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February 21, 2000


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Testing times for Indian cricket

Harsha Bhogle

When I was writing the biography of Mohammad Azharuddin, I had made up my mind to call it "A Child of Destiny". I was reminded of that when I met him this afternoon. He was disappointed, distraught and, in his own words, "troubled". His finger was swollen and you could see that his dream of playing a hundred Tests for India had slipped away, if only temporarily.

Twenty-four hours earlier the very spectators who had demanded his head six months ago were cheering him to the wicket. When he flicked Klusener for four, you could feel the ripples at the Brabourne Stadium. There was no doubt he was flavour of the day. That evening, his selection was unanimous and the chairman of selectors said "India needed him".

Several times since June, he must have wondered if he would hear those words. It required a big heart and a small ego to keep trying, to accept being put "on trial" and even his detractors in Bombay admitted it. Then came the blow on the finger. It hurt more than just that. In twenty-four hours, destiny had dealt its hand twice. That is why they say the game is a lot easier in the press box; you have joy and sadness there as well but the world doesn't need to know. You don't enact your life in public.

The dramatic events surrounding the return and the re-exit of Azharuddin, and Sachin Tendulkar's sensational announcement means that Indian cricket, never short of turmoil, is experiencing a massive whirlwind. (As I write this, Nayan Mongia is just shaking his head and walking off, hit on the finger by Mornantau Hayward!). What we needed after the Australian tour was a period of calm followed by a Test win. The first need is gone and I will be delighted, and surprised, if the second is achieved. When activities outside the ground attract greater attention than those on it, you know there is a problem.

The timing of Tendulkar's announcement was puzzling and after letting it sink for twenty-four hours, I am no closer to finding an answer. The word was that he was close to making up his mind at the end of the Australian tour, disillusioned as he was with the functioning of our cricket administration and indeed, in the manner in which he had allowed his cricket to be affected by it. A week after his return, he had taken his decision and maybe that would have been the best time to announce it. But he dithered and that has been a characteristic of his leadership. His sense of timing, so perfect on a cricket ground, tends to go awry off it. This was an example of it.

Having done so, he now had two options open to him. Either, as he has, he called it on the eve of the first Test or at the end of the series. The second would have been the easier option to take but Tendulkar feared it would be linked to the outcome of the current series and he wanted to guard against that. He has made his point, his mind is at peace but Indian cricket is a touch injured.

It would not have mattered if a Jadeja or a Ganguly had to take a similar decision. Everything that Tendulkar does, in success and indeed in failure, overwhelms us. This abdication certainly has. I think the South Africans would be delighted. Enveloped as they are by their own leadership problems, they would welcome the opposition having some of their own.

Remember though, that giving up the most high profile job in Indian public life is not an easy decision and in taking it, Tendulkar has shown an acceptance of his limitations. He is a very proud man, prouder than any other playing cricket in India today. And he is obsessed with success. An admission of failure from Tendulkar is a huge event and I am delighted because I see it as a sign of increased maturity. His intensity, large enough to fill several teams, was not proving to be infectious enough and he can now go back to doing what he is best at; winning matches off his own bat.

But Tendulkar has, hopefully, another eight years to go in international cricket. He will have to be strong enough not to want it again. When Sunil Gavaskar abdicated, he was 36 and knew that he did not have more than two years left. Tendulkar is not yet 27 and while he is a very mature cricketer, he will have to be an exceptional man to live without the desire to be captain of India for so long. But now, he must.

But amidst the turmoil, there is relief as well. Tendulkar is liked and respected and should the need have arisen, it would have been difficult to bell the cat. Now, the decision-making has been taken away from those that might have found it difficult.

It will be a peculiar situation for the newcomers. They enter not a quiet stable dressing room where men of stature walk confidently around, but one where the air smells of uncertainty. In a perfect world, there would have been a smooth transition. I fear now that intrigue rather than statesmanship will be the predominant flavour.

But the selectors have done well in their choices. In Wasim Jaffer, they have gone for a solid, studious opener; one whose approach is more seventies than nineties (what is this decade called?). He is quite happy to give the bowler the first hour, has very little movement at the crease and is a good leaver of the ball. But he can be defensive to the exclusion of all else. As Rahul Dravid discovered in Australia, occupation is of little use unless it is accompanied by a movement of the scoreboard. But he is the first classical opener we have had for a long time and his handling of Hayward was the best amongst those that played him.

Mohammad Kaif clearly has the shots. It is not difficult to see who his idol is and some of his back foot driving, after a period of hesitation against pace, was straight out of Azharuddin circa 1985. He is of similar height, looks good at cover but surely he could have modelled his polite off-breaks on someone else. I saw that bowling action many years ago in Hyderabad ! Luckily for him, Rahul Dravid is around at number three for he seems more like number six at the moment.

Murali Kartik's first over against the South Africans had me cutting short my conversation. He looked beautiful. In the next four overs he went for six boundaries as he strayed on both sides of the wicket ! He has a relaxed action and he turns the ball substantially but both were, and are, true of Sunil Joshi as well. There isn't much to choose at the moment and I suspect it will be big match temperament that will ultimately clinch the issue.

At least one of them, maybe all three, will get a debut at the Wankhede Stadium on Thursday. It is not a bad time to start. India's next eleven Test matches are at home.

Harsha Bhogle

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