February 22, 2000

Down and out, Indian cricket has no place to go but up

The history of Indian cricket is riddled with phases of turmoil. The sending back of Lala Amarnath from England in 1936 as a discplinary measure, the well publicised war of words between Indian captain Amarnath and BCCI president De Mello in 1949, the period of turbulence in the 1958-59 season which saw four players lead India in five Tests, the sordid happenings, on and off the field during the disastrous 1974 tour of England, the clash of the titans (Kapil Dev vs Sunil Gavaskar) ten years later. So the situation now may evoke a feeling of deja vu among cricket fans. But the shock waves in the latest tragic episode of Indian cricket are the kind that threaten to rip apart the very fabric of the game in India.

The latest episode has the overtones of a Shakesperian tragedy and has as many characters as they are in the Mahabharata. Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Mongia, Ganguly, Jadeja, Kapil Dev, the five selectors, the BCCI. But this is a sob story with a difference. On the face of it, there appear to be no heroes, only villains. And it is a script full of complexities and inanities. While unravelling it, one is bound to come across more and more skeletons in the cupboard. But then that is Indian cricket all the way.

To begin at the beginning. A disastrous World Cup campaign, coming on top of other reverses, saw Azharuddin out of favour and Tendulkar was appointed captain for a second time at the start of the season. Unwilling at first to shoulder the burden, Tendulkar reluctantly agreed to take over the responsibility, after being persuaded. Not exactly the best way to take over a job as highly pressurised as the Indian captaincy. But in agreeing to commence his second term as captain, Tendulkar did extract his pound of flesh. He wanted more powers, more freedom, greater say in team selection. It was with this tacit understanding between him and the board that the Indian team left for Australia.

Too many things happened for the worst `Down Under' and not all the negative aspects were on the field of play. Losing the series by a clean sweep and getting beaten black and blue in the Carlton & United series was bad enough. But what was even more of a dampener was the fact that all was not well within the team, that there was something very wrong between the BCCI and the team management, between the selectors and the team management, and between team members and some of the discarded players, notably Azharuddin and Mongia. The humiliating treatment meted out to Mongia by the team management, who made it very clear that they did not want Azharuddin in the team, Kapil Dev disclosing that the former Indian captain was not a popular man in the dressing room and the open confrontation between the team management and the selectors on matters of team selection all added to the weird melodramatic soap opera being enacted that could not fail to harm Indian cricket.

Things moved towards the tragic climax on the team's return. The failures of most of the young players left the selectors with no option but to bring Azharuddin back from cold storage. At the same time, the BCCI decided it was time to assert itself. To prevent any anti-Azhar tirade, the officials decided not to invite Kapil Dev for the selection committee meeting, breaking the tradition of calling the coach to attend the deliberations. Taking the cue, Sachin Tendulkar announced that he was stepping down from the captaincy owning moral responsibility for the drubbing in Australia. A few days before, vice captain Saurav Ganguly made it clear that he would prefer to bat at No 5, whoever was in the team - an oblique reference to Azharuddin. This was a significant remark for, in the past, the batting order from No 3 to 6 has been Dravid, Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ganguly.

Tendulkar's timing on the field of play is exemplary. But his timing off the field is all awry. If he really was serious about owning moral responsibility, he should have quit soon after February 1, the day the team landed in Chennai. Like Wasim Akram, who stepped down owning responsibility for Pakistan's disastrous tour, almost immediately after arriving from Australia. However much he may deny that his resignation has nothing to do with Azharuddin's comeback, not many in the country will take his statement seriously. To be fair to him however it must be said that he took over the captaincy last year on certain conditions, which have been elaborated earlier. Recent events have eroded his power to the extent he can no longer have the team he wants. Aware of this, he decided to quit is what one can make out, even if things are seen from Tendulkar's viewpoint.

It takes time to build or rebuild. When Tendulkar took over last July the mood was upbeat. The new captain had the country with him, a new crop of young players were making their presence felt and the performances in the various one day tournaments at the start of the new season were quite heartening, considering that the side was without Tendulkar, nursing his back injury, for most of the period. Even granting that the successive reverses in Australia constituted a debacle, it must not be forgotten that India were beaten by the strongest side in the world. Also, Tendulkar's batting was not affected by the extra load of captaincy and it might have been better to invest in the future by continuing with the policy of youth for some time under the same leadership. Constant chopping and changing cannot help in the rebuilding process and calling back the old guard must have irked Tendulkar and Kapil Dev, especially when they had made their stand on the issue quite clear. Not involving the captain and the coach in the selection process is a blunder of the first magnitude and for this the BCCI stands guilty in the court of the cricket fan.

So what happens now? Indian cricket lies in shambles. The silver lining is that it has no place to go but up. But first there has to be a healing process. What is needed now is a strong personality as captain who can put personal egos into the background and lead from the front, selectors who give the captain and coach their due, and officials who can take a long term view and not tinker with the selection. All this takes time but a start has to be made. Why not now, when the current scenario urgently calls for a start to be made in this direction?