November 4, 2004

Many cracks and no cement

There are plenty of glaring flaws plaguing Indian cricket at the moment

Sourav Ganguly in an introspective mood? Don't bet on it © AFP

There is, it is said, a season for everything, and this is not one in which to be an Indian cricket fan. It is not defeat in a Test series that makes this a time to forget, for there have been many of those in India's history, but the loss of hope. Sourav Ganguly's men have achieved much in the last few years, culminating in a drawn series in Australia and a win in Pakistan earlier this year. Indian fans, like never before, had reason to believe that India could evolve into the best team in the world. But the illusions lie shattered, like so much wood when Jason Gillespie is on song.

Where were we wrong? It is often when things fall apart that they are truly seen for what they are, and below, I list a few of the cracks in the edifice that are showing today.

Crack one - A confused direction
A team that wants to make divine music must sing from the same hymn-sheet. Great leaders, it is said, often imbue a side with their qualities, but this Indian team is led by two people, with different sets of values and ethics. Ganguly is assertive, abrasive and aggressive, a tempestuous man of passion. John Wright, India's coach, is diligent, methodical, and professional, a calm man of reason. A child can prosper under such opposite parents, but a team that is forging its identity cannot afford confusion.

Ganguly has always shown faith in raw talent, and has backed the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan. Wright has always placed a premium on hard work and application, and his fondness for players like Sanjay Bangar and Aakash Chopra is well known. Both Ganguly and Wright, in other words, like players who are like themselves. That is natural, but is it wrong?

It is when it comes in the way of a cohesive vision. Consider the confusion in the last few months over who will open the batting with Virender Sehwag in Tests. Ganguly went for the mercurial and exciting talent of Yuvraj, while Wright clearly preferred the diligence of Chopra. But rather than the team giving one of them a fair run in the side, it alternated between the two. Chopra in the first Test against Australia, Yuvraj in the second, Chopra again in the third. It shattered Chopra's confidence, put Yuvraj under too much pressure in an unfamiliar position, and now they're both gone. It did not help either Indian cricket or the young men concerned.

What is the right approach then, Ganguly's or Wright's? It doesn't matter, as long as there is clarity in whatever the team does. Consistency in thought and action is needed. A dog with two leashes being pulled in different directions is an unhappy dog.

Crack two - Inflated perceptions
Indians over-react to cricket, and one wonders sometimes if the success and adulation that young players receive go to their heads. Or to the captain's, for that matter. Amid all the hype around a New India, did this team lose touch of reality, and go in denial about its faults? Whether or not the players fell prey to this, their fans certainly did - thus the abnormally high expectations whenever India play.

Are India as good as they are made out to be? Consider their results in the last three years, starting from the much-lauded win against Australia in 2001. A drawn series against Zimbabwe. A lost series in Sri Lanka. A lost series against South Africa. Wins at home against England and Zimbabwe. A lost series against West Indies. A drawn series against England. A win at home against West Indies (but a loss in that one-day series). A loss in New Zealand. Making it to the World Cup final (but two thrashings against Australia). A disappointing drawn home series against New Zealand. And then the drawn tour of Australia and the victory against a young Pakistan team.

The 15 Test wins that India have notched up under Ganguly's captaincy are an outstanding achievement, but they must be viewed in perspective. India have been inconsistent during this period, toggling between the sublime and the pedestrian. They have been called India's greatest team, but they have failed to win a series outside the subcontinent, something that Ajit Wadekar's side did twice. The path to greatness lies in recognising one's failures and working hard on eliminating them. This Indian team doesn't seem to have done so.

Jagmohan Dalmiya: presiding over a faulty system, with too many bureaucrats and too much politics © AFP

Crack three - A flawed system
When we say that India have become more professional over the last three years, we mean that the Indian national side has. Sure, there's a coach and a physio and a trainer, but only for the band of men who play international cricket. The rest of Indian cricket is still in a mess.

A quest for sporting excellence can only succeed if it begins at the grass roots. Australia, with their academy and their excellent first-class structure, are a case in point. In India, on the other hand, players have to make it to the top despite the system, and receive little quality coaching or physical training until they break through at the highest level. And players who are dropped from the national side often disappear from the reckoning, with no system in place to nurture them and help them rebuild their confidence. (I elaborated on this earlier here.) One can only wonder how much talent is lost by then.

The system is flawed because the men who run it are not accountable. Indian cricket is run much like the public sector in India, which attests to the failure of Nehruvian socialism. Badly paid bureacrats - unpaid in the case of the Indian board, where most office-bearers are honorary - are given enormous discretion, and their power is not accompanied by responsibility. This is the richest board in the world, but this prince likes to live in a hut. Every element of how the board is run, from the telecasts mess a few weeks ago to a simple matter like getting the covers on during a Test match in time, reeks of incompetence.

Crack four - Politics
It is not merely Indian bureacracy that is mirrored in the BCCI, but also Indian politics. The men who hold the positions of power in the BCCI are the men who control, and pander to, various vote-banks, which are made up of the many state associations. A scary indication of how far things have gone came during the recent BCCI elections, in which the national political parties had contestants in the fray, with the Congress's Ranbir Singh Mahendra triumphing over the NCP's Sharad Pawar and the BJP's Arun Jaitley, who had dropped out early in the contest.

Zonal considerations determine a lot of decisions, including selectorial ones. (I once believed otherwise, but I now know that I was wrong, after revelations that I cannot reproduce here for reasons of libel.) The four new men in the Indian squad might deserve their places, but is it merit alone that gives them those spots? Is it just a coincidence that each of the four zones got to pick one new man each?

At some point in time, Indian cricket may well be at another crossroads, needing to decide if Ganguly, who may not merit a place in the side and whose captaincy may become counter-productive, should still be captain. That decision will certainly be made on the basis of politics, and not cricket. Jagmohan Dalmiya's base of power is Kolkata, and he cannot bite the hand that feeds him.

Searching for cement
How can these cracks be repaired? We all know what we would like the BCCI to become, but how do we get there from here? I have blogged on this issue earlier, but I'm afraid I have no enlightenment to offer. All we can do, journalists and fans alike, is keep the scrutiny alive, and keep shouting when we see something go wrong. Perhaps the noise will someday get loud enough.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India. He writes the cricket blog, 23 Yards, for this site.