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August 18, 1998


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Fun and Games!

Harsha Bhogle

Searching as we are all the time for the sensational, the announcement of twentytwo probables for the pre-season training camp must go down as an anti-climax. A bit like a Formula One race without a crash, even if that is a gruesome parallel! Ironically, that is perhaps the best way to start a new cricket season, for this one is going to have its share of surprises.

A good selection rarely raises eyebrows and, while you and I might have got twenty of the twentytwo names right, this means the selectors have decided to do away with the dramatic.

Is that a sign that there is a large degree of consensus within the committee? Or is it a sign that there was no one else to choose? Or does it mean, since selectors are such tempting subjects for tongue-in-cheek remarks, that they fulfilled the dramatic urge while naming the `A’ team for Denmark and Holland?

Incidentally, I hope the success India have achieved there is not used to justify the original selection. Denmark are an also-ran at the ICC Trophy, and Holland didn't even qualify for the World Cup. And just so everyone knows who we were up against, Holland were actually short of some key players and asked for a comeback from Nolan Clarke, who is 50.

Two people, though, would have waited with a touch of uncertainty for this list to be announced. Rahul Dravid, around whom there should never really be any question mark, will get to catch up with his teammates but Rajesh Chauhan, now cleared by everybody, finds himself back in the refrigerator.

His exclusion is another vote of confidence for the young Harbhajan Singh, but given the rather lean look the spin bowling department sports, and given that he is always an asset in the one-day game, Chauhan might have been allowed to feel that he is not the forgotten man.

In fact, to cast a glance at the list of bowlers picked (nine specialists plus Robin Singh and Hrishikesh Kanitkar), and remember there is nobody in domestic cricket at the moment who is likely to excite the selectors, is to experience a huge sign of discomfort. It also shows the enormous responsibility that rests on Javagal Srinath. I would go so far as to say, with almost nine months to go for the World Cup, that India might have a chance without Tendulkar -- but without Srinath, they will be buried.

It is vitally important then, that he is nursed right through this season. In fact, it is critical that the selection committee that comes together in September has a clear policy on the team itself. India play a ridiculous amount of cricket from the Sahara Cup till the tournament in Sharjah in April. In fact, the schedule looks a bit like a high school time-table in a school leaving year with every conceivable slot filled by eager teachers anxious to complete their share of the preparation.

After the Sahara Cup and the Commonwealth Games, India go to Zimbabwe, play the mini World Cup, go to Sharjah, tour New Zealand for a month and a half, then play a home Test series plus a triangular, return to Dhaka for the Asia Cup and land up in Sharjah once again in April. Apparently there is a fifteen day period in between (after Sharjah and before New Zealand) which is now sought to be filled by a four nation tournament allotted to a state association.

And if there is still a week left, we’ll probably organise another tournament. And if that leaves a couple of days, we’ll make them play tennis ball cricket. And if they have fifteen minutes between innings, we’ll make them play book cricket. And then we will send the pride of India to the World Cup. Bones jangling and muscles frayed, but who cares?

If someone does care, and that will be the happiest apology note I will have ever written, the selectors will rest the key players for at least two of these tournaments. Or will create a policy of rotation whereby playes are rested according to a plan.

Knowing the insecurity that exists in Indian cricket, the second of the two options will not be a very popular one. And the time to question the wisdom of an itinerary like this has long gone !

Actually the funniest part of the itinerary lies not in its absurd conception but in the uncertainty that surrounds it. This piece is being written with just under a month to go for the Sahara Cup and the Commonwealth Games, and nobody knows, or I suspect wants to know, which team will go where. There are no dates for the home series yet because no one knows who the other team will be. It is meant to be Pakistan but, for all our good wishes, that is about as likely as having a stable, forward looking government in either country.

The fact that the Sahara Cup clashes with the Commonwealth Games was known a very long time ago. The schedule for the Sahara Cup has remained unchanged since the tournament was first played two years ago, and the Commonwealth Games didn’t exactly creep up unnoticed upon us. A decision had to be taken but wasn’t, since everybody in the BCCI hoped this was a nightmare that would simply stand up and say goodbye. A messenger hasn’t arrived from the heavens carrying a decision either, which means Plan B wasn’t much use as well. And I suspect there is no Plan C. And so, everyone waits !

Pardon me if I sound naive, or unconcerned, but how many people in this country are interested in cricket being part of the Commonwealth Games? In stature, these games rank nowhere near either the Olympics or the Asian Games, and the very founder of the Commonwealth has chosen not to send its team. No England team at the Games? As far as I am concerned, if the groom chooses to miss the wedding, it makes little sense for the guests to show up.

Of the other lead teams, Pakistan have already announced a second string and South Africa have rested Hansie Cronje, Jonty Rhodes, Gary Kirsten and Allan Donald. The West Indies do not have an identity at the Commonwealth Games and so will be represented by three different islands, and that means only Australia and Sri Lanka, among the nations that matter are really anywhere near full strength.

Cricket is by no means the showpiece of the tournament, and we seriously need to consider the alternative. The BCCI has a long-standing commitment to the Sahara Cup, which means to the sponsors and the television rights holders who have paid huge amounts, to send the best team available. Not to do that would be a dishonourable act; a bit like charging a customer for a luxury car and sending him a scooter instead.

Remember too that the Sahara Cup is high pressure cricket, the supporters on both sides love it like they love no other tournament, advertisers support it with great joy and there is the small matter of the BCCI making an enormous amount of money out of it.

Even if you want to leave words like honour and commitment aside ( I don’t seem to hear anyone talking of sponsors or television networks being refunded a part of their rights money if the full team doesn’t go to Toronto), I think it makes wonderful cricketing sense to allow the best team to play the best cricket, and let an enthusiastic young side go to Kuala Lumpur and show that they have the passion as well. (Ah,passion. Now when was the last time the Indian Olympic Association used that word ?!)

For a start, instead of tossing people around, we can assure a lot of cricketers of at least a few games.

Harsha Bhogle

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