March 12, 2010

Three captains and one bat

Pakistan's latest saga, and things to look forward to in the IPL

Pakistan hand out bans like toffee; and those handing them out pretend they are pristine. Australia's vice-captain leaves his team behind to offer solace to his girl, who is suffering the after-effects of a dubious relationship. Another South African storms his way into world cricket - for England. The world's most hyped tournament slithers, rather than storms, in. That's a lot of unusual things for a sport played by so few.

Pakistan continue to make every other nation look like the epitome of good management. Big zamindar arrives, cleans up the shed; next zamindar puts the old chickens back in. The cricket lover, like RK Laxman's common man, looks on, perplexed and neglected. To be honest, the Pakistan cricketers don't have much sympathy around the cricket world, but what of the fans? What about the little eight-year-old who wants to wear a replica Pakistan cap and cheer for Afridi and Yousuf and Younis? What happens to him? His heroes, and those who manage his heroes, frequently seem to have less passion for the team and the country than he does. His lot is to be let down. I wonder if people blinded by egos even realise that.

On that count, India have been blessed. The results will be good one day and bad the next, and fans will be delighted and frustrated in equal measure. But when the disease of match-fixing threatened to infect India, the eight-year-old (and the 30-year-old who behaved like the eight-year-old) had proud people to look up to. Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble, Laxman, Ganguly, Srinath - these were men of character. Fine cricketers they might have been but fine people they were too. Their solidity, as much as their results, took cricket through its testing years.

I wish Pakistan cricket well because I have been a child and have had my heroes, and when some of them let me down later in life, I felt the pain. But the pity is that six months from now a new zamindar will have arrived, armed with a firman from a patron. The same people will be back. If they can give the little child something to smile about, if they can be heroes, it might still be worth it. Essentially Pakistan need an Imran: proud, competitive and above board. He was great when he played but they need him more 25 years later.

Essentially Pakistan need an Imran: proud, competitive and above board. He was great when he played but they need him more 25 years later

Michael Clarke's predicament reminds me of something Allan Border told me 18 years ago when I was ghosting his column to help make ends meet on a tour. He worried for young players, he said, because not all of them had stability in their private lives. It's as true a statement as any you will hear. The likes of Tendulkar and Dravid and Kumble came from stable families, they married solid girls and have lovely families of their own. It's an aspect of success that is rarely studied.

Meanwhile the IPL, as a cricket tournament, has crept in. Lalit Modi told me this week that once the cricket starts it will need no promotion, and I hope he is right. One reason it's been low-key could be India's first game at the World Cup of hockey, which showed that India could still rally around another sport. All of us, except those that run hockey in India, know it. But when the hockey sadly tapered off, the news boycott came in the way. I don't know the details of the dispute but I do know that if I took great pains to produce a product, if I licensed it to somebody and a third party used it for profit, I would be very upset.

But there is enough in the IPL to get people going once it begins. It is no secret that I enjoy Twenty20 cricket as much as I do Test and one-day cricket, but in particular I will be looking out for three captains, and one bat! Neither Warne nor Gilchrist nor Kumble has played much cricket in recent times and this might well be the last time we will see them on a cricket field. Proud men and excellent leaders and each an adornment to the game. They will be up against young men who won't give them an inch. And while I will be expected to be neutral, I will silently wish they hold their own.

And then the big man with the Mongoose. Matthew Hayden's bat has always been a brute, a club. And now he arrives with this big handle and small blade, which looks a bit like the oar he might keep handy when he goes fishing. Well into retirement, he could still be the key for the Chennai Super Kings.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is on the IPL commentary team