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February 8, 1999


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Rest Sachin!

Prem Panicker

In the aftermath of the dramatics at the Firozeshah Kotla, one statement, made by the Indian cricket establishment two days before, returns to haunt me.

"It is up to Sachin to declare his fitness," said board secretary J Y Lele. A statement that was echoed by chairman of selectors Ajit Wadekar.

I don't know -- if I were a player, if I were halfway committed to cricket, I would declare myself fit if it meant getting to play against Pakistan, more so given how rare Tests between the two nations are.

But if it were up to individual players, we wouldn't need physiotherapists, team doctors, boards, selectors, would we? Or have we forgotten the South African tour, when Srinath, with a handicapped wing, played on and on and on and finally, broke down to such an extent that we lost his services for a good six months and more?

When Srinath finally broke down, at the start of the West Indies tour, we had Ali Irani -- the gent who at the time was drawing a hefty salary as team doctor -- declaring that he knew Srinath was unfit all along.

We had the same happen in Sri Lanka, when Prasad slipped in the nets at the start of the tour and kept right on playing -- with the celebrated Irani, again, telling us post facto that he 'knew all along' that the medium pacer was unfit.

The one thing Indian cricket does not need, is a repeat. Most certainly not with Sachin Tendulkar. Definitely not with the World Cup less than 100 days away.

Which is why I believe that the board should, on its own, rest Sachin Tendulkar. Most definitely for the first match of the Asian Test Championship at the Eden Gardens starting this 16th -- and if required, for the rest of the series.

Let's face it, Sachin took the field at the Kotla only half fit. He has a hairline fracture on the left index finger that is yet to heal, meaning that he has to be shielded in the outfield. And to add to the problems, he has been carrying a bad back ever since Chennai -- and despite being declared (or declaring himself) fit, it was very evident to all who saw him bat that his movements were being severely hampered.

In fact, in the second innings, he came out to bat with this big red belt, sort of like a cummerbund, wrapped round his waist. Sanjay Manjrekar, who was on the phone shortly thereafter about something else, made the point that it was unlike Sachin to advertise a handicap, to make it apparent to the opposing team that he was struggling.

The bowlers, particularly Saqlain, had him stretching forward time and again -- like the Indians did, later, with Salim Malik who was batting with a hamstring.

Gaekwad made the mandatory noise about a half-fit Sachin still being worth his place in the side -- but that, I think, is to take a dangerously short term view of the situation.

It is the kind of thinking Pakistan adopted going into this series, when they decided to go with the unfit Inzamam and Salim Malik rather than risk younger, fitter talent -- the thinking being that the experience of the senior players would outweigh their physical shortcomings. A review of the four innings Pakistan has played thus far would indicate that it hasn't quite worked out that way, however.

The same is the case with Tendulkar. And more to the point, making him bat -- and field -- with that back runs the risk of doing it a more lasting injury, which the side cannot afford this close to its World Cup campaign.

I notice they have announced the same 14 for Calcutta. Frankly, I think it would be a much better option to omit Tendulkar, and to bring in someone like Amay Khurasia (who impresses with both technique and temperament) in the middle order. Or, if in the opinion of the selectors, Vinod Kambli is fully fit and functional again, then go with Kambli.

That way, we ensure that Tendulkar's back doesn't crack under the strain, we also force the team to get used to playing without the man.

A good example to follow would be South Africa, which actually pays Allan Donald not to play unimportant games, in order to conserve his energies and use him where he is most needed.

Meanwhile, I've just sent a pleasant hour browsing the net, looking at reviews and match reports of the second Test just ended -- and I must admit to some shock at the statements being made by the Pakistan media.

I guess you have to cater to your constituency -- but I was naive enough to imagine that the first duty of a newspaper was to report the facts, not concoct fiction.

That Pakistan lost because of hostile crowds and a biased umpire is the least startling of the statements, that India won the toss because the coin had heads on both sides (apparently the writer is unaware of the fact that coins are inspected by the rival captains ahead of the toss) the most startling of them.

It is no one's case that the umpiring was impeccable -- in fact, this correspondent among others has taken pains to point out each wrong decision. And a quick review would indicate that India had its share of iffy ones, too -- Tendulkar being declared LBW in the first innings (leading to that vaunted boast about Saqlain having had him out thrice) being a case in point.

The umpiring was bad, yes. Pakistan can feel badly done by on one decision (Ijaz) and perhaps by the earlier one (Afridi). But the report conveniently omits the decisions that went Pakistan's way both here and in Chennai. For instance, the blatantly false appeal by Moin Khan for a catch off Ganguly after the ball had clearly gone off the shin pad of silly point into the ground -- it could be argued that the wicket made the crucial difference, given that the final margin of victory was a mere 12 runs, but I didn't see any Indian newspaper pointing to the bad decision, and the worse appeal, as the reason for India's loss.

Hostile crowds? Come on, now -- the world and his uncle was watching the Chennai crowd applaud as Yousuf Youhanna neared his 50. Satellite television's most enduring image of that game was its final moments, when the crowd, shocked into silence by the dramatic suddenness of the Indian defeat, rose to its feet to cheer the Pakistan team as it did a lap of honour.

And in Delhi, the final image on television was of a section of the crowd waving aloft a huge banner, comprising the Pak and Indian flags stitched together -- treatment in direct contrast to what the Indian team endured as late as last year when it played three ODIs across the border.

It could be argued that it is none of our business what is written in newspapers across the border. But it is not quite that simple.

After all, the avowed reason for this Test series was to build bridges of friendship between the two peoples -- a process that will be hindered, not helped, by such jingoistic, rabble-rousing reportage.

In fact, it starts a snowball -- the Pak crowd, remembering such reports the next time India tours that country, is liable to respond in a fashion similar to what it imagines the Indian crowds greeted their players, and sooner or later, there is going to be some unsavoury incident that we can all do without.

Or is it asking too much, to expect a better balance between fact and fiction?

Prem Panicker

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