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August 15, 1997


We are like this only

Prem Panicker

It is six am, on the morning of August 15.

I'm in my office, marking time while waiting for the festivities connected with the Golden Jubilee of India's Independence to begin - we are covering it live, and I am part of the Rediff commentary team.

For me, it is just another day at the office.

And in the pre-dawn hush, I sit here, trying to think back, remember the golden moments of Independent India's sporting history.

In cricket? The 1970-'71 series win in the West Indies comes to mind. So also the 1971 series win in England. 1983 - the Prudential World Cup, which India not only lifted against the odds, but in the process twice tamed Clive Lloyd's world champion outfit. 1984, the Benson & Hedges Champion's Trophy win in Australia. 1993-1994, and the win in the five nation Hero Cup.

And that's it. I mean, there has been the odd title here and there, in various triangular ODI tournaments - but to my mind, these jamborees have long since lost all cricketing value and are, today, nothing more than pop entertainment.

What of the rest? A Wilson Jones, a Michael Ferreira, a Geet Sethi, a Manoj Kothari, all bag the world amateur billiars title, one or more times. Om Agarwal takes an amateur snooker title, Sethi goes on to take the world professional title.

In tennis, a Ramanathan Krishnan enters the Wimbledon semis twice on the trot, a Vijay Amritraj is bracketed, briefly, with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors as the ABC of tennis, a Leander Paes wins an Olympic bronze, a Mahesh Bhupati becomes the first Indian to lift a Grand Slam title.

In hockey - India's national game - a World Cup in 1975, Olympics golds in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1964, 1980. And nothing in the almost two decades since.

Vishwanathan Anand becomes the first Indian to contest for the world chess title, and pockets umpteen international titles.

A Prakash Padukone wins an all England badminton championship. A Limba Ram does a William Tell, a Jaspal Rana shoots heck out of the competition - pity the first couldn't reproduce that form on the big stage, and the latter found his pet event was not an Olympic sport.

A Mihir Sen, an Anita Sood, make waves in non-competitive swimming; a Milka Singh, a P T Usha, become tragic footnotes to international triumphs, the so-near-yet-so-far of Indian sport. And oh yes, Farokh Tarapore and Kelly Rao win the Enterprise event in world yatching in 1991.

And that, to the best of my memory, is it. A handful of triumphs, spanning 50 years and representing the fruits of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of one of the most populous nations on earth.

I sit here... counting off those moments of triumph on my fingers and thinking, if I counted sheep instead, maybe I'd get some sleep.

50 years ago, India made a midnight tryst with destiny. 50 years later, it would appear that India, like a faithless lover, left Destiny waiting in vain at the rendezvous.

And one question keeps up a steady drumbeat in my head - why?

On the mental retina, Indian champions march past. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Erappalli Prasanna, Bagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishen Singh Bedi, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin in cricketing whites. Jones, Ferreira, Sethi et al in natty suits, cues in hand. Ajitpal Singh, Zafar Iqbal, Mohammad Shahid, Balbir Singh, working magic with their hockey sticks. Vijay Amritraj, Ramanathan Krishnan, Leander Paes... wristy artistes of the tennis court...

And as they march, single file, across the arena of the mind, you are struck by one startling common denominator that links them all - each and every one of them came up, became who they were, despite the system, not because of it.

Ah yes, you say - "the system". Favourite excuse of the non-achiever, and of apologists for non-achievers.

But is it just an excuse?

I give my typing fingers a break... and while away some time, rifling through a stack of agency copy on my table. Almost the first one I find is a UNI take, containing statements by the prime minister, the human resources development minister and the minister of state for sports, congratulating Ketaki Kulkarni the little Mumbai girl who, just the other day, bagged not one, but two titles in the British junior chess championships. "In the 50th year of India's Independence, Ketaki has done the nation proud," says HRD minister S R Bommai - or, to be more accurate, the press attache who writes these things for him.

Below that, I find another UNI copy - this, an interview with Ketaki's father. Wherein he talks about the struggle he had, to get his daughter to England for the tournament. Trouble procuring the visas, trouble getting sponsorships... He talks about how he ran around, trying to raise the funds he needed, the support he wants...

He does it all, on his own. And then the ministers sneak their share of the spotlight - without having done a thing to deserve it.

Remember the orgy of statements our ministers made when Leander Paes won the bronze at Atlanta? And yet, all these years, Paes has struggled to afford a full time coach and physiotherapist; struggled, too, to raise funds to tour the world and play the game he plays so well.

I dig a little deeper into my pile of press clippings and agency copy, and find some takes relating to cricket. One refers to the recent executive committee meeting of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, in Calcutta. Where it was decided to try, as an experimental measurer, a rule that restricts a bowler to one bouncer per over in our domestic competition. Yeah, right - on the one hand, we talk of how our batsmen are not equipped to handle pace; and on the other, when the rule the world over is two bouncers per over, we ensure that our batsmen have to face only one - not that you can really bowl a "bouncer" on the kind of wickets you have here.

The meeting also ratifies Ratnakar Shetty as manager of the Indian team to Sri Lanka - by which time, of course, Shetty has already been in Lanka for three weeks in that capacity.

And how much was spent on this exercise? Rupees 1.5 million.

Meanwhile, our cricketers remain the most unfit, lethargic bunch of blokes in the international arena - because, according to BCCI secretary Lele, the board has yet to work out the funding necessary for hiring a full-time physical trainer. But not to worry, in order to prepare the side for the Sahara Cup tournament in Toronto against Pakistan, an Australian fitness expert will be hired - for all of FOUR days!

A clipping I have here talks about how Sri Lankan skipper Arjuna Ranatunga, recognising the lack of quality leg-spinners in his side, has proposed to his board that Bishen Bedi and Dilip Doshi be hired to unearth, and train, talented youngsters in the art.

While in Bangalore for the Asia Cup training camp, I spent a couple of hours chatting with Syed Kirmani. And among other things, Kiri was talking about his last assignment - Bangladesh, apparently, had hired him on a one month assignment to identify twelve promising young wicketkeepers out of a short list of 50, train them in the correct techniques and devise, for them, a training programme they could follow even after he returned to India.

They are all part of India's sporting wealth - Kiri, Doshi, Bishen... and so many, many more. We have our Vishwanaths and Gavaskars, our Kapil Devs and Shastris and Prasannas...

We also have a team without a pair of good openers, a good all rounder, a good off spinner, a good leg spinner...

But do the cricket bosses think of harnessing our wealth of experience and talent to help fill these gaps? In a word, no.

On the Golden Jubilee of India's Independence, we have politicians demanding that Britain return the Kohinoor diamond, now part of the Queen's personal collection of baubles. We pontificate about how our national wealth has been plundered.

What do we do with the wealth of talent - a commodity more precious, by far, than a bit of shiny, fossilised carbon - that we have in the country? We ignore it - for we do not have the ability to recognise talent, nor the vision to harness it.

Meanwhile, others make use of it.

We do not have a national cricket academy - merely a proposal for one. We do have, in Madras, a privately run pace academy which has produced, for neighbouring Sri Lanka, bowlers of the calibre of Chaminda Vaas, Sajeewa D'Silva, Ravindra Pushpakumara and, if memory serves, Nuwan Zoysa.

But what happens to our own promising pace bowlers? Dodda Ganesh is a case in point. At the end of the twin tours of South Africa and the West Indies, the captain and coach of the side both rate him as a prospect for the future. A month later, the chairman of selectors damns him in a public statement: "He has shown no improvement," is the verdict.

Ganesh had potential, right? Otherwise, you wouldn't have picked him for the tours in the first place? Okay, so what do you do when you find that a young player has not realised his potential? You report about it to the board. The board, in turn, funds the youngster for a stint at the pace academy, so that experienced coaches and a proven system can translate that potential into performance.

That is the logical thing to do, right?

But 'logical' is not the Indian way, right?

We damn a player, drop him, and go on from there. As the famous ad line goes, we are like that only!

Right at the bottom of the pile, I find the most intriguing news brief of them all. Hansie Cronje, it tells me, has just been appointed captain of South Africa for the next five tours - his tenure to continue right till the end of next year's tour of England.

How nice. So now, Cronje can plan ahead, not merely for the next series, but for the next five. He can now begin asking himself, what conditions will I get in England? Soft, green, seaming tracks? Fine - what kind of openers do I need for those conditions? Who are my best prospects? What sort of support bowling do I need, for Alan Donald? Pace, or swing? And so on. And work, from right now, at identifying the players he wants, getting them match fit, and going in to the tour with total confidence.

And us? Well, Sachin Tendulkar doesn't know whether he will be leading the side to Toronto next month.

We are like that only!

I look around me and what do I see? I see a disgusted, frustrated Kapil Dev giving up his post of honorary director of the pitches committee, launched with much fanfare to make Indian pitches comparable to those in the West. I see a Prakash Padukone fighting the system in order to save the sport he loves - when he should by rights have been working with the system to foster, to encourage, it.

After every successive sporting debacle, we ask - how come a nation of 950 million cannot produce one good sprinter, or one good fast bowler, one good opening batsman, one top class cricket team...

To my mind, we are asking ourselves the wrong question. We should be asking ourselves, how come a nation of 950 million cannot produce one single administrator with the vision, the will, the far-sightedness to fix goals and to work towards them? To make excellence his leitmotif? To take responsibility for results?

You've heard of captains being sacked for poor performance. Ditto, players. Ever heard of an administrator being sacked, in all these years?

Hey, I've been reviewing that parade of champions in my mind, all over again. And you know what? I think that given the circumstances, given that we are saddled - make that shackled - with a Fazil Ahmed, a Raj Singh Dungarpur (which reminds me, have any of you, in the last six months, come across one single statement from that worthy about a game called cricket, the governing body of which he is president of?), a J Y Lele, a K P S Gill - I think India has done brilliantly well to produce as many champions as it has.

We are sitting on a goldmine of talent. On top of one of the largest stockpiles, in the world today, of that most precious of natural resources - manpower.

But to mine that talent, to utilise that priceless manpower, it takes administrators with will, vision, courage - and above all, pride in the country.

Oh well - my mother always told me it was stupid to cry for the moon!

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