India leave for Australia under a cloud
Sourav Ganguly speaks to the media before the team's departure for Australia
On the back of bribery allegations against a domestic cricketer and the Indian team's departure for their toughest series in recent times, the much-awaited monsoon drenched Chennai on a cloudy November morning. As the Indian team made their way from the pre-tour press conference at the plush Trident hotel to the airport, the skies opened up, pelting down rain on the city.
The setting for the team's departure was decidedly gloomy and dark, not different from the kind of scenes used in modern films to depict the night before a murder. Sourav Ganguly was in no mood for theatrics, though, as he came to the defence of Abhijit Kale, the player accused of offering bribes of Rs 10 lakh (approx. US$21,860) to two selectors in order to be picked in the Indian team.
"I have known Abhijit for quite some time now and I'm not too sure that someone like him would do such a thing. I have known him both as a person and as a cricketer for long and I would like to wait and see how things turn out," began Ganguly. "I still don't believe it (the allegations). Anything can come out in the papers or on television, and anyone can pass a statement about someone else. How far these things are true is the really important part. Mere allegations should not create problems. There should be some sort of proof." Kale has been on television several times since the allegations against him surfaced and has pleaded his innocence.
Apart from this rather forthright comment, there was little of interest for the media as the team began its journey to Australia. The usual platitudes about difficult challenges and bright opportunities were mouthed, and consumed without a fuss.
For each member of the team, the time was one for introspection. Ganguly faces his sternest Test as captain. Rahul Dravid has to make runs in Australia to complete a fine overseas record. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh have much to prove about the utility of spinners overseas. The seamers have to show that they have it in them to deliver the goods in conditions that will help them. Deep Dasgupta has to enhance his reputation, both behind the stumps and with the bat.
One man was unusually quiet, though. The normally gregarious Sadagoppan Ramesh spoke to Wisden Cricinfo minutes before joining the team at their hotel. "I think there are no two ways about it. This is a do-or-die tour for me. If I do not make runs, and a lot of them, then my chances of playing for India in the future will be very small," he admitted. "The last time I went to Australia, in 2000, was as a permanent member in the squad. I was a certainty to play in the Tests. This time around it is completely different. I have to once again prove myself, and take whatever chances come my way.
"I have worked hard to make a comeback, scoring runs in key games in domestic cricket. The selectors have given me one more chance, something I always believed I would get, and I want to make the best of it."
This Australian unit, however, will be acutely aware of this fact, and will come hard at him. Never shy to throw in a word or two, one Australian fast bowler reportedly asked Ganguly, "how's your actress friend?" when he came out to bat in the last home series. So, the Australians obviously do their homework in more ways than just swatting up on the strengths and weaknesses of rival players.
And unfortunately for the Indians, and especially someone being picked after a long gap, the `pay to play' bribery scandal will give the Australians one obvious line of attack. But Ramesh is not the sort to be flapped by such issues. He will be happy to have a conversation with the Australians when he is at the crease. That, however, won't stop him from planting his front foot down the ground and square-driving anything that is full and a bit wide. "Obviously, it's not going to be easy making a comeback in a tough away series against Australia, but I've always backed myself to perform in big games."
It does not get any bigger than this, and the fates of Ramesh, and many other cricketers, hung in the balance as the aircraft carrying Ganguly's men taxied off the runway and flew into the grey skies.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.