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The Fourth Umpire's Call
If TRPs are any indicator of national mood, then the one sports story playing non-stop across TV channels last week said it all: why was Rahul Dravid, ex-India captain, dropped from the national cricket team? The man they called 'the Wall', who's pulled Team India out of so many tight spots in the last decade that even die-hard fans would be hard-pressed to list them all, had been "rested". Naturally, in our 200-and-counting digital channel age, matters would not be left to rest so easy. The channels soon had a gallery of former greats lined up, conspiracy theories were trotted out, old enmities were dissected, the tamasha had begun. Yesteryear heroes ranging from the legendary Gundappa Vishwanath to '83 Cup winning team member Madan Lal, the debonair Sandeep Patil to former chairman of selectors Kiran More, they were all doing the studio rounds questioning the wisdom of dropping Dravid at the start of an important series. Why, even the Pakistanis—gleeful though they were that they wouldn't have to bowl to Dravid—were weighing in with comments on how bad they felt for the man.
Among all this, the perceived villain of the piece, chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar, stood stone-hearted and dispassionate. "Dravid has been given a break, he's a great player. The players whose form and fitness are good will always be considered for India. This applies to all players. It's a five-match series against Pakistan and we have picked the team for the first two matches," he said, matter-of-factly. But it's not as if Dravid was replaced by a man in roaring form. The irony would not have been lost on the reflective Dravid that his place in the side has been taken by Virender Sehwag. He had backed Sehwag when the Delhi opener was out of form but, today, it is Dravid who finds himself with little support in the quarters that matter. He finished the NatWest series against England with an average of 37.16 but the final four innings yielded just 29 runs. Things came to a head after his run of low scores (31, 0, 13, 0 and 7) in the just concluded ODI series against Australia.
The irony of the selectors' move was not lost on the earthy Sehwag either. "I know selection matters are dealt with by selectors but I feel bad that a great player with 10,000 and more runs is not in the side," Sehwag said. Dravid, politically correct at all times, preferred to take the no-comments line.
The popular perception that BCCI president Sharad Pawar facilitated Sourav Ganguly's return to Team India has made people wonder if he would do something similar in Dravid's case. Karnataka MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar even wrote an anguished letter to Pawar: "If there is an attempt by anyone in the cricketing establishment to cause harm to him (Dravid), on grounds other than professional, then that's clearly unacceptable to me, the people of Karnataka and cricketing fans all over India...." But who was the Member of Parliament alluding to?
Well, no prizes for guessing it was Vengsarkar who was being held responsible for Dravid's ouster. Consider the facts: Vengsarkar had made it public, with rather impolitic timing, that it was Dravid who had asked for Sehwag in the World Cup team. Then, there was the timing of Dravid's quitting the captaincy—a day after Vengsarkar came across as being critical of his decision not to bat at No. 3 in the one-dayers in England.
The chairman of selectors, who spent his own playing days watching Sunil Gavaskar, G.R. Vishwanath and Kapil Dev walk away with the limelight, took umbrage at the fact that Dravid had communicated his decision to quit the captaincy not to him, but to BCCI president Sharad Pawar. Vengsarkar also held out a veiled threat to the Big Three (Sachin, Sourav and Dravid) in an interview with a Mumbai newspaper but it was clear his barbs were aimed at Dravid.
A selector Outlook talked to revealed that the team management had raised questions about Ganguly's batting in the sixth one-dayer against Australia in Nagpur. Vengsarkar instead led the discussion towards Dravid's string of failures and succeeded in having him axed. It is another matter that Vengsarkar did not need to tear up the teamsheet as he did after a Mumbai Under-22 team for the C.K. Nayudu Trophy was chosen last month. A former Mumbai captain says, "he did that to include his nephew Rahul Vengsarkar in the side".
As Dravid quietly goes about warming up for the domestic season (he's training with the Karnataka Ranji side), the ground beneath Vengsarkar's feet is slipping. His bete noire in Mumbai and present Team India manager, Lalchand Rajput, has already expressed surprise at Dravid's exclusion. "I am surprised. He's such a class player, a virtual wall against the opposition. We'll definitely miss him," said Rajput, miffed that he wasn't even consulted during the meeting.
Meanwhile, in another put-down the International Cricket Council has directed the BCCI to tell Vengsarkar (and his colleagues) not to visit the Indian team's dressing room during matches. It has been said that Vengsarkar not only spent a lot of time in the dressing room but also brought his friends along, drawing the attention of the ICC's anti-corruption and security unit.
The chairman of selectors is also in the line of fire for writing sponsored columns for Gameplan, a syndication agency that manages a number of players including ODI skipper M.S. Dhoni, Munaf Patel, Piyush Chawla, S. Badrinath and Rohit Sharma. The apparent conflict of interest has raised questions about Vengsarkar's professional ethics. Doubts have now surfaced about how Vengsarkar let Munaf travel to England—the fast bowler's lack of intensity was questioned by bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad.
The buzz is that Dravid will be back sooner rather than later. The Australia tour is almost a certainty, but the 34-year-old might come back even earlier if the selectors' Pakistan plans go awry. Till then, he's sure to stay alive, at least in the TV studios and editorial pages.