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|June 12, 1999||
Is it time to say goodbye to Azhar as captain?
The trouble with the national team lies in the fact that there are too many Indians and not a good chief in sight.
The chief does, of course, blame it on everything but himself. Blame it on the rain. Blame it on the rules. Blame it on anything other than his team's own amateurish approach to the match against Zimbabwe, in Leicester, which actually cost India dear in this World Cup.
The skipper is said to have advocated patience to the media before his team's dramatic win over Pakistan. He had said that if you are patient enough, then wins will come.
If the nation, which has been so patient with him for nearly a decade now, were to be even more patient, then Azhar might even become the first captain to lead a country in four World Cups.
Clive Lloyd led his side in three World Cups, and won it twice. Arjuna Ranatunga led his team in two World Cups, and won it once. Kapil Dev led India in two World Cups, and won it once. Sunil Gavaskar did not even lead India in a World Cup, which, historically, represents a huge error of judgment when considering the fact that Azhar has led the team in three and not taken it past the last four even once.
In simple statistical terms, such a non-performance in the three World Cups of 1992, 1996 and 1999 represents a huge failure on Azharuddin's part. No one in Indian cricket has had as long a reign through ups and downs as the present Indian captain. To his credit, he brought India back from the troughs on a few occasions. But now that he has run out of fresh ideas, the nation may as well decide to look ahead and appoint someone more worthy than him, especially at a time when his own batting is not on the boil and comes good only on occasion.
It is, perhaps, the simplest thing to blame everything on the captain in cricket. While captains do take the credit for their team's successes, they are less charitable when it comes to accepting blame for defeats. This is a universal phenomenon, and not Azhar's exclusive privilege.
The problem is, having had the captaincy and its privileges for so long, it becomes too valuable to give it up voluntarily. Surely, the lease should run out sometime.
It does, on the face of it, seem as if a grave injustice has been done to a side which won five matches (if India goes on to beat New Zealand today), when a side like Zimbabwe, with three-and-a-half wins goes through to the semi-finals. But then it is not always the strongest teams that win World Cups in sport.
Often the Cup goes to the team that played the strongest. But the World Cup rules are common and everyone knew them well before the first ball was bowled. And Zimbabwe were rewarded for their giant-killing ways, in which they slew the 1983 World Cup champions at the finish in dramatic circumstances, and then humbled the 1999 World Cup favourite.
The points system suited those who beat the big teams, and the rained off game was very much in Zimbabwe's favour. So they would have got a place that could so easily have gone to any stronger side like India.
And yet, what else, but mismanagement, could have led to the debacle, in which India, cantering to a win at Leicester, stumbled at the finish, when Henry Olonga's rockets were on target? The loose manner in which India played that game was symptomatic of the disease that has often caused India's downfalls at the highest level.
There is talent. But is there enough application and brainwork to enable that talent to get further?
Before complaining about a system, that has worked largely in the interest of keeping the interest alive up to the very end in a six-week competition of this nature, India must consider how luck also favoured them on a couple of occasions. For instance, Ranatunga handed the match on a platter, when he chose to bowl at Taunton.
Again, Alec Stewart did the same kind of favour in opting to chase at Edbagston. It was an Indian summer day when India batted and it became dark and gloomy when England chased. Had Stewart chosen the braver option of backing his batting, the result could well have been different and the Indian perspective on this World Cup would have been completely different.
Azhar's decision at the toss at The Oval in the first match of the Super Six can be debated forever. Even this morning, Ravi Shastri was saying, "We should have batted there."
It is arguable if India would have been better of backing their batsmen there, although it is quite possible India would have been in worse shape had they tried to tackle Glenn McGrath on a pitch of steepling bounce in the morning.
The point is when it came to giving the lead in a direction best designed to tackle the demands of the Super Six, the captain was found wanting. That he chose to lean on his think-tank in the game against Pakistan was understandable, because that match was such a big occasion for Indian cricket.
But it took Azhar too long to realise that India must back their batsmen to come good, and if they do, they can lift the level of their bowling and fielding.
Having tossed away a pearl richer than all his tribe at the toss at the Eden Gardens in the semi-final of the World Cup of 1996, Azhar may really have been guilty of a second offence in the game against Australia. What it boils down to is India were twice lucky to be asked to bat in key league games and they were unlucky to have to make the decision on winning the toss at The Oval.
Looking at the performance in greater detail would bring out where the team suffered the most from the captaincy. In this orthodox World Cup, in which teams have been defending totals well, India, under Azharuddin, did not stop South Africa from making 254 to win at Hove.
Captaincy matters most in the defence of targets when a skipper is wholly in charge of the field placements and the bowling changes. Azhar allowed South Africa too much freedom when he should have gone for the jugular as they lost half the side in the chase.
In the absence of Sachin, who had to go away to India at a time of personal tragedy, the skipper should have assumed command of the batting, too. Failures do come in the chancy world of one-day batting, but that one from Azhar, as he nicked to slip, was a fatal one.
And as captain, he did not seem to check the complacency in his side as they were coasting to a win. It appeared the Indians had assumed the match was in the bag, and that is exactly why they failed in that one crucial over.
One brilliant spell disposed of the much vaunted batting at The Oval, which meant that India, which had no points at all till then, had been awoken out of their stupor too late.
And what they achieved at Old Trafford was far too little and far too late. It still does represent a great triumph coming as it did against a side that can go all the way in this competition.
The problem of finding the successor is absolutely that of the selectors and the cricket board they represent. But to hazard a suggestion, can it be said that the unusual by alternative of appointing Ajay Jadeja as one-day captain, while Sachin Tendulkar takes over the Test captaincy, should not be dismissed off hand.
If the status quo prevails, then it can be assumed that what is commonly believed in Indian cricket circles is true. And that has to do with Sachin choosing to decline the captaincy until the current captain chooses to retire from the game.
It is not postscript that India's batting is still in good shape. It was at the start of this tournament, it remained so to a point in the match carelessly thrown away to Zimbabwe.
It blossomed at Taunton, was exposed by bounce on one occasion, and was adequate at Old Trafford. The batting continued to shine at Trent Bridge, always a lovely batting pitch, despite the early fall of Sachin, who has not had a great World Cup although he scored a century while under emotional duress (against Kenya) and then made it all seem so easy when playing Pakistan.
When a team can bat well, maybe, half the problem is solved. It would be logical to believe that such a team would need a strong captain to make the decisions on the field. And there are many stronger than Azhar, who is in the evening of his career.
Is it time to say goodbye to him as Indian captain?
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