May 1, 2008

The icon's burden

The money, the freedom to build their own teams, and the challenge of testing themselves in Twenty20 have brought several problems for the big stars

It hasn't been an easy ride for the IPL's biggest names © AFP

VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly produced their most substantial performances of the tournament today, but, ironically, neither was substantial enough to secure victory for their teams. Was it a coincidence, or does there lie a bigger tale?

Ganguly's was a battling performance. His highest score of the tournament had been 14; his team had had two successive batting failures; and two of his major batsmen had gone home, leaving him to carry the innings. With his team chasing a tough target, he came out to open, and from the way he went about the job it seemed he had set his mind on batting through.

But as the overs ticked by, the asking rate, which started at an intimidating 10, kept creeping up and at the halfway stage, it was clear that desperate measures were needed. Ganguly was still there, on 30 at more than a run a ball. But that he had only faced 26 balls told a story: batsmen who take control usually manage to corner the strike. And it wasn't as if runs were raining at the other end.

Ganguly nearly holed out trying to up the pace, but Yusuf Pathan tripped over the ropes to give him a six, and an over later he earned himself a reprieve by coaxing the umpire to refer a catch that Graeme Smith claimed at deep midwicket for a replay, which, as it mostly does in such circumstances, was inconclusive. But he went cursing himself in the next over when Mohammad Kaif kept his balance to complete a catch on the boundary. There was an air of inevitability about that dismissal.

Laxman, by all accounts, played a delightful innings. It was very Laxman-like, crisp and wristy, and by his standards in the shorter versions, it was also furious. But he fell before the job was done, ironically, for the second time in three innings, to a legspinner. And his dismissal led to a slump from which the Deccan Chargers never fully recovered despite an innings of pure and precise hitting from Rohit Sharma. It was always evident that they finished at least 20 short.

Elsewhere, Rahul Dravid is grappling with his own nightmares. He has twice been dismissed first ball, and has been out slogging, flicking, pulling and hoicking in the most un-Dravid manner. His team languishes at the bottom having been outplayed thrice and once muffing up a match they seemed to have in their grasp.

Each of these batsmen seem to be getting better as the tournament progresses, but the problem is that run-a-ball 30s are simply not good enough. Not even 40-ball 50s. The impact innings of the tournament have been blazing hundreds. It is increasingly apparent that the innings that really matter are either the big ones or blinding cameos. Curiously, Ganguly's most meaningful innings so far has been the 30-ball 14 in the low-scoring thriller against the Deccan Chargers. It prevented a free-fall on a vicious pitch and helped his team scrape through.

And Sachin Tendulkar, the biggest icon of them all, already has a mountain to climb even before he has played his first match. Even though the Mumbai Indians won their first game the other night, they are clearly behind the front-runners and their batting needs a saviour. Tendulkar has had to deal with massive expectations all his life, but he is a newcomer to this form of the game, which is not always known to reward genius.

Call it the icons' burden.

Should a group of players who have established their worth in the highest and, to many, the most demanding, form of the game, allow themselves to be belittled by a form that has little regard for their magnificent skills?

It is ironic that four players who were not part of India's epochal victory at the World Twenty20 have been charged with the gravest of responsibilities for a Twenty20 tournament that promises to revolutionalise cricket. Three of them - Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman - are no longer considered good enough by the national selectors for the 50-over game, and Tendulkar had himself withdrawn from the World Twenty20. Yet, without them the concept of city-based franchises was a non-starter. They were needed not only as anchors and leaders, and for star value, but to give the concept elementary legitimacy.

Nor can they be blamed for accepting the job. The money was always hard to resist, and there need be no moralising about it: cricketers don't inhabit a different planet. But there was also the challenge of being part of a new idea, the chance of shaping a team with a freedom not usually granted due to national boundaries, and also a curiosity to test oneself in a different form.

But each of these factors have brought their own burdens. Having chosen to expose themselves to a form of the game that doesn't do justice to their great skills, it is their obligation to adapt. And having been anointed icons (all barring Laxman), and thus being the highest paid player in the team, it is inevitable that their performances will be measured against their value.

Twenty20 lacks many finer aspects of Test cricket. It lacks scope and scale; context and vision; intellect and subtlety. But it is not merely a hit-and-giggle. Slowly a pattern is emerging in batting. Of course, power is a big factor, but it is becoming increasingly evident that batsmen who rely more on hand-eye coordination are likely to have a greater chance of success. They are not necessarily lesser batsmen, but they are certainly different.

Should a group of players who have established their worth in the highest and, to many, the most demanding, form of the game, allow themselves to be belittled by a form that has little regard for their magnificent skills? It is a question they might confront soon if they haven't asked it to themselves already.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo