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November 4, 1998


Five Oaks - Residential property in Bangalore

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A dollop of pride...

Ashwin Mahesh

Like millions of others around the nation, I grew up being able to recall the images of my favorite sport long after their respective heroes had put them on the world's television screens. Javed Miandad's last-ball six at Sharjah, Kapil Dev versus Richard Hadlee in the Benson & Hedges semifinals, Allan Lamb fighting for yet another hundred as the last man, with his arm in a sling, came out to bat against a Windies attack in the blackwash series. Courtney Walsh's gracious gesture in not Mankad-ing the last man, which cost his team a berth in the next round of the World Cup. And countless others.

And of late, I've had reason to remember them even more, for in those images, Indian cricket's failing is starkly seen. Our greatest failing is not that the system is incorrigibly trapped in the clutches of imbeciles with no love for the game - such idiots as run the BCCI and ICC have been around at other times, too. Nor is the flaw so much in the divisive selection process, designed more to let Indians compete with each other rather than bind them together. Even that charade has produced its fine moments.

Instead, what the national team lacks more than anything can be found in two simple things that any professional ought to bring to the game, but is so sadly absent in those who represent us on the cricketing fields of the planet. A dedication to the roles they play in society, and the absolute determination to be the very best they can.

These failings are only more regrettable when we consider that the team, indeed the whole nation, teems with talent. That the Gangulys and Dravids are having their rightful places questioned speaks volumes of the pool from which the team could be drawn. And yet, the riches so evident by their potential seem dull by their accomplishments. Hardly any victories on foreign tours. Beating up routinely on strong oppositions one day, crumbling to the low the next. An inability to get the bowling and batting going at the same time. An over-reliance on the mastery of its genius opener.

The lament could go on much longer, but why bother? For, as I said earlier, the rot is not in their abilities, but in the value they place on the ways in which those abilities are reflected upon the rest of us. Let us turn to them, then.

The Sachin Tendulkars of this world are destroyers. Their magnificence stems from an ability to so dominate the other side that the sight of them walking on to the field sparks fear in the hearts of bowlers. The opposition talks specifically of taking them out, with the utmost confidence that therein lies the key to their own victory. In the colloquy of street parlance, Tendulkar is out there, with a simple and entirely readable message to the bowlers that says "you and me, bloke."

An extraordinary state to be in, no doubt. One that even pays off regularly, as Tendulkar's ongoing record of one-day hundreds shows. And yet. might it be possible that this very strength could also be our undoing? Do Azharuddin, Kumble, Jadeja or Srinath not provide the perfect complement to this superweapon from time to time? How then, could I maintain that we rely too much on Tendulkar's talents?

To me, the answer to that question lies in recognizing that it is not the reliance on any one individual's skill that is wrong, for it has served us quite well in many matches, as any brief look at Gavaskar's or Kapil Dev's careers will confirm. So too have the skills of others come forward from time to time. The failing, instead, is that in relying on skill as the ultimate weapon in our arsenal. we have set aside an important component of every game that has set the winners apart from the also-rans throughout its history - pride.

Sure Tendulkar, Ganguly, Azhar and Dravid are classy, and Srinath is as fine a bowler as one might want. But consider this - the Steven Waughs, Jonty Rhodeses, Michael Bevans and Allan Donalds of this world are out there playing an altogether different game. These stars of arguably the best teams out there are pillars of the sport, in ways that our cricketers have never aspired to be of late. And therein lies the difference.

The reputations of these ironmen have been built around their character more than their prowess. When the other team is batting at 255/1, you can count on Allan Donald to bowl his finest over, and you can be as certain as it gets that Hansie Cronje is thinking of the field he should set to the next ball. That if something goes by in the air within 15 feet of Rhodes, he will be at it in a flash and come up with the cherry in his hands. These men wear their professionalism in their demeanor, and the team prospers. Not because their talents are God-given, but because with the little they have, they seek to put on the world's stage the very best they can ever be.

The other face of the ironman mould is best exemplified by the Aussies. If there is one thing you can count on, it is that every single man in an Australian cap who strides out of the pavilion wears it with a pride that refuses to go down until the last ball is bowled. Speaking of a near-collapse situation last year during the Ashes tour, Christopher Martin-Jenkins recorded Steve Waugh's contribution with the simplest of words, yet moving ones, that "His pride in the baggy green cap would not allow anything else. He simply stood his ground, and that was enough."

The ironman is a warrior to his cause. More than a paid professional, he is a disciplined and unfailing champion of his own ability to stand every test you can throw at him. At 15/3 in the 10th over, if you haven't got rid of Michael Bevan and Steve Waugh, the game is far from over, and you can be sure of that.

The trouble with Indian cricket is very simple, we do not have individuals on the team who fill this important niche. Many other teams strive consciously to build an image around things that the whole team can feed off. The craftiness of a captain, his sure judgement, the resilience of its ironmen, the unflinching service of the team members, these are moulded into the gameplan with a purpose. And from those purposes, a Ranatunga or a Taylor seems to lead an army of conquerors, not merely a loose federation of stars. There is no room for listlessness or slack, and that is the only real plan. It has worked beautifully.

The images of the game that remain with us make us the fans that we are, for in them we find the evocative things that enrich our own emotions and aspirations. It is such a shame to our passion that in our nation, no effort is made to preserve and promote the spirit of the game's warriors. If we realized this failing, then we might wake to a time when the accomplishments of our heroes are chronicled not merely in words that speak of their magical skills, but in passages that speak of their burning determination to put the very best face of Indian sport on the world's stage.

Mail Prem Panicker