Cracks beneath the surface

Indian cricket, you could say after reading the names in the Test squad, has completed a full circle. Prima facie, it would seem that the Greg Chappell-Rahul Dravid revolution has ended, or at least been temporarily suspended, and India are back to where they were 14 months ago.

Youth has been jettisoned, the process has been buried and, quite incredibly, Sourav Ganguly is back. And all this has happened so suddenly that it has left a lot of us struggling to comprehend its wider implications.

Inevitably, the biggest talking point is Ganguly's comeback. Not only because of its significance in cricket terms, but also because he arouses such strong emotions. Unthinkable only a week ago, events had moved in such breathless fashion in the last couple of days that his selection was only a formality when the committee met today. Not much should be read into the meeting between Sharad Pawar, the BCCI president, and the selection committee this morning, because Ganguly's fate had been decided earlier. Indeed, Cricinfo broke the story on Tuesday.

So what does one make of it? A knee-jerk reaction to a batting crisis? The irony cannot be missed: Ganguly, whose decline as a batsman has been attributed primarily to his vulnerability to the short ball, has now been picked to strengthen a batting lineup that has been systematically dismantled by the surgical, relentless use of bounce.

It can also be seen, however, as a pragmatic, immediate measure that wagers heavily on Ganguly's Test-match experience and his innate fighting abilities. His finest hundred came at Brisbane in 2003, the first Test of a hard tour, when India were four down for 80 in the first innings and Australia's fast bowlers were smelling blood. It was a brave and a scintillating hundred, compiled as much through skill as through sheer mental strength.

But by the time he'd lost his place in the Test team, he was back to chasing ghosts: even medium pacers were bouncing him out. India will hope that the time in the wilderness would have created a will strong enough to carry him past his shortcomings.

While it is inevitable that Ganguly will dominate the headlines, the much bigger issue is why and how it came about

Ganguly is a passionate, proud man who captained India with distinction. He deserves to be remembered for the way he led India out of a crisis and moulded a team in his own image, and it would have been a tragedy if he is remembered for an inglorious end. It is now up to him to script his final chapter.

While it is inevitable that Ganguly will dominate the headlines, the much bigger issue is why and how his selection was necessiated. The truth is that once again Indian batsmen have been mercilessly exposed on harder pitches, and the selectors didn't really have too many options after the young men in whom they'd placed their faith failed make the grade. The selectors had the choice to let them learn from their failures or opt to try damage control. The passions involved in cricket in India are just too high for the selectors to be able to ignore the immediate. And the reality is that beyond Ganguly there was not much to look at anyway.

Who should be held responsible for this sorry situation, both in South Africa and what preceded it? The coach and captain? Surely, when the success in the early part of their tenure was attributed to them, they must also cop the flak for the miserable run of the past six months. Perhaps their faith in some of the new players was misplaced, perhaps they were too radical and too divorced from reality, and perhaps they were so keen to forge a team along their ways that they failed to carry half the side with them.

By all accounts, the Indian dressing room is not the happiest of places at the moment; there are factions, there are a few disgruntled players who are not shy of airing their disenchantment. Part of it is due to the defeats and personal insecurities, and part of it is because they do not subscribe to the vision that the coach and captain share. It is a problem that must be addressed.

In light of this, VVS Laxman's elevation as vice-captain is a significant step. It is a vote of confidence in a player who, despite being one of the pillars of Indian batting, has spent much time on the margins. Importantly, he is a bridge between the seniors and younger players, and someone whom the captain can trust.

Equally, it is a strong message to Virender Sehwag, who has held on to his one-day position on sheer reputation, and whose disregard for a decent work ethic is evident in his expanding waist-line. He is still a substantial Test player but for someone who has aspirations to lead the team this is a warning that he can no longer take his place for granted. About time too.

The wider, and much graver, issue, however, is the continued failure of Indian batsmen on bouncier pitches. And the even bigger problem is that everyone knows why, yet no one cares. The average Indian cricket fan might have been fooled by the team's success in the last World Cup in South Africa but it wouldn't have been lost on the discerning few that the pitches were flat, almost designed to give India a good run. The South African authorities have been less hospitable this time and normal service has resumed.

Nothing about the Indian domestic structure equips the Indian batsmen to deal with the kind of wickets they face in Australia, South Africa, or even England. And since most Indian administrators can't be accused of being obtuse, it has to be concluded that they don't give a damn. In most sports, money is only a means to an end; for the BCCI, it seems to be the sole purpose. What Indian cricket needs is not a few more million dollars in the bank, but a few more pitches like the one at Mohali during the Champions Trophy for domestic cricket.