October 31, 2000

Coming to terms with reality

In sport, as in life, one must never lose perspective. But then in India, the sports fans are not really known for balanced views. If a team wins, they shower it, most of the time, with praise of the undeserving kind. And when the team loses, they shower it again, but this time with the kind of venom that the team does not really deserve. It is so very important to treat Rudyard Kipling's two imposters - victory and defeat - with the same equilibrium. But then we are creatures not of logic but of emotion and we frequently tend to distort a team's performance.

Writing in his autobiography `Running into Hundreds', published in the early sixties, Ken Barrington makes a few pertinent comments in this regard. With a string of high scores - including a century in each innings - in the county championship in 1955, he was included in the England team for the first Test against South Africa following heady praise in the British press. He was then 24, but as he admits he was `not yet ready and was rushed into the big league.' Not surprisingly, he failed and was promptly discarded for four years before coming back into the England side in 1959 after considerably tightening up his batsmanship. Recounting his unhappy debut, he says it is very important for people not to lose perspective and indulge in overpraise when the player is not yet ready for it.

Over the last fortnight or so, I have been frequently reminded of Barrington's wise observations. Reading some of the opinions on the showing of the Indian team at Nairobi in particular and the views on players like Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan, there is no doubt that writers have not put the performances in the proper perspective. Newspapers and magazines have gone overboard in lavishing gushing praise on the young duo, one national newsmagazine even carried a cover story on `Indian cricket's new dawn' while another ran a special feature on the two players. The encomiums showered on the team bordered on the kind used to describe the triumph in the World Cup in 1983 and the accolades for Yuvraj and Zaheer brought back memories of the adjectives used to describe Sunil Gavaskar's record breaking feats in the West Indies in 1971.

There is no doubt that both Zaheer and Yuvraj did very well. But was their performance deserving of the kind of praise that has been showered on them? One has to come to the conclusion that, encouraging as their showing was, the praise could have been a bit tempered. If proof was needed that they were not as good as some `experts' thought they were, it came about at Sharjah. And if proof was also needed that the Indian team was not really deserving of the heady kind of praise that had been showered on them, again proof of this was seen at Sharjah.

Let's consider the performance of the Indian team first. What exactly was their achievement to warrant phrases like `a team for the 2000s', `entering a new phase' and `a new sheen and a new attitude that signals a hunger to compete fiercely and win?' Yes, they scored two splendid victories in a row over top rung teams Australia and South Africa. But they could not cap it and lost to New Zealand who till Nairobi had never even made the final of a major competition. It was a very good performance but not a great one but then most of us got carried away - so much as to gloss over obvious weaknesses in the side. These shortcomings were ruthlessly probed at Sharjah. And by the end of the campaign in the triangular series, the musical notes were more sombre. ``The worst performance by the Indian team in the recent past'' was coach Anshuman Gaekwad's assessment. What else could it be when the margin of defeat in the final was the heaviest ever suffered by any team in a one day international? Suddenly all the drum beating stopped and the new dawn became the dark ages all over again.

Now let's analyse the performances of Zaheer and Yuvraj. The left arm fast bowler started off in dream fashion with three for 48 against Kenya, two for 40 against Australia and two for 27 against South Africa. More than the figures, it was his manner of bowling, his pace and bounce and aggressive instincts and his ability to send down the perfect yorker that attracted considerable attention. But he failed in the all important game against New Zealand (none for 54) and learnt that cricket can be a great leveler. Against much less fearsome opposition at Sharjah, he had spells of three for 37 and four for 42 in the two games against Zimbabwe but was far less successful against Sri Lanka, his one wicket in three matches costing him 143 runs). Yuvraj, like Zaheer, made a dream start hitting 84 off 80 balls against Australia and following it up with 41 off 35 balls against South Africa. In his case too, more than the scores it was his belligerent approach, refreshing spirit and attacking skills that caught the eye. In addition, he showed he was an outstanding fielder. But then reality caught up with him too. In the final against New Zealand he was reduced to scoring 18 and at Sharjah he had a really wretched time with scores of 7, 7 and 3 against Sri Lanka, faring only slightly better (34 and 4) against the weaker Zimbabwe attack.

So quickly then the two youngsters learnt that cricket, like life, can be full of ups and downs. And so did the `new look' team, though for many of the members, this roller coaster ride could not have been a new experience. If anything, the trips to Nairobi and Sharjah have shown that praise should be tempered. The overall performance at the ICC KnockOut was very good, but not great. And the same can be said about Zaheer and Yuvraj. But the paeans sung in praise of them were of the gushing variety. The defeat in the final at Nairobi followed by the dismal showing in Sharjah proved that what benign ol' Ken Barrington wrote almost 40 years holds good today. And if Yuvraj and Zaheer, far from getting carried away by the heady kind of praise, learn that the best place for their feet is mother earth, they could still serve the cause of Indian cricket for a long time to come.