Smoke without fire
Absence of live cricket for India hasn't brought a drought in cricket coverage in the Indian media; it has merely meant the focus has shifted from cricket to controversies. Inevitably controversies need fanning, and television channels and newspapers have been rising to the task. But controversies also need fall guys, and it would have been amusing had it not been so appalling the way John Wright and Sanjay Manjrekar have found themselves in the muddle.
Now let me declare my interest. Manjrekar has been a columnist with Wisden Asia Cricket and now with Cricinfo Magazine, and five years of professional interaction has led to a healthy friendship. And with Wright, I have shared a warm personal equation and a few beers through his four-year tenure as the Indian coach. But above everything else, I have known both of them as men with honest opinions and a genuine concern for Indian cricket.
For those Cricinfo readers who might not be familiar with the issues, a brief recap. Manjrekar wrote a piece in Times of India on July 20 where he urged Sachin Tendulkar not to let the worries about physical fitness weigh him down. The subtext of the piece was the question, not overtly asked, but certainly implied, whether Tendulkar was letting the fear of failure affect the way he batted.
And a few days earlier, extracts from Wright's just-published book, John Wright's Indian Summers, started filtering in. Wright has devoted an entire chapter to the selection policy and some of his comments were not flattering. Among other things Wright revealed that many selectors were overly concerned about players from their own zones, that they fought at selection meetings and sulked if their players were not picked, and sometimes had nothing else to contribute.
Both pieces drew sharp reactions, and fuelled by the media's thirst for issues that could fill up airtime and column-inches, they quickly acquired the status of causes celebres. Manjrekar was roundly condemned, even derided, by obliging former cricketers for having dared to question Tendulkar. One accused him of trying to seek cheap publicity, another questioned his credentials, and someone else hinted at jealousy. It was easy to wonder how many had actually read or understood the piece, because many accused Manjrekar of accusing Tendulkar of feigning injury. Most reactions ranged between ill-informed and pathetic.
Similarly, many former selectors who were sought out by the media, went for Wright's jugular. Wright had taken no names, but clues came from the reactions. One termed his comments an insult to BCCI; someone called him spineless for not having spoken earlier; and predictably, another accused him trying to gain cheap publicity for his book with the intention of making money.
It wasn't the first time someone has questioned Tendulkar's cautious approach, and it is simply fruitless even trying to count how many times Indian selectors have been accused of petty parochialism. But here were two well known figures in cricket, one a former team-mate, the other an insider, raising a few questions. It should have led to healthy debate. Instead, both the issues got drowned in shrill silliness. Perhaps to expect anything better would have been futile.
Perhaps Manjrekar got it wrong. You could argue that he might not be fully aware of the nature of extent of Tendulkar's injuries. And it can even be argued that a conservative Tendulkar serves Indian cricket's interests better. But why is it such a blasphemy to raise a few questions over Tendulkar? Is Tendulkar infallible? Can we not make allowance for the fact that he could do a couple of things wrong? And even if all this is untrue, can we not merely agree to disagree?
I had seen this piece coming for a while. At one point Manjrekar was the next big thing in Indian batting, but his was a career unfulfilled. However he has not languished in lament. He has held no one but himself responsible and moved on. He is now fully committed to his career in the media, where he has emerged as a thoughtful and articulate commentator. One thing has not changed: he has stayed an awestruck admirer of Tendulkar's enormous skills.
Of late, he has been troubled by what he perceives as short-selling of his own talent by Tendulkar. He believes that by holding himself back, Tendulkar is denying himself, and the world, the full scope of his genius. His piece was an expression of angst, not malice. Of course, Tendulkar knows his game, his body and his mind the best. And he need pay no heed to Manjrekar's advice. But as a commentator and writer, Manjrekar is entitled to his observations.
And as for Wright, what a tragedy it would be to wish away his comments on selections as a gimmick to sell a few copies. This was a man who never stopped describing his job as India's coach as an honour, a privilege. And he meant it. Of course, he will make money if the book sells. But it is not a book written to cause sensation. It is a book written out of affection. I haven't got the book yet, but from the few chapters that friends in New Zealand have sent me, I can sense warmth in every page.
Wright didn't have a smooth ride with all the Indian players, and his relationship with Sourav Ganguly was sometimes rocky. But he pays wholesome tribute to Ganguly and rarely compromises a player. There is honesty in the book, and he does not spare himself.
It's a book Indian cricket needed. Wright has raised some important issues. There might be some opinions in the book we may not necessarily agree with, but we ought to listen. Because Wright cared, and still cares, for Indian cricket. A bit more than many former Indian players who spared no efforts to belittle him.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine