The day it's clear that India will be in the Super Six, the team may invite journalists, photographers and others in the low-income group to a party where there will be no interviews given or taken. Only food, drinks and echoing laughter. When a team official suggested this idea after India's match against Australia in the Centurion, there was a feeling that this brave concept was mooted because of its improbability. After the Harare encounter with Zimbabwe, however, some journalists have casually inquired if they should wear jackets to the party or if T-shirts will do.
There is a general good feeling among the daily historians of the game, though the Indian batting essay was the same old story against a weak bowling attack in Harare. Sachin scored. Sehwag threatened. Dravid pitched the tent. Ganguly failed despite a six that all big men with beer in hand in the ground talked about very fondly. But, though the Indian batting didn't redefine any impending future, clearly there seemed on the backs of the blue Indian trousers a useful footmark from the average Indian fan.
It was a kick on the rear that even Sachin Tendulkar felt, making him issue a statement free of cost. The batsmen, as analysts always say, "applied" themselves against Zimbabwe. Srinath and Zaheer were fiery. Nehra touched 148 kilometers-an-hour consistently. Indian fielders were skidding all over the field. There is a faint sign that our men are finally rising to their rumoured talents. The reason for this is birthed in something that happened far away from Africa.
Two days before the victory over Zimbabwe, news from home was trickling in. People who had never really seen a revolution or even a decent students' movement, who had never protested even against shortage of drinking water, bad roads, foul air and other things that make India one big refugee camp, were burning posters, pelting stones at the homes of cricketers and even sending sms messages asking people to boycott all products endorsed by Indian cricketers (though that would include some mobile phone services too). When all this was happening, the team was in Harare, which is what believers in poetic justice will call a fair punishment.
Apart from a general breakdown of basic requirements, the telecom infrastructure is so bad that some cricketers had to try many times before getting through to India to inquire exactly how many glass panes were broken. They had to reconfirm that security was provided outside their homes. Personal requests to mighty officials for some extra care to their immediate family were passed on through dying telephone lines. In the Indian team, there was shame, anger, and a silent vow to fight back.
Beyond that, it has to be said, the boys were just boys. They laughed a lot, worked hard and played volleyball in a manner that suggested they should stick to cricket. It's not as though 15 heads hung despondently refusing to eat food. Indian fans may pretend as though they are not used to losing, but the team is used to taking it on the chin and, well, moving on.
When Sachin Tendulkar made a statement to the press at the nets in the Harare Sports Club, it was to sound like an American president: "We will fight till the last ball is bowled." Team officials insist it was not their idea to make him speak to the people of India. "He volunteered to address the Indian fans," says Amrit Mathur, the team's media manager. Meanwhile, Harbhajan asked photographers not to click his pictures—"they will all kill me if they see me smiling". And Sehwag ran away when asked to "address the nation". Mohammed Kaif, it is believed, was the most rattled by the protests in India. He almost fell silent for a day. The logical Dravid only muttered that he didn't understand why people reacted so excessively to a loss against, after all, Australia.Ganguly was furious: "I understand people are disappointed with us. We are disappointed with ourselves too. But throwing stones at our homes is a bit too much." He says the issue of home security and other concerns were not raised in any meetings after the news reached them. "We're focused on cricket. That's what we do best".
Though Ganguly denied that his celebration on the field every time he took a wicket in the Zimbabwe match was not a special "take that" message to all those who have criticised the Indian performance in the Cup, it's an open secret that the team has taken strong objection to former cricketers slamming them. There is reported discontent over Sunil Gavaskar's views about the team. As an official says: "The boys felt that the things that some ex-players said about India's lack of spirit and will after the loss against Australia were very harsh. They feel at least those who've played for the country should know that these things happen."
It's never clear on whose side Ravi Shastri is, but when he walked into the press box in Harare as the match was proceeding towards a pleasant end, he had a broad smile on his face. He told a journalist loudly from across the room, sounding like a schoolmaster going to a backbencher with a cane: "I am going to the studio tomorrow." What he meant was ESPN-STAR's studio in Cape Town where Gavaskar and other contracted analysts are based. "I want to ask them some questions. But gently."
The Indian victory against Zimbabwe, which should not be forgotten even for a moment that it is a relatively weak side, may have given the team and its close group of friends a reason to point its finger at former cricketers who had spoken rudely. But the truth is that the win is like a Diwali bonus in a middle-class home that creates momentary flutters after which all real problems show they are very much there.
This World Cup will be won by the best batting side. In the stands of South Africa, casual followers of the sport are saying that they have heard the Indian batting line-up is the best in the world, "but why?" After the Centurion match, when Tony Greig was asked if he thought this was the best batting side in the world, the thin, nice-guy mask he pastes on for professional reasons slipped to reveal a more menacing face. "No way," he said as he walked away quickly to protect some exclusive contract. Foreign columnists are seldom overtly critical about India because, as syndicate agents reveal, India is a cricket columnist's biggest market.
In the last 15 odis we have played, excluding the Zimbabwe match, India's top seven batsmen have scored 1,841 runs, an average of just over 17 per batsman per match. Australia's top seven have scored 2,967, South Africa's 2,630. Pakistan's 2,410. Sri Lanka's 2,215. New Zealand's 1,906, West Indies' 1,981 and England's 1,856. Indian batsmen have performed the worst among top cricket-playing nations. Ganguly had scored 99 runs in the last 10 matches. With Dinesh Mongia making a total of just 106 runs in his last eight matches, and Kaif totting up 139 in his 15 (all figures do not include Saturday's match against Namibia), the question here is whose bright idea it was to drop Laxman. Are we so good that someone like V.V.S. has no place in this side? It's time we ask whether the notion of a "one-day specialist" itself is highly exaggerated.
Sitting in a dressing room, beside countless kit bags and a general male mess, Ganguly has no answers. But contrary to popular belief, he is not a worried man who wonders where his next runs are going to come from. "I am not alone. I am not sad." He may be speaking the truth. There is something very relaxed about this man who can say he has the second-most important job in the country without getting sacked.It's not easy to ask him questions because he knows them all. While punching in some text message on his cellphone, he speaks deep truths like, "We have to apply ourselves, we have to play better". It's not possible to maintain the farce of serious cricket inquisition for a long time with him because his eyes light up all of a sudden as though to reconfirm politely: "Isn't this just a game after all?"
The only thing that catches his interest is anything with a Bengali connection. Like a passing boy's T-shirt which has something scribbled in Bangla. "Can you speak Bangla?" he asks him with genuine curiosity. He has his small group of Calcutta reporters to whom he chats like a free man, fully knowing that they will understand what is on the record and what is off. Despite all talk about attitude and other things that disturbed even Steve Waugh, he's an easygoing captain with mere bouts of temper. He gives the impression that he's just passing through fame and accountability.
It's inevitable to compare him with former captain Sachin Tendulkar who exists at his own level, wrapped in some pre-plan. There is something lethal about the way Tendulkar looks these days at the nets, in the dressing room, as he walks towards the team bus and even when he makes fun of Sehwag. There is a calm sense of determination in him that, if you are an Indian fan, is very reassuring. The way he is playing now is an extension of this quiet intensity. In the press conference after winning the Man of the Match title in the Zimbabwe match, he denied there was any redefinition of his batting or any cautious approach. "I am batting normally. If you see anything different in my batting, then I don't know about it," he said. But it's becoming clear that the boy who used to demolish is gone. It's a man who now wants to bleed slowly and then slaughter. This may be the World Cup where the highest run-getter in the history of the Cup will reclaim his rightful slot as the best and not, "arguably the best".
Apart from Sachin's composure and the kick in the rear that the team is moving around with these days, there is another factor that is cause for optimism. Pool A was supposed to be the more difficult one. But with South Africa's defeats against the West Indies and New Zealand, it now appears that the real heartbreaks will be in Pool B. In India's group, as expected, the fight will be for the second and third positions, with Australia brooking no surprises. Two countries among England, Pakistan, India and Zimbabwe will go in. India has already defeated Zimbabwe. England has conceded a match against Zimbabwe. Neither Pakistan nor England have shown any dramatic character in this World Cup to seriously threaten India. Only India threatens India. If India can beat those two countries, it will be placed second in the pool.
Mathematically, India can lose to either England or Pakistan and still make it to the second stage. It will take only a truly miserable performance for India from now on not to be in the Super Six. What is of greater consequence is how many points India will be able to carry through. The prayer is that the Men in Blue go into the Super Six with eight points. Then India can make it to the semi-finals, even if it loses one of its three matches in the Super Six.
Despite the general pessimism, this World Cup has been structured in a way that will see India through to the semis. All this team has to do is play the way it can.
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