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March 1, 1999


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Carrot and the stick

Prem Panicker

Recent months have brought with them much heartburn for followers of the Indian cricket team. And with India's drought of Test wins continuing (what is it now, one win in 48 Tests including the ongoing one in Sri Lanka since 1986?), the usual suspects -- 'lack of killer instinct', 'lack of leadership', 'lack of commitment' have, a lack and alas, substituted for results.

Momentary lapses in form, momentary slumps, a temporary inability to show results, are generally accepted as one of those things -- but 48 Test matches takes things out of the real of the 'momentary', and puts a more serious complexion on the situation.

It also brings with it the need to look for solutions -- more so given that India's cricket calendar has, this year, high pressure situations like the World Cup and the tour Down Under pencilled in.

It is in this context that two recent initiatives, by two different boards, are interesting. The first of these comes from the Sri Lankan board which, in the aftermath of a disastrous tour of Australia, promptly decided on a pay cut for its players.

A very strong -- impressively so -- signal, that. After all, Sri Lanka are the World Cup holders and, since that 1996 triumph, have won more than they have lost. And the home board would have been tempted to find excuses for its stars to explain the debacle Down Under -- the no-balling controversy centering around Muralitharan, for instance.

The Lankan board could also have been tempted to let things lie. To avoid causing any heartburn to its players, on the eve of the World Cup that will see Ranatunga's men go in as defending champions.

Instead, the board acted, and their action is aimed to hit the players where it hurts the most -- in their pride, and their pocket. And that is why the action -- and the signal contained therein -- is impressive, for the board is telling its players that reputations, records, past triumphs, none of these will count for anything, that continued performance will be rewarded but equally, continued failures will be punished.

The second initiative comes from the West Indies cricket board. Much surprise was expressed at the fact that Brian Lara was allowed to retain his captaincy, after a complete collapse of leadership, both on and off the field, in South Africa -- for far lesser transgressions, Mohammad Azharuddin found his captaincy taken away from him after the tour of England in 1996.

Browsing the Net, I found writers in Australian and English newspapers arguing that the retention of Lara signals weakness on the part of the Windies board. Frankly, that assessment comes as a bit of a surprise -- who were they supposed to give the captaincy to? The leading contenders are either not sure of their place in the side, or are not playing for one reason or the other.

However, having given it to Lara, the Windies board added a rider -- to the effect that the star batsman was on probation. His performance would be monitored, his leadership skills would be under the microscope, his personal behaviour on and off the field was not exempt from scrutiny, and further, he would be held accountable for team results.

The Windies board then went further, and handed out similar ukases to the team's coach, and manager -- who just happen to be Malcolm Marshall and Clive Lloyd, two of the living legends of West Indies cricket.

The combined signal this action is sending out is impressive -- to wit, that no one, irrespective of stature, of achievements, is above that game and the national interest. That none -- not a Lara who holds the world record for the biggest Test innings of them all, not Marshall who is rated as one of the very best quicks the Windies have produced, not Lloyd who would arguably be the most successful skipper coming out of the Caribbean.

It is those three who have been called on the carpet and given an unequivocal signal -- shape up, or ship out.

These are initiatives the Indian board could learn from. As things stand now, the team goes out there and does its stuff with seeming indifference. Captain and coach then speak of having put that particular result behind them. And off they go, to another venue, another day. At some point -- I suspect, judging by the anger in some of the emails I get, not too long in the future either -- the Indian fan is going to throw his hands up in the air and say the hell with it, I'll spend my energies, invest my emotion, in the national kabbadi squad or some such (heck, did you notice that the Indian hockey team, despite gross mismanagement by the federation, despite problems between coaches and players, tend to win more games -- even abroad for that matter?)

And that will be the end as far as the board is concerned -- no spectators means no sponsors, no sponsors means no money coming in, no money come in means the officials can forget about those junkets, those one-day-before-one-day-after additions to the bank balance...

If only from sheer self-interest -- if not interest in the national cricket team and the results it produces -- it would seem high time the board learnt a lesson or two from its counterparts in the West Indies and Sri Lanka. And introduced accountability into a side that, judging by recent performances, needs to be reminded of the existence of that word.

And with the World Cup coming up, what better time to read the riot act?

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