June 15, 2014

Vishy or Sunny? Venky or Pras?

What sort of interminable arguments have you had with your friends and relatives about cricketers?

When it comes to fans comparing favourite players, expect no balance © PA Photos

If Indians are an argumentative lot, as Amartya Sen would have it, the southern variety of the species is perhaps even more so.

Belying their reputation for gentleness, cricket fans in Bangalore and Chennai back in the 1970s were passionate and often quite intemperate when it came to debating matters relating to the game. The topics ranged far and wide - the comparative merits of individual players, which team was the best in the world, who was the greatest allrounder to have played the game, which bowler was the fastest ever, and so on.

In the pre-television era, without ICC rankings, and before the smartphone gave you access to ESPNcricinfo's database in a jiffy, let's just say that many of these debates were unburdened by facts and enabled by imagination.

Three topics seemed to be staples during my time as a schoolboy down south back in the 1970s: Was Gavaskar a better batsman than Viswanath? Who was the better offspinner: Prasanna or Venkataraghavan? And was Pataudi the better captain, or was it Wadekar? A lot, of course, hinged on the term "better" and the absence of clear-cut rules on debating protocols made for both endless argumentation and a lot of entertainment.

While Gavaskar won the statistical battle over Vishy hands down, supporters of the latter immediately widened the debate to include matters of style, scoring when it counts, difficulty of conditions, and a host of other factors. To which, predictably, Sunny's supporters would point out the immense burden of opening the batting, facing fresh bowlers with hard, new cherries in hand, and often doing so after many hours of toil in the field with just a ten-minute interval in between. In essence, though, the debate was really one of style versus technique: Gavaskar was copybook perfect, while Vishy was the outrageous improviser whose batting inevitably had that element of added risk.

Almost imperceptibly, as the impossibility of settling the matter through recourse to statistics or other hard evidence became obvious, the argument would increase in vehemence and begin to lose integrity. Disparaging comments about Vishy's girth would be countered with allusions to Sunny's notorious go-slow in the inaugural match of the 1975 World Cup; and the former's selflessness contrasted with the latter's allegedly relentless pursuit of records. I don't think a single mind was changed in the course of these interminable debates - but then again that may not have been the point at all.

I generally knew it was time to head home around the point when the debate degenerated into who was the handsomer of the two offspinners, or which one had better sideburns

While Prasanna's Test record as bowler definitely outdoes Venky's, the latter's supporters found plenty of material to work with in arguing for their man. For one thing, Venky was by some distance the better fielder (being especially fabulous in the gully) compared to the portly Pras, of whom the best that could be said was that he rarely dropped dollies. And as a batsman Venkat was clearly superior. Prasanna's supporters would energetically try to confine the debate to who was the better bowler, only to have their restrictions trampled on by Venky's fans, who widened the terms of reference to other skills.

Older friends, claiming access to esoteric inside information, would suggest the miserly Venky took fewer wickets because his job was that of a container, while the more profligate Prasanna got more scalps as captains indulged his preference to buy his wickets with runs. It was all evidently part of a deep division of labour that we neophytes were clueless about. Such efforts to defuse the argument rarely got anywhere and it resumed with renewed vigour after such momentarily puzzling interludes. I generally knew it was time to head home around the point when the debate degenerated into who was the handsomer of the two offspinners, or which one had better sideburns.

Fans of my generation had pretty much got used to the idea of the Nawab of Pataudi as the permanent captain of the Indian team (sort of like the divine right of kings being extended to cricket as well) when he was suddenly replaced by Wadekar for the tour to the West Indies in 1971. As everyone well knows, Wadekar's team proceeded to beat West Indies and then the English on their home turf - events that each have the same frequency as the coming of Halley's Comet. Fans of the Noob immediately attributed Wadekar's success to a variety of reasons, none of them having anything to do with his acumen as a captain. West Indies were a team in transition; had it not been for the weather, the series in England might well have ended 2-1 in their favour; Wadekar was plain lucky and tactical nous had nothing to do with it, and so on.

The Bombay left-hander's fans countered such allegations by simply pointing out that India won three successive Test series with their man at the helm - surely luck could not explain them all. Moreover, Pataudi was a poor captain because he was an aloof aristocrat, whereas the commoner Wadekar clearly had all his men behind him in a unified cause.

This was one debate soon overtaken by events on the ground. Wadekar's team copped one of the worst hidings ever during their 1974 tour of England. His own lack of form, and the obvious dissent in the ranks, ended his cricketing career abruptly and certainly left a dark cloud over his legacy as captain.

The Nawab didn't fare much better on his return to the captaincy for the home series against Clive Lloyd's West Indies in 1974-75, though there were plenty of glimpses of his legendary ability to read the game, the opponent, and to set the appropriate traps. India fought gamely to square the series after falling behind 2-0, but they did eventually lose the fifth and final Test. More importantly, it was clear Pataudi was done as a Test batsman when the fierce pace of Andy Roberts proved too hot for him to handle. Less than a year after Wadekar's ignominious exit, Pataudi followed him into the sunset.

Somehow the issue of India's captaincy has never seemed quite so charged in all the decades since.

I don't think such arguments have disappeared by any means. A look at ESPNcricinfo's comments section, or the vehement postings on various blogs on the respective merits of Tendulkar and Dravid, or Kallis' place in Test history, would confirm that they have merely moved from vis-à-vis encounters to cyberspace. I will, however, say that the present depersonalised dispensation is significantly better than the old days in one respect: nowadays, when you run into a troll online you just click another link and move on. Back then, the troll was your neighbour (or even closer home) and neither of you could escape the other quite so easily.

Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu

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