Data Syndicate. He could revive that company to sell his opinions to the newspapers, a sort of rent-a-quote service, so that the remainder of his tenure could be profitably used.

It's not unusual for national selectors to behave oddly. For many it is their return to the limelight from the shadows of retirement, their last reprieve from the obscurity into which all ex-cricketers disappear. Actually, that should read 'used to disappear'. Now, thanks to sports channels and news channels on television, all sorts of cricketers remain in the public eye long after retiring from the game. Nikhil Chopra and Syed Saba Karim, two cricketers with very modest international careers figure in a comic cricket show, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Arun Lal have successful broadcasting careers, Ajay Jadeja overcame scandal and retirement to become a fixture on cricket shows and to figure in celebrity dance competitions and Navjot Singh Siddhu is more than a mere Member of Parliament, he's a cult figure.

But perhaps it's unfair to compare Vengsarkar to these men, who are, after all, much younger than him, players who were still playing at the highest level when the great tide of globalisation came to lift cricketers to levels of fame and wealth unimaginable through the years in which Vengsarkar played his cricket. On the other hand, I can think of players of roughly his generation who remain more vivid in public memory than Vengsarkar. I'm not talking about Gavaskar, who as India's greatest batsman, is an immortal, with whom comparisons are odious. Nor of Kapil Dev, for the same reason. A good player to compare him to is Ravi Shastri.

Like Vengsarkar, Shastri played for Bombay. He was six years younger but he retired from international cricket around the same time as Vengsarkar did, in 1992. Like him, Shastri captained India occasionally without ever becoming captain of India in his own right. Vengsarkar led India for as many as ten Tests, played international cricket for India for sixteen years (as many years as Gavaskar did and five more years than Shastri) and was a part of the side through the glory years in the mid-eighties when it won the world cup in 1983, the so-called world championship of cricket in 1985 and the series against England in 1986, in which triumph Vengsarkar played a leading role.

And yet, the contrast between the current standing of the two couldn't be more marked. Shastri is arguably the most successful cricket commentator India has produced, earlier this year the BCCI was literally begging him to take over the team after the debacle of the World Cup and he has just accepted, on his own terms, the headship of the Board's cricket academy. Vengsarkar, on the other hand, vanished from the minds of the cricketing public for a dozen years and when he returned as chairman of selectors, he courted the attention of the media, something that Shastri accepted as his due. And the cricket academy Vengsarkar runs is is called, forlornly enough, the Elf Academy.





An elegant, pivotal presence at No. 3 in the '80s © Getty Images

It isn't just Shastri. Take Mohinder Amarnath. If Shastri is six years younger than Vengsarkar, Amarnath is six years older. Like Vengsarkar, he had a long career (nearly twenty years of Test cricket with gaps in between) and a Test average just above 42 which is better than good. But Amarnath pops up on television as an expert, as a commentator, as an actor in commercials: he is a figure in the world of cricket, whereas Vengsarkar, before his elevation to the chairmanship was not.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Vengsarkar is a self-effacing sort of fellow, not the pushy sort who courts the media. This is hard to believe given how keen he is to supply soundbytes to the press, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Even so, his post-retirement obscurity is puzzling. Gundappa Viswanath, the most modest, retiring cricketer this country has ever had the good fortune to produce, remains a presence in the cricketing public's mind despite his shyness, in a way that Vengsarkar doesn't. This might have something to do with the fact that Vishy was a genius, but if you look at his figures, he has a lower batting average in Tests than Vengsarkar does, fewer centuries, he played his last ODI a year before India won the World Cup in 1983 and he never experienced the adulation and publicity that Vengsarkar and his team mates did after the coming of network television in 1982. And yet Viswanath has a hold on the affections of Indian cricket fans that Vengsarkar can only dream of.

Vengsarkar's invisibility is puzzling because he was a first-rate cricketer. He scored seventeen Test centuries, many of them to win or save matches for India. He was, after Gavaskar, our finest player of fast-bowling in the '70s and '80s, he helped us win a Test series in the mid-eighties which was our last win there for twenty years, and through his career he was an elegant, pivotal presence at No. 3 in the batting order. He was affectionately called the 'Colonel' because of his organized, near-military bearing and he did score those three splendid centuries at Lord's. He was an unlikely contender for obscurity when he retired, and yet that was his fate.

It may be that India's cricket establishment took too long to call upon his services: the politics of the Indian cricket board are indecipherable to anyone outside its grubby structures. Or it might just be a function of personality: there are people who are instinctively liked and there are others who seem to have had a charm bypass. Whatever the cause of of Dilip Vengsarkar's long years in the wilderness, he would do well to remember that he was a fine player in his time. His reputation will be better served if he uses his past experience and his present eminence to pick the best teams he can instead of picking on great players and playing to the gallery. The regard of posterity should be a greater prize for a cricketer of his standing than fifteen minutes of 'fame'.

This post first appeared as an article in the Kolkata based Telegraph.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi

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Posted by Sam on (November 15, 2007, 5:54 GMT)

Here are a few points to note : 1. It is perfectly fine to give a player a break when he is not in good form. However, the correct way of doing this is to talk to the player 1-1 and explaining the reasoning and reassuring him rather than talking to that player through the media.

While there is lot of talk about emergence of new generation and selfishness of big 3, we should not forget the fact that the big 3 opted out of T20 championship on their own in the interest of the next generation. So, give them credit where it is due.

3. While we need to plan for the future, the way to do it is for the BCCI to have a talk with the senior players on their career plans, their fitness level and expectations. Having a objective discussion and a mutually agreed upon plan would make it easier for everyone and would ensure that those who play for the country have a graceful end to their career rather than being pushed around and sent confusing signals at this juncture in their career. I am sure after a long career, a player, his teammates and fans would like to know when he is playing his last game rather than realize later that he already played his last International match.

Posted by S.R.SHANKAR, Scientist on (November 14, 2007, 18:02 GMT)

Mukul should be complimented for the right criticism on Vengsarkar But his admiration for his capabilty to face pace Bowling is misplaced. As observers of cricket from 70s & 80s would remember,he was not in the same league as Vishwanath,Amarnath, Gavaskar & Sandip Patil when it came to facing fiery pace bowling. His vocal interactions now are as scratchy as his initial tenure at crease. It is amusing when he gave certificate to the peerless Rahul Dravid by quipping" He is a great player-He can comeback" Nevertheless he succeeded in ejecting Dravid out of Indian one day team;-The loss is for the team as he is the best one drop bat in the world -be it oDI or tests For genuine knowledgeable followers, it is paining to see the observers' gallery today filled by arm chair critics, half baked media channels and 20-20 crazy infants. And add to it- The autocratic Western India dominated BCCI officials who have not even played tennis ball cricket; No wonder the seniors like Dravid have to stay withdrawn. The media is in the process of doing a great disservice to Indian cricket which will have catastrophic effects in near future

Posted by Azfar Alam on (November 12, 2007, 10:30 GMT)

Anyone who followed Cricket in the 80's would agree with Mukul that Vengsarkar was a selfish cricketer, certainly not a team man.Hence he proved to be a flop captain also.Sandeep Patil in his book Sandy Storm gives writes about an incident showing how Vengsarkar duped him when they were in their teens. So that's a character trait with the colonel - hitting people below the belt. Mukul is also right that Veng went into virtual obscurity even though he has a good Test Record after retirement. So he is making up now even if that is at the cost of Indian Cricket.

Posted by krish on (November 12, 2007, 6:45 GMT)

Vengsarkar has been getting a lot of flak-some deservedly though. But his comment on the need for seniors to perform or perish is quite appropriate in his capacity as the chief selector. He cannot call each one and warn them that there are rookies waiting on the wings. His ommission of Dravid may seem cruel, but may be a blessing in disguise for the batsman, so that he can concentrate on Test matches. To be honest, his tendency to be aggressive in one-day matches, has has not been timed to the needs of the team. Yet Vengsarkar has to be asked why he took the ageing, media-savvy Murli Karthik back in the team. He was last dropped for his uninspiring performance on the last Pak tour. He announces the surgery to be performed on his shoulder and then announces his readiness to play again! He has had a couple of successful matches on turning tracks- a rarity these days. In spite of that, he has only about 35 wickets in about as many matches, at an economy rate of over 5! We have always had highly rated, underperforming left-arm spinners for the last 3 decades, barring a brief appearance by Sunil Joshi- Maninder Singh, V.Raju and now Murli. What happened to the breed of Left arm spinning all-rounders like Mankad, Surti, Durrani and Ghavri? I don't think they are extict. For one there is promising one in Iqbal Abdulla.

Posted by Brigadier the boos of Colenel on (October 23, 2007, 15:49 GMT)

I think because he stammers he is not that popular.

Posted by sridhar on (October 19, 2007, 13:03 GMT)

I think it boils down to the kind of person you are. As chairman of selectors, the media is in the face of Vengsarkar all the time and does its bit to put words in his mouth! He is accountable for every move the board makes.

As you say, it is probably a function of personality and just that!

Posted by rev on (October 19, 2007, 9:47 GMT)

Avik - perhaps the TV didn't capture it because it's embarrassing to Indians? I've never seen racial vilification on Australian telecasts here but that doesn't mean I deny it happened. If you need proof, I suggest you do a few searches on Google, there are quite a few images of crowd members clearly acting like monkeys. It is apparent you have missed what I am getting at - I don't condone racism in any form and I'm well aware that in the past Australian crowds and players have crossed that very dangerous line. You'll notice though that Lehmann was banned, and following the 'kaffir' taunts, the ICC was called in for an independent investigation and CA admitted that there was a problem to be fixed. Now take a look at the BCCI approach - nothing has happened until the fourth (from memory) time of asking. I do put some of the blame for this at Ponting and CA's feet - they should have stood up for Symonds the first time it happened. As to your other points - 1) Aussie umpiring is now all but irrelevant, with Test matches appointing foreign officals and ODI's with one Aussie/one foreigner. And if you want to be picky, subcontinent umpires weren't that flash back in the day either - perhaps everyone just likes to have a whinge. 2) Never heard the hotel room issue be associated with Australia, but I do recall the BCCI stuffing Sri Lanka around with accommodation in the mid-late-90's, where's the hospitality? 3) Crowds are boorish everywhere. They boo they hiss - and I've been to sub-continent matches at both Mumbai and Hyderabad (sp?) and found little different to Australian crowds. 4) shoulder-before wicket, see pt 1. 5) Last but not least...'accidental beamers'. Mate, if you want to talk accidental beamers, do you happen to know a guy named S.Sreesanth? He oversteps the mark by a couple of feet to deliver those. Talk about turning a blind eye.

Posted by Avik on (October 16, 2007, 14:21 GMT)

Rev, it is surprising that Indian media, and the live telecast of the matches repeatedly failed to record/notice these incidents of 'racism'; and it's only the Australian dailies, with presumably high command over Hindi, bringing the incidents into focus. Racism in all forms need to be abolished; Controlling crowd and player behaviour is a different thing altogether, if you haven't yet forgotten the 'Kaffir' taunts to Nel and the Darren Lehman incident. Offtopic here too, but we know what the Australian Cricket watching crowd is like, and as far as I recall, we never complained against the quality of Aussie umpiring or the crowd behaviour. But then again,since you'd like us to follow your example, we must start talking about the cramped hotel rooms, the boorish Aussie crowd, the 'shoulder-before-wicket' decisions, the regular 'accidental' beamers from Lee, and the like..

Posted by rev on (October 14, 2007, 23:23 GMT)

offtopic I know, but I'm wondering when you and Kamran are going to write articles about the racism against Australia in India (Symonds in particular) and South Africa in Pakistan? God knows had the situations been reversed, every sub-continent dweller under the sun would be screaming the cry of 'racism'. Pathetic.

Posted by Santhosh on (October 13, 2007, 22:05 GMT)

The overhyped reaction to the 20-20 victory is quite amusing. Let's put this in perspective - we have only won playing the peripheral format of a peripheral sport. The tournament itself featured countries with among the least sporting pedigree in the world - India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mukul once said football is a game where men just chase a ball. Well cricket, any form of it, is not much more than throw-and-hit. Although people like Mukul might cling to straws and claim that having to make decisions about the pitch and declarations, makes Test cricket a "superior sport". Mukul and his ilk hardly watch the world's truly superior sports and should refrain from making comments about other sports. Distance brings perspective, Mr Kesavan, but too much distance may make your perspective hazy and distorted

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mukul Kesavan
Mukul Kesavan teaches social history for a living and writes fiction when he can - he is the author of a novel, Looking Through Glass. He's keen on the game but in a non-playing way. With a top score of 14 in neighbourhood cricket and a lively distaste for fast bowling, his credentials for writing about the game are founded on a spectatorial axiom: distance brings perspective. Kesavan's book of cricket - Men in Whitewas published in 2007.

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