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June 28, 1999


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The lost emperor

Prem Panicker

At noon tomorrow, at the Vidharbha Cricket Association stadium's conference room, BCCI secretary Jaywant Lele -- Indian cricket's answer to Billy Bunter -- will announce the identity of India's next cricket captain.

Somehow, you get the feeling that Lele is not the right person to make the announcement -- a better option would be a Grecian Chorus in particularly good voice -- for there has been, about the whole captaincy issue, something of the air of Greek melodrama at its most homeric.

Check out the dramatis personae. Mohammad Azharuddin, the incumbent -- a personality cut in the Agammemnon mould. The king who, supreme at one point, progressively finds himself dwarfed by his younger peers.

Sachin Tendulkar himself -- your classic Achilles, born to command. Wounded in the mind and soul after -- at least in his perception -- being betrayed by both selectors and some fellow players during his first essay, and retiring to his tent in a huff, vowing never to take the mantle again until Azharuddin/Agammemnon has forsaken the battle field forever.

Ajay Jadeja -- your typical Ulysses. Street-smart, suave, savvy, up to all the tricks, the smiling face hiding the calculating mind and the burning ambition.

Rahul Dravid -- you'd cast him as a Patrocles, wouldn't you? The young, clean-cut warrior beloved of all (well, since this is the Indian team and unanimity isn't what it is famous for, amend that to "beloved of almost all"). Achilles' best friend, the man who dons the famous warrior's armour, setting himself up as target for the Trojan hordes.

These, then, the dramatis personae that, between the last day of the World Cup and today, have played out the various acts in a drama largely unseen by the cricket-loving public. A drama as tempestuous as any that Homer ever conceived of -- alas, that there exists only a Lele to immortalise it in prosaic press briefings!

During this period of a little over a month, we have seen Mohammad Azharuddin indicate that he is not prepared to voluntarily relinquish the captaincy. We have seen board president Raj Singh Dungarpur, for reasons best known to him, go beyond the call of duty to back Azhar's continued tenure at the top. We have seen the selectors split on the issue, with Shivlal Yadav doing a Horatius-like stand in defence of Azhar while three of the others are ranged against him and the third -- the worthy from the East Zone -- is sitting on the fence, waiting to see which side he can jump down on to best effect.

We have seen Sachin Tendulkar stick to his position, with an Achilles-like resolve, that he will not accept the captaincy until and unless Azhar retires from international cricket -- the unstated yet obvious implication here being that Tendulkar, once bitten, is now doubly shy of going through the kind of politics that marked his first tenure as captain.

We have seen Ajay Jadeja adopt a high media profile even as he gave interviews left, right and centre, all aimed at firmly putting himself on the captaincy map. And finally, we have seen Rahul Dravid increasingly emerge, in selectorial thinking, as the best possible compromise candidate.

So who is it going to be? Not Azharuddin, that is for sure -- the selection is tomorrow, and Azharuddin's place in the side, let alone the question of captaincy, depends on his submitting a fitness certificate to the selectors on August 12, consequent on his shoulder operation. Given that at least three of the selectors were of a mind to dump Azhar anyway, this has given them just the excuse they need.

It is not, for now, going to be Rahul Dravid either, though his name was seriously considered by the selectors as a compromise candidate.

So that leaves Tendulkar and Jadeja. Interestingly, Tendulkar has in recent times gone back on his 'I won't be captain till Azhar retires' stance -- the party line now being, 'I will consider the captaincy if they ask me'. The reason for this volte face lies in practicality -- it was okay for Tendulkar to take that tough stance as long as he and Azhar were the only contenders. It was okay, too, even when Jadeja emerged as a contender, for Tendulkar could be pretty sure that Jadeja would never be given the captaincy of the Test side. However, Dravid's emergence in selectorial minds could have sparked the rethink on Tendulkar's part -- both are the same age, and if Dravid gets the captaincy by default, who is to say he won't do a good job of it and keep the job for a long duration?

So Tendulkar, like Dickens' Barkis, is now willing. The selectors, though, appear to be in a mood to make him wait, as he has for almost a year now made them wait. There are four one day tournaments involving India in the immediate future -- Sri Lanka, Toronto (now that Kargil is history, the board appears in the mood to let the tournament happen -- it is okay to pay lip service to flag, country and soldier but when money talks, the board as always is onoy too willing to listen), Singapore and Kenya. And then the Test series against New Zealand.

Selectorial thinking at the moment appears to be to give Tendulkar the captaincy for the home series against the Kiwis. Meanwhile, the process of whittling down the contenders has left only one contender in the frame -- so don't be surprised if, at noon tomorrow, Lele names his fellow Baroda-man, Ajaysinghji Daulatsinghji Jadeja, as captain for the one day team for some or all of the four tournaments mentioned above.

This leads to a piquant situation, though. Tendulkar had only indicated that he will not lead a side that contains Azharuddin. Jadeja has, in more recent times, done the same thing -- giving clear indications that given his way, he will not have Azharuddin playing under him. And Jadeja's good friend and mentor, Kapil Dev, has been helping the thing along, turning the screws on the current captain at every opportunity -- the latest being his recent television interview with Rajiv Shukla for the Ru-Ba-Ru programme, wherein Kapil clearly said that in his view, Azharuddin should quit the international stage now. "Azharuddin has played the best part of his cricketing life and now he is just passing the time," was what Kapil said -- and in so saying, Kapil was merely repaying compliments Azhar had paid him in the past, when Kapil was struggling towards the world Test bowling record at the fag end of his career.

Word from within the selectors' camp, thus, is that Jadeja will get the captain's armband on the morrow.

As to what that implies, for India's cricketing prospects in the immediate future, let's wait till we get it from the horse's mouth.

Prem Panicker

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