August 3, 2011

No.1: who cares?!

Sourav Ganguly is a passionate man, if his playing days, the Lord's shirt spin and the way he got into the face of Australian teams and Steve Waugh are anything to go by. Off the field, however, those close to him claimed that you could not meet a man of greater equanimity: if you took the reactions of the Kolkata fans to Ganguly's being dropped as representative of reactions from Ganguly's own cricle, you are bound to get his personage wrong for Bengal is a passionate state and had to wait several decades to get its own superstar. Why am I saying all this? Because the man formerly referred to as the Prince of Calkootta is the one former cricketer who has got his reactions to India's bruising defeats to England dead right: accept it and move on!

I don't mind admitting pride over Team India's number one status in test cricket  - I am prouder of it than the 2011 World Cup victory - despite my recurrent emphasis on the fact that the ranking arrived by default and that it has been sustained not by ruthless greatness but by coming-back-from the debris performances characterised by basic grit. Great teams do not thrive on playing catch-up, though; they just happen to be better at catching up as well should it be required. None of this is to insult the contributions made my present and past greats in ensuring that India has built up a strong front at home and overseas in the last ten years. It is only to put things into perspective - the perspective that when the focus is on the process, as the Australians like to belabour and often rightly, other things will follow. That is exactly the perspective that is missing in the reactions to India's two consecutive defeats down in England. What is sad is that past players, who you would expect not to be drawn into superficiality, make a mockery of themselves by drawing the ranking into everything they discuss - including DRS - and leave out the question marks behind the dismal performance. The reverse pattern would be better recommended.

If Dhoni's own observations over what he felt went wrong after Lord's still had a hint of humour about them, the post-Nottingham responses seemed more like excuses from a brilliant leader who was expecting sympathy. But what could the poor man do? Being hamstrung by your premiere fast bowler's hamstring injury, not having your first choice opening firm - only to see the other half also ruled out by contingency - and having to respond to questions from an eccentric media about your own form with the bat (and less notably the glovework) can affect the blithest of spirits. But therein lies not the answer, but more questions, questions which I am sure Messrs. Srinivasan and others at the BCCI will not have Duncan Fletcher - or others - answer directly.

Does the over-reliance on Zaheer with the ball - and a lesser one on Sehwag with the bat, never mind four others average over 45:00 in that most enviable of line-ups - itself say something about how the Indian cricket is still a constellation made of some bright stars, at best, never mind the rankings? Dhoni says injuries do happen - we know that! We also appreciate - as much as a non-player can - that a fast bowler's craft entails by many counts the most tangled use of the body in sport, but why is it that fitness regimes elsewhere are better ? More to the point, why is our bench strength invariably second-grade and why is one other swing bowler - someone like R.P. Singh - not travelling with the team when we have taken a substitute keeper?  A more telling question - and it had better be - is why does someone like Sehwag need to 'show himself up' for Delhi Daredevils before he undergoes a surgery but miss two important tests? This is in pathetic, sometimes shameful, contrast to how Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson have opted out of the Big Bash League in Australia to focus on getting their country's test team perform better. (If there is something that does not look the eye as far as Indian players are concerned, such as volitional priority towards your franchise - or worse, compelled priority -, then the powers that be have some answering to do). We in India are used to excuses and when a player passionately says, "Nobody would demean playing for the country," we accept it. But is the passion in the words translated into action, the planning and the prioritisation of one's time and fitness? Is a Pragyan Ojha or a Rahane getting the right sort of signals from the behaviour of seniors? I leave this case here.

BCCI's handling of test cricket raises a different issue. While the Indian board's sudden enlightenment to play more tests since two years ago is a welcome sign for test cricket in the country - and test cricket as a whole what with India being modern cricket's Mecca - the reason for this shift in priority is as parochial as it is wrong. The wrongness comes to the fore precisely when the weather becomes rough. It is clear for all intents and purposes that the BCCI wants Team India to maintain the no. 1 status - but it is commonsense, let alone reason, that that can happen only if we win games. With the sort of scheduling (that always includes the IPL!) the Indian players have - and how some are free to take breaks - we are going to find it difficult to barely stay in a test match against good teams in alien conditions let alone win any. I may sound hyperbolic. The apocalypse has not yet come; but it may well do so sooner than later (and this is regardless of the timing of the stalwarts' impending retirement).

Ultimately - I say this as a cricket fan as well as someone who knows a bit about what people generally feel - I would prefer to watch a Team India that is up for a scrap, one which can fight for 140 overs in an attempt to bat 160 and still lose, rather than a team which is top of the tree because of accident, coincidence, its captain's nouse (and good fortune!) and the deteriortation of other teams in the circuit. It is the spirit with which a team plays its sport that reveals its nature and workings.

Australia have not been "harassed" even on their worst days, which is a sign of a good team, until their recent Ashes campaign - a coincidence that their opposition, too, was England? I think not! - because doggedness has been their trade mark for decades. Flair (the other spelling would do just as well!), as Sangakkara said in his glorious MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture, is the signature of cricket in Sri Lanka. It is that - or any - spirit which, by its absence, was appalling about India's cricket in the tests at Lord's and Nottingham. But one unlikely figure, who might not have been even in the frame for this series two months ago, quietly infused whatever spirit he was capable of into his seemingly one-dimensional game. He may never be the heartthrob of female fans or threaten the sleep of test batsmen but men like Praveen Kumar bring value to a team that can never be counted or commodified. He has got wickets to show for himself, too. A few others could learn a thing or two about lifting for the occasion from the young man, the praise for whom is always accompanied by the irritating phrases "despite his lack of pace" or "in England he'll always bowl well." May be, the pundits are right but cricketers with a will have a way of succeeding anywhere and the heart they bring to the game enriches it in a big way. Besides, If cricket has to be made up only of Steyns and Shane Warnes, it will be a game for the elite in terms of talent. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth as cricketing history shows time and again. And as for now, nothing could be less important than India's number one ranking. If imagining that it is lost would inspire them to fight without a cluttered mind, it is just as well.