There are two ways of looking at the latest lafda bedevilling Indian cricket. The first is to treat it as an open-and-shut case of cause and effect. Sachin Tendulkar gets injured before the finals of the tri-nation tournament against West Indies. Despite the pain, he plays the match, although a stomach-ache prompts him to make two long disappearances from the field. An ugly heave leads to his dismissal for zero and India's defeat. Back home, the injury is diagnosed as a hairline fracture and our man is forced to skip the one-day series in Sri Lanka.
But is anything ever so straight and narrow in the wheels-within-deals world of Indian cricket? So, conspiracy theorists have swiftly swung into the scene, and even those who are close to Tendulkar and skipper Saurav Ganguly are openly speculating on a possible rift between The Butcher of Bandra and The Prince of Calcutta. The issue at stake is not just the captaincy, but the sheer incompatibility between the two. The sourest grape in the vineyard? "Ganguly was told by his advisors that Tendulkar would fail in the finals and, sure enough, he did," says a source.
There can never be an official confirmation of the Ganguly-Tendulkar spat. But the calendar offers a neat glimpse of the manner in which things have been heating up between the two (see infographic). Sometime in June, probably to stave off criticism about his continuing poor run with the bat (14 runs in 3 Tests in Zimbabwe), Ganguly made a statement implying that his centuries had led India to victory more often. A few days later, apropos nothing, Tendulkar said that "he was willing to be the Indian captain again". From then on, it hasn't been milk and honey between the two.
Cricket fans on the world wide web are already comparing the row between the two with the Sunil Gavaskar versus Kapil Dev duel in the late '80s. Like the superstars of yore, Ganguly and Sachin deny there are any bad vibes between them. In fact, Ganguly says he sought Sachin's advice to break his run drought and that The Master Blaster had assured him that there was nothing wrong with his technique and that he should not worry. But the timing of Sachin's injury has served to fuel the rumour-mills.
The defeat in the finals in Harare is said to have prompted a dressing-room showdown between the two. But the only information that has emerged is that it was coach John Wright and Ganguly who crossed each other's paths. Ganguly reportedly did not like the way Wright was mouthing off youngsters.
Still, there are contrasting reports on the bonhomie between Ganguly and Tendulkar. The view in Calcutta is that Ganguly, Tendulkar and vice-captain Rahul Dravid remain the best of pals and on tours stay in rooms either opposite or next to each other. Says an official of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bcci): "Team spirit is at an all-time high in the current Indian team. Ganguly has quickly learnt to be a leader and has his own style of keeping the team together."
But those who've seen the team on tour say the relationship between the two is at best only cordial. Captaincy is clearly an issue and both want it badly. Ganguly has it at the moment, Sachin doesn't. But those in the know say the ties between the two have not been helped by their respective business interests—Tendulkar only recently signed up with WorldTel for an astronomical fee for the next five years, and they believe his market-value would go up if he were captain.Hence, they say, Sachin's articulation of his captaincy aspirations.
"As a senior player, Tendulkar has the right to air his views on the captaincy issue. But if Ganguly is to be dumped, there has to be a very good reason," says a selector on condition of anonymity. "The present selection committee has a lot of faith in Ganguly's abilities as skipper. He is aggressive and has a mind of his own. Plus, he is trying to emerge from a lean patch. At the moment, he needs our full support," he adds.
Ganguly has not done too badly as captain either, bearding even the all-conquering Aussies. But his own form has been terrible. And like any Indian cricket captain, he's insecure. He is being appointed on a series-by-series basis. Unlike Mohd Azharuddin, who was appointed for a full year during his second tenure, no other captain has enjoyed such a luxury in recent times. Ganguly has already said he is in favour of a fixed tenure. "I've got to concentrate not only on my batting, but also on my captaincy. It will be easier if there is a fixed tenure, whatever the period," he told The Telegraph.
"It's natural for Ganguly to feel disappointed because he has not been given a long run. But that's a policy and it has worked well," says the selector. At the moment, Ganguly looks good to stay till October's tour of South Africa. If the mood of the current selectors is anything to go by, then his position is not under too much of a threat because the present committee under Chandu Borde will stay in power till September and will in all probability pick the tour party for SA.
In fact, even if the captaincy is up for grabs, history may go against Tendulkar leading the country once again, although he's only 28. With Dravid next in line, there is a belief that Sachin may never captain India again. He was given the crown back for a year, but he backed out largely because he was battling his own form and was uncomfortable with the presence of certain players. "In a way, Tendulkar left us in the lurch. We lost faith in him because we needed someone on whom we could rely and trust. Ganguly has done a fair job here," says the selector.
In the end, though, that may be just one selector's view. Ganguly has been particularly strident about having the players he wants. He has publicly supported the demand for graded payments for players. And he has never hesitated to bring a certain passion to his role as captain with indiscreet words or physical gestures of disapproval. Unlike other Indian captains, he could never be a dummy to the high officials of the board. He is not afraid to disagree sharply on many issues and the Indian board, by tradition, has never wanted such men.
Those who know Tendulkar, like former coach Ajit Wadekar and former team-mate Praveen Amre, however, say "he is not silly enough to sit at home if he could afford to go out and bat". He hasn't missed a single Test in the last 12 years and has played 84 on the trot. He has missed only 31 one-dayers (26 of them because he wanted to take rest, one after his father died and four because he was dropped early on in his career).
"From what I gather from my sources, Sachin is very upset that the whole thing has been blown up and the way the media has pitted him against Ganguly," says veteran cricket writer K.N. Prabhu, adding: "A very peculiar element has crept into the Bengali media. I don't know why they are dishing out all these conspiracy theories.Why is it so difficult to understand that he needs some rest?"
But the bottomline is this: even as the team is improving on many fronts and youngsters are making a mark, the team of today is not the same which played the Aussies earlier this year. Commercial interests and personal agendas are beginning to vitiate the atmosphere in the dressing room. In such a situation, youngsters do get unsure. Even if there are no camps, the idea gains currency that there are blocks within the team and it is not the best way to build a team. The ideal thing in this situation would be for Ganguly and Tendulkar to come out together in the open and put to rest all speculation. But it would not happen. And till such time, the campers and rumour-mongers would have a field day.
Tirtha Gautam in Calcutta With Krishna Prasad
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