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November 29, 1999


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Shooting the messenger

Harsha Bhogle

For some reason that I really cannot understand, being truthful is not a very popular way of life in Indian cricket. I suspect it is because we have traditionally derived power out of withholding information. And so, we do things for certain reasons, but because we do not want people to know the truth, we try and create surrogate explanations.

Most often in life, this leads to egg on the face. Now, if you are unhappy with such a situation, you try not to do it again. But if you are thick-skinned and don't care too much for a piece of softboiled yolk underneath your nostrils, then you have no qualms about making it a way of life.

That is why I think we have lost all sense of proportion on the Azharuddin issue. My contention, which I have stated before and which I believe to be the honourable one, is to come up front with the real reason. So, for example, if the coach and captain and some selectors are uncomfortable by his presence, or if they believe it is counter-productive to team spirit, or if they believe that he withheld information about an injury, I think it is important that the people who finance Indian cricket know about it. The viewers and spectators are like shareholders in this enteprise, and they have to know.

Now, I do not know if those are the real reasons, indeed nobody does -- but if they are, it will benefit Indian cricket if someone has the courage and the honesty to say so. Instead, we are trying to hide underneath a blade of grass, and I am afraid it is not turning out to be a very good hiding place. You cannot drop Azharuddin on ability, you cannot drop him on fitness and you cannot drop him on form. And you cannot tell him that Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Jacob Martin, accomplished cricketers as they are, are better cricketers than he is.

Would you have picked Vivek Razdan ahead of Kapil Dev?

As things stand, I am tempted to send in my scores from university cricket in 1982 and I believe I would have a better chance of being picked than Mohammad Azharuddin. Anybody for Atal Behari Vajpayee to bat at number six? Or Hari Prasad Chaurasia?

No, my friends, look elsewhere for the truth.

The funny thing is that if incompatibility with the team's objectives, or hiding an injury, is the reason, it is a valid one for keeping someone out. In my book, there is absolutely nothing wrong in saying "This is what we want to achieve with this team and we believe this man does not fit in for the following reasons". There could be a debate on the validity of those reasons, but at least everybody would know the truth. Instead, we now have a very distinguished and respected cricketer like Chandu Borde having to tell people that Azhar was considered along with Jacob Martin but wasn't found to be as good as Kanitkar.

Before I run the risk of seeming to be unfair to Kanitkar, let me state that I have long believed that he is capable of batting for India at number six and it was a point of view that was reinforced after his performances against the West Indies `A' team. But if you asked him if he is as good as Azharuddin, he'd tell you the truth. Like Vijay Bharadwaj did when he was asked the same question on Inside Cricket. He gulped and blushed and said he could not be compared to Azharuddin which, at the moment, is spot on.

The time comes for every cricketer to move on and frequently, there is a difference of opinion on when that precise moment arrives. It is very rare that a cricketer notices it before a selector, and that is why so many cricketers retire in frustration rather than with the glow of great achievement on their back. Azharuddin has stated clearly that he believes he can play for two more years. If the selectors disagree, if they believe that moment has come, and that is a judgement they are entitled to make, they must say so. If they believe it needs to be done with a little more grace (but remember, grace lives with the truth in the outhouse in Indian cricket!), they should speak to him and explain their point of view. If he then persists in playing they should call a press conference and say "We believe that Azharuddin does not have it in him to play international cricket any more, we have informed him of our decision, and if he chooses to keep playing first class cricket, we wish him well."

But clearly, they do not think that way because one of the selectors, in his capacity as Chairman of the South Zone selection committee, has just picked him to be the captain of that team!

It saddens me, and that is why I think the BCCI is being unfaithful to its followers. This article is not meant to be a brief for Mohammad Azharuddin -- it is merely a cry for truthfulness. A year and a half ago, we similarly condemned Rahul Dravid. He was told he wasn't good enough for one-day cricket, which is a bit like telling Lata Mangeshkar that she can't sing an advertising jingle. Nobody sat down with him, nobody explained matters to him, nobody tried to solve the problem of why an amazingly gifted cricketer was underperforming. They just shut the door and that is the reason people believe that there is no love, or concern, in Indian cricket.

The committee that undervalued Dravid is gone and is replaced by a committee that generated a lot of hope. And yet, it has started producing similar reactions. So then, is there something about Indian cricket that makes good people lose grace? Don't they feel queasy about having to say things that are very obviously untrue? Why don't they have the confidence in themselves to state a point of view?

I remember that when an England regime under Mickey Stewart and Graham Gooch dropped David Gower, they said they believed he would not fit into the culture of discipline they sought to create. It was not a popular point of view, but that was the reason Gower was not picked -- and it was stated upfront. Nobody said "We considered Gower along with Jimmy Smith and thought Tommy Brown was a better cricketer keeping the future in mind". No. They said we want to do something and we believe this man cannot be part of it.

When South Africa sacked Mike Procter and appointed Bob Woolmer in spite of the fact that Procter had presided over a pretty successful return to international cricket, they said they needed to move on; that they needed someone with a more modern point of view and they expressed their thanks to Procter for what he had done. Procter didn't like it, as you might expect, but he knew why the change had taken place.

Such openess, as we have seen with England, may have little to do with the quality of the game, but it suggests an open, honest organisation that has place for an open, honest debate.

Sadly, this rather forgettable affair came at the same time as did another very interesting bit of news. It was far happier and provided further proof that the East is not only planting new pavilions but providing armies to carry the message. I was intrigued and delighted to read a news story about a new initiative between the United Nations and the International Cricket Council to use the following that cricket generates to build bridges between nations.

Representing the UN was an Indian; Shashi Tharoor, a brilliant young man of 43 who writes in English with more grace and freedom than many and who, while in Africa, diligently followed the fortunes of Indian cricket over the BBC World Service.

Representing the ICC was another Indian, Jagmohan Dalmiya who has done much to provide the smaller nations with a voice and whose idea of spreading the game is extremely contemporary.

Strange irony, that. Two Indians are taking the lead in spreading the game around the world while, at the same time, the organisation which represents them at cricket is stuck in a rather more medieval era!

Note from Prem Panicker:The whole Azharuddin controversy appears to have acquired a life and momentum of its own. It was Ashwin Mahesh over the weekend, today it is Harsha Bhogle.

A lot of readers have written in, taking issue with Rediff, and these two writers, for holding a brief for Azharuddin. Which seems to miss the point a touch -- Harsha's argument, in this and earlier pieces, was not for a reinstatement of Azhar in the Indian team.

The point being sought to be made is that while we -- the media, and the fans -- are willing to let Azhar's cricketing fortunes stand or fall on its own merits, what we areasking for is honesty, transparency on the part of the Board and the selectors.

Is that really so much to ask for?

Harsha Bhogle

Mail Prem Panicker/Harsha Bhogle