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The Cricket Column/Harsha Bhogle

Depression Incorporated!

There is a tidal wave of depression in India at the moment; hellish waves battering away at the national morale; lashing at optimism and completely coating happiness with despair. If you are in the gloom industry, this week is as bullish as it can get.

The country's premier investigating agency cannot decide whether or not to arrest a man who has announced he will be chief minister even in jail.

A confirmed, violent, gangster is entering politics in Bombay, now fast becoming India's most violent city.

Governments are trying to make peace with, and are accepting demands of, a sandalwood smuggler who routinely killed innocent men.

An outstanding diplomat is elected President, but instead of celebrating, we are concentrating on his dalit status. You'd have to believe, if you were in India today, that K R Narayanan was born a dalit and having achieved what every young man in India probably dreams of, did nothing for the rest of his life.

For all that, the new President is 77, the outgoing President is 79, the prime minister is 78 and the Congress president, who is effectively controlling the nation's politics is 81. Hurry, let' find someone who is 80 and put him in a position of power, the gap is just too glaring now. Or better still, why don't we try and find the man who drafted the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885? We are still using it, you know.

What's new, you might say. Nothing, except that it tells you once again why the humble Hindi movie and the Indian cricket team have been the country's most loved pastimes for so many years. But this week, one of those evergreen, refreshing pick-me-ups took another battering. Cricket in India, in the midst of its most depressing phase, suffered two blows that are enough to make a raving optimist like me hum Rafi's classic tragedies.

First, there were more allegations of bribery and scandal in Indian cricket. The charges have not been, maybe cannot be, proved -- but each time a major story appears in the papers and magazines, more sceptics turn believers. `There can be no smoke without fire' we've been saying, and at the moment, there is a huge blaze having a great time in the middle. And the wind is fanning it like India's bowling would to batsmen on a flat track.

On Sunday, Kapil Dev appeared on Star News to say that the selection system was rubbish. He also said that though nobody had approached him to try and 'fix' a match (notice how much that sounds like `fixing a joint?!'), he believed it was possible. Two days later, Rashid Latif has come out with a do-it-yourself kit. Win the toss and take the wrong decision, set an off-side field and bowl on the leg side........He also (and notice how cricketers are talking like politicians these days?) denied all that has been attributed to him.

To make things worse, Star Sports showed, on Saturday morning, a re-run of their Hall of Fame series featuring Kapil and we saw, all over again, that great catch to dismiss Viv Richards, those four sixes against Eddie Hemmings, the 400th wicket at Perth and number 432 at Ahmedabad (it must have happened, because we all know it did. But a recording from Doordarshan circa 1994 wouldn't stand in court as evidence). And they showed him batting at the Oval in 1990, and I swear I got goose-flesh. I hadn't read Outlook by then, of course.

It's a great idea to be on a crusade to cleanse a supposedly rotten system. But I believe crusaders should be moralists, and if you are going to dent, or even destroy, someone's reputation, you should do it when all else has failed and when you are absolutely sure. Public figures enjoy a huge mass equity, and when they are entertainers, they play a very important role in the health of a nation. Certainly, they allow it to smile sometimes -- and every nation needs to smile once in a way, at the least.

Today, our cricketers have forgotten what it is to laugh, they are probably scared of reading the back-pages, they look and feel hunted. They probably feel a bit like an Ambedkar statue - out in the open to be desecrated by anybody.

I know the Outlook team pretty well, and I am all for investigative journalism -- as long as it is not speculative. We have had two sensational cover stories so far that have hinted at a great deal but haven't actually been conclusive. To give them the benefit of the doubt, there are probably legal implications but, in the absence of proof, there are moral implications as well. Outlook, and may its circulation grow, have now told every Indian that Azharuddin, Jadeja, Sidhu, Mongia and Raju are involved in match-fixing, that by implication they are poor human beings; even that they are cheats.

That is a huge mouthful to say because even though journalists can get away through the use of some very cleverly drafted sentences, people who read the story believe it is true. It is partly the belief that all that appears in print is true, and partly the current craze for sensationalism and idol-bashing. There are hardly any idols left in modern India, so let's give all these guys a push and a jolt.

At the end of it all, Rashid Latif says that he has been misquoted and that he never said most of what has been attributed to him, and Outlook say that they have his interview on tape. As a journalist, I find it very odd that if Latif did say all that he did, Outlook did not actually carry the transcript of the conversation. Now they are bound to do it; morally, and to prove their integrity. They have been the crusaders all along, and if they can stand up and show they are honest, it will be a great moment for Indian sports journalism; even for Indian journalism as a whole.

The key elements are: Did Latif merely say that the Indian cricketers used to call him from time to time, or did he actually say that the cricketers he named asked for information about ground conditions, the weather, etc which could have been passed on to bookies? Then, did Latif say that Indian cricketers make '50-60 lakhs per game'? And finally, does he have a locus standi? Does he have proof that something actually happened?

The country is waiting for some third umpire to pass a verdict. Till then, they are drawing their own conclusions, like they do for run-outs. And that is very very damaging and depressing.

In the last few weeks, nobody has asked me about Rahul Dravid, about Azhar's comeback and his lovely innings in Colombo (he averaged 48 against them in one-dayers; before that 81 not out); not even about who Debashish Mohanty is. All they want to know is: "You've been on the circuit, is it true that 'these fellows' fix matches and make big money?" They want to know if Nayan Mongia was asked to shell out three hundred thousand bucks for a place in the side, they want to know is it true that Debashish Mohanty paid seven hundred thousand to be picked for the Asia Cup team.

Notice the tone? There is talk of deceit, of bribery. The selectors and cricketers are being put in the same league as Jharkand Mukti Morcha MPs.

The country is not worrying about Javagal Srinath's health or about Anil Kumble's form or about our fielding which remains as generous and magnanimous as ever. In another situation, even in defeat, people would have raved about Dravid's back foot cover drive off Muralitharan or Azhar's front foot drive off Chaminda Vaas' first ball in his second spell. Or even two really great straight drives by Tendulkar early on. And Pakistan were 30 for 5, remember? Come on guys, there is a lot to smile about in the game still, if you are willing to watch it with your eyes open.

I don't know how much India's cricket authorities realise this, but all this is giving India's reputation a terrible knock. It's a pity, really, because India have always been popular tourists wherever they have been to. That is because they are co-operative, they are very well-behaved, smartly turned out and, as the cynics say, because they lose. Now, suddenly, they are going to be descendants of the 'thugee' movement, and Asian countries are going to get the "crooked" tag all over again.

If bribery is the soup of the day today, there is something else that would depress the true cricket lover just as much. There were two announcements made a couple of months ago that caused people to sit up, and caused experienced cricket watchers to make cynical statements - the appointments of the two biggest names in Indian cricket, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar, to key establishment posts. Kapil Dev was to be director of pitches and Gavaskar was to be in charge of the cricket academy.

The pitches movement got off the ground first; or so we thought when we applauded. Soil experts were called in from New Zealand, committees were appointed, grounds were identified.... And then everyone went to sleep.

Until two things happened. The first class calendar was announced, and Kapil Dev returned his cheque saying nothing was being done. He was right. Earlier, the Board claimed nothing and did nothing. Now, they said a great deal -- and did nothing. Some people might look upon that as progress. Next year, they'll make a film and do nothing. And each year, the budget to do nothing grows.

We are now almost in August. The Irani Trophy starts on the 1st of October and the Ranji Trophy leagues from the 20th. You can't dig up pitches now, and you certainly cannot plant grass that is too different. So we are looking at another season of flat tracks. Two more batsmen will probably score a thousand runs in the Ranji Trophy, and virtually everybody will score over 700.

And the bowlers will start an association saying they are the modern dalits of Indian cricket.

But you never know. The Government of India, while rummaging around found a bottle which said '7 years old'. They uncorked it and found it contained the Prasar Bharati Bill for autonomy to Doordarshan and All India Radio.

Seven years from now, maybe, the pitches movement will take off too. Hopefully, unlike the Prasar Bharati bill which talks about ex-officio members and committees but very little, to my knowledge, about quality of programming, the Indian cricket board will think about making better wickets, not better committees.

Till then let's watch Rahul Dravid's backfoot cover drive and Azharuddin's flick through leg, let's see if they can put together the partnership that will take India to the Asia Cup final.

If that happens, will India smile? Or will India say that the match was fixed?

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