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November 23, 1999


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In through the out door

Harsha Bhogle

1999 limps to an end. It has been a year without an identity; a year that seems to exist only for the end it will signify. And as it peters out, it will leave mixed memories in the minds of two of the greatest cricketers of the decade. Ian Healy put his remarkably distinguished gloves up for good but he did so in the full knowledge that he was forced to. And Mohammad Azharuddin continues to put bat into kit bag hoping for a return to the stage that he owned not so long ago.

In both cases, one crucial element got left out. Sport might seem, on the surface, to be all about putting a ball into a net or into a hole or over a boundary line. But if that was all there was to it, it wouldn't be half the movement it is all over the world. People come to watch sport for the skill on display but they also come to watch the emotion attached to the skill. They come to watch personalities but they feel for the human beings beneath those. They want to see success but they want to feel the warmth that surrounds it.

Too often, in pursuit of success, people forget this. More than anything else, sport is about people. The trophy is only a visible end, it is merely a symbol of a more distinguished pursuit. I thought Australia briefly forgot that when it came to a person who had been at the heart of their amazing success story. They pride themselves there about not allowing emotion to interfere with a team goal and that is the only thing I do not understand about a country that gives us so much to admire.

Ian Healy knew he was coming to the end of his career. It was something he had debated, within himself and with friends, and it was something he had accepted. It requires a very large heart to come to that conclusion. If you have always been proud of your ability, to accept the fact that it has diminished greatly is a terrible feeling. But Healy was alive to it, he was willing to shake hands with it. Remember though that we are talking here about only one aspect of Healy's cricket, the smaller of his two skills.

When Healy decided that the time had come, he did so not because he was no longer the best wicket-keeper in Australia, or for that matter in the world, he did so because he felt that he was not contributing enough with the bat. Australia traditionally pick the best four bowlers irrespective of their batting skills, and so they expect the wicket-keeper to contribute. Rodney Marsh had done it and Ian Healy had with great distinction as well. Now he felt that he was no longer a batsman at this level of the game.

While taking the decision to quit, there was only one thing that Healy asked for. He wanted to go out in his home town, in the city of Brisbane that had given him so much; in front of an audience that had been such a part of his life. All he wanted was one Test match. But the Australian selectors, and Allan Border, with whom he had played so much of his cricket was one of them, felt that they could no longer allow him that.

There must have been cricketing reasons for choosing to begin a new series with a new wicket-keeper and to some extent, they were proved right when Gilchrist played a critical innings of 81 at Brisbane. Yet, I would like to believe that a man who played 119 Test matches, and produced several match winning efforts, might have been given one more.

In the cause of the team, we often ask the individual to go beyond the call of duty. Can the individual then, I wonder, not expect the team to do it for him once? Healy kept wickets for Australia with broken fingers, torn thigh muscles and stomach upsets. I have seen him keep wickets, during the Titan Cup,when he could not sprint around to short leg because of a pulled muscle and struggled to stretch out to reach balls. Yet, the individual stretched himself because the team needed it.

As I got up on the morning of the first Test match, I was trying to visualise what the scene would be if Healy had been playing. Wouldn't Steve Waugh have allowed him to lead the team out? Wouldn't the Gabba have given him a standing ovation? And the last afternoon, would that not have been special? Wouldn't it have been a wonderful moment for everyone? I think people should be allowed to have a proper farewell, especially if like Healy, they are still very, very good at their craft.

And yet, it happens so rarely. I remember Marsh, Greg Chappell and Lillee going out together and Bradman's last game was a very special occasion. There were some who said the emotion got to him and contributed to his dismissal just as there were others who thought making runs meant so much to him that there was rarely any emotion involved!

But look at all the other greats. Viv Richards thought he was fit enough to play the World Cup of 1992 but the West Indies would have none of him. Four years later, I saw him play in a Masters and he batted with great ease, as you would expect, but he played with the kind of commitment that the then national team seemed incapable of providing.

My theory on this is very simple. If someone with a proven record of commitment believes that he is fit and able, and if his performances aren't showing a dramatic downswing, then you must trust him. I thought the West Indies should have trusted Richards in 1992 and Australia should have trusted Healy in 1999 given that he was still their best wicket keeper.

It is a slightly different matter with Azharuddin because he wants to give himself two years, not one game like Healy. But I would like to believe that if Azharuddin is not part of their plan, and the merit of that decision is a completely different issue, the selectors would have the grace to tell him that. We owe it to someone who has played for fifteen years.

I would like to think that the best way out would be for the selectors to have a quiet word with him, tell him what their plans are, not for the immediate but for the next season as well, and then leave it to him. If he chooses to play on, the selectors should be free to say that they have indicated their unwillingness to pick him and that the decision to continue playing cricket is Azhar's alone.

Five years ago, around this time, a similar debate was raging over the future of Kapil Dev and Azhar as captain was firmly in charge. It had been clear for a while, certainly from the end of the World Cup in 1992, that Kapil's best years were gone. It was very sadly visible at Faridabad where he played his last one-day international against the West Indies. One of the selectors told me that he went up to Kapil, explained the situation and asked what he wanted them to do. A few hours later, at a very hastily arranged press conference, Kapil announced his retirement.

I sometimes wonder if Kapil should not have announced his retirement at Ahmedabad after going past Richard Hadlee's record. The Ahmedabadis may not love cricket but they love an occasion and I am sure there would have been a send-off worthy of the moment.

I wonder now if Azharuddin will ever get one. Dilip Vengsarkar didn't; neither did Ravi Shastri or Manoj Prabhakar in recent times. And I don't think Navjot Sidhu will either.

Maybe then it is not meant to be that way at all.

Harsha Bhogle

Mail Prem Panicker/Harsha Bhogle