July 10, 2020
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Captain Wreck

A weak team, a threatened crown, poor form, mistrust. Just how long can Sachin take this?

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Captain Wreck

BEHIND the drought of victories and the doubletalk of dissension; behind the wholesale slaughter of the lambs by the selectors; behind the intrigue and intricacies of the cricket board and its patrons, sponsors and handmaidens, lies the corpse of The Great Indian Cricket Dream. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, at the ripe young age of 24, has been asked to do the honours. Circa 1997.

After an extraordinary week in which the full phalanx was on view—performance inversely proportional to promise, unabashed backstabbing by ambitious colleagues, mindless carnage by five allegedly wise men, corporate skulduggery by cola kings—and as the team readies to receive the last lashing of the year from the Lankans, the question is: will it be "India RIP"?

The confidence of a teen prodigy-turned-master blaster lies shattered by his own poor form. The authority of a presumed cricketing genius lies undermined by the sustained assaults of the selectors. And a marketeer's dreamboat lies ravaged by businessmen-bandicoots. Sachin, and the nation, would wonder: what did he, and we, do to deserve this?

Nobody said it was going to be easy. But in just a few months, the most confident man in Indian cricket has been turned into a nervous wreck. Insecure about his own position. Unsure of his own abilities. Edgy about his colleagues. Sachin Tendulkar, it seems, has lost the script: "I didn't ask them to make me captain. It's up to them if they want to take it away." Against that backdrop, there is just one way of interpreting the midweek masterstroke. In retaining Mohammed Azharuddin, and dropping Rahul Dravid and Venkatesh Prasad, Saba Karim and Abey Kuruvilla, Vinod Kambli and Anil Kumble, the selectors probably want Sachin to witness the World champs hammer the last nail into the coffin before handing the crown over.

The oust-Sachin efforts which began during the Sri Lanka series had been thwarted by the unexpected success of a ragtag team in Toronto, followed by a so-so show in Pakistan and a near-miss win against the Lankans at home. Then Sharjah happened. If you believe the buzz, the campaign to get rid of him has only been stalled by the proximity of his agent with the Board's bosses, much like Azhar's final days were said to be at his sponsor's mercy. How ever did Indian cricket come to such a pass?

"Sachin has been retained for 27 days (till December 31). A captain for the Australia series will be picked later." — BCCI secretary J.Y. Lele As Sachin and his boys returned from the desert without a single victory—Sachin's captaincy record in one-dayers plunging from a career figure of 31.37 to 25 per cent this year—there was hope that the malcontent within the team would be weeded out after persistent reports and rumours that four or five of the team were against Sachin's further continuance.

Azhar himself had told a Bengali daily: "If I'm destined to regain the captaincy, I will get it." The young captain, sick of the selectors' precondition not to open the innings, was feeling stifled. "I've had enough of it," he told a teammate.It could well have been that the Indians were a simply inferior side, lacking a game-plan as Geoffrey Boycott said; a will to win, as Mike Brearley says .But the shock slump versus West Indies showed the schisms in high-definition.

"Azhar's running as if there's no tomorrow. In fact, there'll be no tomorrow for him if India loses." —Sunil Gavaskar.

But when push came to shove, the selectors buckled. Azhar, who has been run-out five times this year, was called in for a peptalk and let off lightly. "He was told to involve himself more in the team," said BCCI joint secretary Jyoti Bajpai. Fancy telling someone who's played 250 one-dayers that. Azhar had the last laugh. "(The commentator) would have understood now that nobody except the selectors can decide on my future."

"Any other player would have been chucked out of the squad after that suicidal run-out." —umpire Cyril Mitcheley Keeping the selectors happy—not performance—is now the prerequisite for survival as Sachin, too, realises. And keeping them happy means being on the right side of the fence. Four of the five selectors are representatives of their respective associations with full voting power. The same four are also aligned with ICC chairman Jagmohan Dalmiya.

Which is why there are many who feel the Karnataka boys—their strength down from seven to one—are paying the price for their association's aligning with Dalmiya's friend-turned-foe Inder Singh Bindra in the BCCI elections. "I don't think that is the reason. It should not be the reason," avers C. Nagaraj, secretary of the Karnataka State Cricket Association. He adds: "The selectors are carrying this regionalism business too far. People must be jealous of Karnataka's preeminence in producing talented cricketers. This is not good for Indian cricket."

"Rahul Dravid's troubles began the day he's said to have signed a Rs 60 lakh-deal with Pepsi. Can we aver that Dravid came into Team Pepsi at the cost of the Indian skipper who is reported to have asked in excess of Rs 2 crore for a new two-year deal?" The Indian Express .

The theory falls flat on many counts. The sun, for instance, is shining on Ajay Jadeja, a recent Pepsi signatory. And there may be some justification in keeping Dravid out of a one-day side. But the unseemly influence sponsors and TV moguls have begun to wield over the BCCI has been evident since the BCCI elections in Chennai in November.

Said board vice-president Kamal Morarka: "I wouldn't go so far as to say sponsors caused the rift between Dalmiya and Bindra. But they certainly stoked the fires." And its after-sparks are being felt by everybody, everywhere, not least by the young captain.

"Captaincy is something anybody in the crowd can do 90 per cent of the time. It's what you do in the remaining 10 per cent that makes all the difference." —Geoff Boycott

 By all accounts, including the Yorkshire-man's, Sachin has not measured up in that 10 per cent. His bowling changes have been predictable, his field placements staid and only occasionally interesting, his batting order changes unimaginative. It was no different in Sharjah. "It was ordinary," said a itinerant cricket writer. And in the run-up to the desert tourney, the selectors had used his poor form and poor captaincy to drive home a hard bargain by eroding his authority.

"The selectors asked us to drop Venkatesh Prasad for the Mohali Test." —cricket coach Anshuman Gaekwad

The wiry seamster's troubles with the five wise men began when they rested him for the Sahara Cup. He's injured, said they. No, I am not, said he. The problems further compounded when Prasad was asked to lead the Board President's XI against Sri Lanka last month. The selectors asked him to field if he won the toss so that they could see how fit he was. Prasad took one look at the bland, back-breaking track and did the opposite.

"Even one selector, if he is present at the ground, can decide the lineup." —Sachin

Slighted, the selectors didn't play Prasad for the first of the two Tests against the Lankans on a greentop, and Sachin had to accede. "A selector is supposed to have told scribes with conviction on his journey from Delhi to Chandigarh that Prasad would be warming the bench," wrote Joseph Hoover in Deccan Herald . Prasad didn't play the next Test in Nagpur either, as the selectors dumped the theory that fast bowlers hunt in pairs. Sachin watched meekly.

"Sidhu has been picked as an opener for Sharjah. Sachin will bat at No.4." —selectors' chairman, Ramakant Desai

Though he has scored 11 of his 12 one-day centuries as an opener, Sachin succumbed to the selector's blackmail to bat lower down, as his captaincy was on the line. By promoting Saba Karim to open, and sending Sidhu at one-drop, Sachin scored some brownie points. But, as Boycott points out, protecting your best batsman is "like asking Brian Lara to come in at No.5".

"Whether it's stubbornness or lack of cricketing intelligence, I don't know." —Vengsarkar.

Ramakant Desai now claims the selectors had only asked Sachin not to open; they hadn't specified his batting position. But against Pakistan, Sachin took it one step further, sending in Robin Singh at No. 4 instead of going in himself after the second wicket had fallen. Gavaskar said on air that he just couldn't understand why the skipper had sent in a lefthander to join another lefthander (Saurav Ganguly).

"Ajay Jadeja has been promoted as opener. It has been unanimously accepted." —Desai

Weakened first by his own form (his adjusted average has fallen in both forms), then by the results (the Indians haven't won even one of their 12 Tests this year),Sachin has allowed the selectors to first pick the squad, then pick the playing eleven and then also decide who bats where. Result, as cricket writer Prem Panicker says: "The selectors take all the decisions without any of the responsibilities of producing results. The captain/coach who take none of the decisions are held accountable for producing results."

"Anil Kumble seems to have lost the art of spinning the cricket ball." —Cyril

Mitcheley  Having taken just 25 wickets in his 25 one-dayers this year, the end was nigh for Kumble. But as the writer Mukul Kesavan says, it's not that Kumble has lost his turn that is startling, but that he managed to take 170 Test wickets without too much of it that should rightly demand our attention.

Kumble's replacement Sairaj Bahutule—a young all-rounder of steel who survived a tragic accident involving the son of ghazal singers Jagjit and Chitra Singh to play cricket again—is the one concession the selectors have made to Sachin. But in dropping his key players, the selectors are doing little to provide the continuity Sachin needs to forge a winning combination.

No logical reasons were forthcoming for axing Kuruvilla, except that, like Prasad, he was a liability on the field. Except that Gaekwad had been making inquiries with a statistician on Nayan Mongia's one-day record vis-a-vis Karim.

No logical reasons were forthcoming for bringing in V.V.S. Laxman, who scored a 50 in his last Test innings in the West Indies, and had since been deemed a one-day specialist. Or for Hrishikesh Kanitkar, like Bahutule, getting the nod for his all-round skills against Kambli.

"This is what happens when you have selectors who haven't played international cricket." —Kirti Azad.

By stating that the changes are only for the first two one-dayers against Sri Lanka and that "some other senior player will make way" for the third, the selectors are not trying to hide what's on view: a desperate grab for power, couched in talk of 'experiment'. It's a carrot to some, a dagger to others.

"We're preparing the team for the 1999 World Cup." —Desai

In the 50th year of independence, the cricket board is paying its own tribute to the colonial power. England bans wives on tour, India bans wives on tour. England bans cell-phones in dressing room, India does ditto. England sends a newlook team keeping in mind the 1999 World Cup, likewise India. What next? England plunges from a premier cricketing power to a has-been, Sharjah nothwithstanding. Is India en route?

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