THIS week Indian cricket faces its most crucial Test for decades when India play England at Lord's. Such is the chaos, utter bewilderment and loss of heart caused by the events of the last few weeks in England that in some ways this Test is almost as crucial as the 1974-75 series against the West Indies. Then, the Indians returned from a tour of England humiliated—that was the 'summer of 42' tour, when India were bowled out for 42 on a bleak Monday morning at Lord's, and went on to lose the next Test by even more humiliating margins. Ajit Wadekar, the then Indian captain and hero of the victories in West Indies and England in 1971, had his house stoned. The team returned like thieves in the night and many feared for the future of Indian cricket. Fortunately Nawab of Pataudi, who had rescued Indian cricket from the dull dogs tag in the '60s, returned from exile to lead India in a heroic series.
The romantic in me, always ready to believe that the glorious dawn of In on dian cricket is just round the corner—we Indian cricket followers have to have such optimism—would like to think Lord's could start the revival. India will win the toss, make 700 and defeat England by an innings and go on to win the series 2-1. Of course, anything is possible in a ball game but this seems unlikely. There are major problems with the Indian team in England, there is no Pataudi to provide an inspirational leader around whom the team could gather and the most serious problem is the attitude and sheer ineptitude of the Indian Board.
Problems with Indian sports always start with administrators. India produces talented sportsmen despite the system, despite the greed, avarice and sheer stupidity of its sports administrators. See how successive generations of administrators destroyed the greatest hockey nation. The nation which never lost an Olympic match between 1928 and 1960 now hardly ever wins anything major. Not because we don't have the players, but because the administrators were too busy, like pigs at the trough feasting, to look ahead and plan.
Indian cricket officials have not been quite so stupid but this tour shows their short-sightedness. The Indian Cricket Board is now one of the richest sports bodies in the world. The profits from the World Cup were staggering, yet India are touring England as if they were still poor country cousins. The team was initially housed in poky, cheap hotels, often with no gym facilities. Indian cricketers have had to beg and borrow training facilities from friends and sponsors. Hotel facilities have been improved but no self-respecting cricket team should be put through such an ordeal.
Worse still are some relaxations of rules and double standards by the Board. It was decided Vinod Kambli, one of India's most successful batsmen—and more significantly a left-hander in a side which is almost all right-handers—was too disruptive to take on tour. The reason hasn't been disclosed but I understand it is because he kept late nights, liked his drink and women and was a hell-raiser of sorts.
Fair enough, have discipline but then enforce it for everyone. In that case, why allow Azharuddin special permission to come on tour—and the entire tour, mind you, not for a couple of weeks, which would have been fine—with his companion, paramour, call it what you will. More so, as she sits in front of the team coach alongside the captain, the very front row. When an Indian cricket team is on tour, it represents the nation. It is not a holiday jaunt. It is on official business. Nothing could be more damaging for morale and team spirit, particularly for a young team, to find that the front row of the coach is occupied by the captain's girlfriend.
And the whole extraordinary Sidhu affair showed the basic flaws in the running of the team. The cricket management here handled it ineptly but the Indian Board did not come out of it well. Faced with such a major crisis, the Indian Board President I.S. Bhindra should have flown out to England and sorted it out. Instead, he and his colleagues allowed a drama to be played out in front of a curious English media, awe-struck by the Indian capacity for self-destruction, and allowed the Indians to make a laughing stock of themselves. It takes little for Indian cricket officials to fly out to England. Indeed, just before the one-day internationals Indian Board Secretary Jagmohan Dalmiya was in London. But he was there in connection with his efforts to become ICC president. And this was, of course, in the glorious tradition of Indian sport—always more concerned with the loaves and fishes of office than the welfare of its sportsmen. Well done, Dalmiya. But what profits Indian cricket if Dalmiya becomes ICC president but Indian cricket dies?
The selectors also cannot escape blame. An England tour is always high-profile. Yet, four players made their Test debut, the first time this has happened to India since 1947-48. Then it was understandable, with India emerging just from Partition. Why such an untried team now? Also, there is no recognised second wicket-keeper, only two regular openers, one of whom (the experienced one) has gone home. So we have a middle-order batsman opening. Jadeja is a marvellous cricketer but no opener, as he proved in South Africa. Why is Indian cricket determined to ruin him? The worst decision, and the most incomprehensible one, was to send four spinners, two each of leg and left-arm but no off-spinner, to England. Did the selectors think an English May is like May in Delhi? Only that can explain selecting only three seamers.
Of course, all this might have been papered over, had the Indian tour management shown imagination and leadership. It has not and it has also shown a poor awareness of the media. Sandip Patil and Azharuddin are most reluctant to come to the press box and communicate. So at Birmingham we only learned that Sunil Joshi had broken his finger when someone told the press that they had seen four Indians leave in an ambulance. All this while, not knowing what had happened to Joshi, the press kept speculating why he was not bowling. Hence, the press was critical of Azharuddin but they can hardly be blamed.
Here, the example of Raj Singh, manager of the 1986 cricket team, the most successful to be sent abroad, is relevant. At the start of the tour, bothered by tabloid speculation about a rift between Kapil Dev and Gavaskar, he called the Indian press and the two players to the car park at the Northampton grounds. Peace was declared and that match marked the start of the Indian victory trail on that tour. Sandip is no Raj but has he lost his tongue completely? Whatever happens on the rest of this tour, the tour management must come out of the kambal and take the fire. As Harry Truman said, if you can't stand the heat leave the kitchen. If they can't stand the heat of this tour they should leave.