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March 16, 1999


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Men of straw!

Prem Panicker

During a visit once to my mom's native village, I remember perching on a low-slung tree branch, watching the men and women at work in the paddy fields.

The last thing they do, after they are done sowing, is set up a straw man. You know how it's done -- take some old clothes, stuff it with straw, prop it on a stick, and finally, take an empty pot and stick it, upside down, on top.

Works wonderfully, I am told. Kind of a proxy for the owner of the field (and we all knows who owns the Indian cricket field), stands there through sun and rain, scaring off the crows while the owner goes off and does his own thing. And since it is an empty pot, it doesn't get its own ideas, think for itself, and thereby put a spanner in the owner's works.

Now, why does all that remind you of the hierarchy of the Board of Control for Cricket in India?

I was considerably startled by the news reports on the agencies yesterday, centering on the appointment of Mohammad Azharuddin as captain of the Indian team for the World Cup.

The appointment itself comes as no surprise -- it is way too late to make a change. The only other option the board has is Sachin Tendulkar and he has made it pretty clear that he will not lead the side while Azhar is still in the playing eleven. And given the imminence of the Cup, it makes no sense to try any of the peripheral candidates -- Ganguly, Dravid, Kumble -- since they don't have too much time to settle down to the job.

Naming Azharuddin outright, at this point, rather than waiting for the March 31 deadline, means that the captain can put that thought out of his mind, see an end to the suspense. It also ends the outpouring of criticism in the media (including this one), the speculations about his captaincy skills -- now that it is a fait accompli, the media will probably just accept it and move on to other matters.

Come to think of it, I suspect that was the main reason for jumping the gun and making the announcement earlier than scheduled -- the board's way of doing a bit of fire-fighting on Azhar's behalf. And nothing wrong there either.

What is startling is the way in which it was done. The news reports, from the agencies, say that board president Raj Singh Dungarpur asked secretary Jaywant Lele to tell the selectors to name Azhar as captain now, rather than wait for later.

This raises two questions. Is it the board president's business to instruct selectors on what they should do, who they should name to what post and when?

A week ago, Dungarpur -- the man who, as then chairman of selectors, had in 1990 appointed Azharuddin as skipper of the Indian team as a political ploy to undercut the claims of other candidates -- had out of the blue come up with a public statement in support of Azhar's captaincy. Again, a bad move, that statement -- it is not the business of the board president to analyse captains and players, given that there is a duly constituted selection committee in place.

And close on the heels of that statement, comes this instruction to the selectors to name Azhar as captain.

What does this do? Rather than stem the flow of criticism, it only gives it an added impetus, for you can be damned sure there is going to be much speculation on the manner in which the appointment was pushed through.

But that is only half the problem. The other half relates to the way the entire affair is being played out in the full glare of the media.

Look at it this way: if the intention driving the appointment was to give confidence to Azharuddin, was it then necessary for Dungarpur, and Lele, to make all those statements about how the former had instructed the selectors to do what they did?

Was it necessary to go out of their way to seek a place in the media sun? Was it necessary to play the sound-bites game, and in the process cast doubt on the validity of that appointment?

Wouldn't it have been considerably better for the selectors to make a simple statement to the effect that Azharuddin has been appointed captain of the team for the World Cup, and to leave it at that?

As things stand, the impression we are left with is that the board president rail-roaded the selectors into making the appointment.

Is that impression supposed to add to Azhar's confidence? Or that of the fans, in him?

It may be Indian cricket's misfortune to have men of straw at the helm of affairs, men like Dungarpur and Lele who front for Jagmohan Dalmiya -- but at the least, can't said men keep a still tongue inside their heads, rather than make a bad situation much worse at every stage?

At four pm today, at the Taj Rendezvous, they are releasing a casette of cheer songs for the Indian cricket team.

All part of the corporate world's effort to gee the side along, help psyche it up and ensure that they go out there and win the Cup.

I can just see it -- Sachin Tendulkar, just before opening the Indian innings against South Africa at Hove on May 19, taking Dire Straits out of his discman, slipping in this one instead, listening intently and then going out there, all pumped up, to thump the hell out of Donald, Pollock and company.

Earlier, there was this video, which had the Cup-winning team of 1983 coming together to rally around Azhar's 1999 team. Presumably, that video will be aired by Anshuman Gaekwad after every team meeting, before every match.

And here I was, thinking the Brits had plumbed the depths of farce! Remember the recent ECB cricket marketing push, the other day, aimed at attracting more women spectators to cricket grounds? They do it by the simple expedient of having Anneka Rice and ECB officials sitting in front of posters of bare-chested men holding oranges!

Hey, let's quit the comedy and tell it like it is. There is a lot of emotion invested by the Indian fan in this team, and in the coming World Cup. Gimmicks like the video, and the casette launch, are meant to help the sponsors convert that emotional investment into cold cash -- and that is all it is meant to do.

Fair enough -- corporates are in the business of making money, no fault of theirs for sensing an opportunity and milking it to the max.

But in all this, aren't we missing a bet? The same players, class of 1983, who volunteered for that video have more to provide than their photogenic faces. They have a wealth of expertise -- especially crucial now, with the World Cup returning to English soil.

Isn't it about time the board thought of constructively harnessing that expertise? Of really getting behind the team and helping it on to the stated goal of doing well in the upcoming competition?

If you recall, last year there was that camp in Madras, under the aegis of Bobby Simpson and Anshuman Gaekwad. At that time, Kapil Dev had come down for a day -- and bowlers like Agarkar, Srinath and Prasad were in raves about how useful they found the one session at the nets Kapil had held.

Afterwards, in an interview, Kapil told us that he was there not because of any inititative by the board, but because he had made it his personal business to fly down, at his own expense, to see if he could help.

Meanwhile, Sunny Gavaskar mentioned how he had, before the camp, informed the board that he was ready to go down to Madras and do his bit for the guys. For two days, Sunny recalled, he stayed close to the phone, waiting for a response from the board.

There was none -- which is pretty much par for the thoughtless fashion in which our administrators function.

But the World Cup is not just another tournament. So isn't it about time the administration shook the lead out, and made some positive moves?

A great way to start would be to involve the stars of the 1983 World Cup in the preparation of this squad. Every single player has valuable know how to contribute -- knowhow the team of today could benefit from.

To give you a for-instance, Harsha Bhogle was telling me this story, the other day, about Roger Binny. Seems when he first got to England and was bowling in the nets, the likes of Srikkanth, Gavaskar and Vengsarkar were belting him out of the park with depressing regularity.

That can get rather embarassing for a bowler. So to spare himself the blushes, Binny took to bowling much slower than his norm. And found to his surprise that the slower speed, and the fact that the ball was getting to move more in the air, was causing problems for the batsman. So he figured, if it works in the nets, then why not in the middle? So he went out there and bowled slow, through the duration of the tournament, and we all know what a crucial part his bowling played.

It is that kind of knowledge that those guys are full of. Harnessing it, getting them to impart it to the team of today, will mean that Azhar and his side will not have to go to England and reinvent the wheel.

All it takes is for the board to think of the game, of the team, and its requirements. All it takes is for the board to have the will, the desire, to make a difference. For the officials to get in touch with the players of yesterday, make the request, ask for their help.

Is that such a hard ask?

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