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April 20, 1999


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With a view to a Cup

Prem Panicker

   The victorious '83 veterans
This Sunday, we witnessed a huge tamasha at the Wankhede Stadium, where the World Cup-winning team of 1983 met the team of 1999 in an exhibition match that was hyped as the 'Good Luck India' game.

There was one moment that, more than any other, crystallised for me the insanity of it all. During the dinner break between innings, compere Shekar Suman, gazing up at the fireworks lighting up the heavens, said in a voice verging on the hysterical: "Yeh patake ka awaaz nahin, yeh ek ehlaan hai, ke hum World Cup jeetkar hi rahenge!"

Ironically, the selfsame Shekhar Suman, in the latest issue of Outlook magazine -- out on the shelves the selfsame day -- is asked who he thinks will win the World Cup. His response? 'I would of course love India to win, but my bet would be on South Africa...'

The hype-meister himself doesn't believe his own hype, does he?

To me, there is in this incident -- and in the entire hoopla surrounding the Indian team's preparation for World Cup '99 -- the prescription for a disaster in the making. You've got to be in India to understand the frightening dimensions of this thing, really. Turn on the television, and every Coke, Pepsi and Brittania are running ads that seem to indicate that the results of the tournament is a foregone conclusion. Switch to a music channel, and we are flooded with songs and videos supposedly meant to cheer on the team.

    The tilak ceremony
In combination, what is being created is a form of hysteria that reached a crescendo this Sunday with that tamasha at the Wankhede (and there is a World Cup concert lined up as well, courtesy Pepsi, for the 22nd). I can't conceive of a sight more ridiculous than to see the Indian World Cup squad lined up on stage, while a stream of industrialists, having paid for the privilege by way of sponsorship bucks, garlanded them and applied tilak to their foreheads.

There were so many industrialists -- not forgetting a certain Amitabh Bachchan -- queueing up for their share of the spotlight that pretty soon, the players ran out of space on their foreheads for the next tilak-applier in the queue.

And the crowds went wild. Singing and dancing with Abhijeet to the tune of the cheerleading song. Celebrating as though the result of the tournament was a foregone conclusion.

The corporates have good reason for climbing on the Cup bandwagon, and pumping in millions by way of advertising money to cash in on the publicity value -- after all, an event like this comes along only once in four years (okay, three in this case). But the net result is that enormous expectation is being built up within this country. In the prevailing climate, nothing will do for the public short of winning the tournament. Realistically, this team would have done wonderfully well if it gets into the semifinals -- but after all this hype, even that kind of a performance is not going to be enough.

Time and again, we lament when bottles are hurled onto Indian cricket fields, when fans say it with stones and with fire. What ails Indian cricket?, we moan. The answer is simple -- Indian cricket's administration jumped into bed with the corporate sector to give birth to unthinking hype and needless hysteria.

And all this has in turn spawned a breed of cricket fan who is unforgiving of failure. Remember the semifinals of 1996? And the riot that lashed the Eden Gardens? The hype this time is a hundred times what it was three years ago. I am afraid the backlash, too, is going to be unimaginably worse.

Try putting yourself in the shoes of the players. Today, they know that if they return without the Cup in their kitbag, what happened to the 1996 Pakistan team on its return to Lahore will be a stroll in the park compared to the reception awaiting Azhar and his team here. Just playing a tournament of this kind is pressure enough to daunt the strongest -- entering the field knowing that 900 million people, whipped to frenzy by the ongoing burst of corporate spending, are going to be merciless in the event of failure is a crippling burden to carry.

The damage has now been done. Perhaps it is time to think of what can be done to limit it.

A view I see increasingly being expressed, in every available forum, is that Mohammad Azharuddin should be removed as Indian captain, and replaced by Ajay Jadeja. A view I would have agreed with a month or more ago, before the final 15 was announced -- but I am afraid we have left it a little too late now.

How would you do it? Drop Azhar both from the captaincy and the team? That can't be done -- simply because, having submitted the list of 15, the board cannot make any changes except in case of injury, and that injury would need to have been sustained on the playing field (and attested to by the ECB's own medical panel). Obviously, that is not possible here.

Drop Azhar from the captaincy and retain him in the team? Again, not on. India is going into the tournament with a dangerously fragile batting lineup, especially in the middle. The team, by nature of its composition, is caught in a dilemma -- ideally, it should be playing five batsmen, five bowlers and one keeper if it wants to win more than it loses. However, it cannot do so simply because the consistency of the top five batsmen is in doubt. To add a disgruntled Azharuddin to the mix is to put the team behind the eight ball right away.

Therefore, the consensus view, that India's best chance of doing well in the World Cup is to drop Azhar and go with Jadeja at the helm, is beyond the scope of practical politics.

The message on the scoreboard says it all
However, there are other things that can -- and should -- be done. Now.

The Indian board, for instance, has an 'in' into the corporate sector. This is a good time to cash in. Could the president of the board go to one or more of the corporates, who are cashing in big time on the Indian team, and ask for sponsorship for four, or five, additional bowlers to be sent to England along with the squad? Can the board seek, and get, the funds to send Dodda Ganesh, Harvinder Singh, Laxmi Ratan Shukla, Ashish Nehra and a couple of others to Leicestershire, to help with the side's preparations?

This is crucial, for two reasons. The first is that while Srinath, Agarkar, Prasad and Mohanty do need practise, they do not need to cripple themselves by carrying the burden of bowling endless hours in the nets, day after day. Especially given that in the cold conditions, such extensive spells will take a toll on them physically. Having a few support bowlers will reduce the burden on India's Cup-quartet, and ensure that the frontline bowlers stay fit for the competition.

The other reason is equally important. Time and again, we wonder why our tailenders don't contribute with the bat. I've in the past three years spent days at various camps, watching the Indian team at practise. You know what happens? First, Tendulkar and Ganguly go into the nets -- and the frontline bowlers, fresh and ready, steam in and let fly. 45 minutes later, the two batsmen are replaced by Dravid and Azhar -- and the bowlers continue. Then come Jadeja and Robin -- and Srinath and company are still grinding away, by now reduced to one-quarter pace (in a match situation, would you bowl someone like Srinath for two and a half hours at a stretch?).

And once the batting stars have had their stint, they leave the field. The bowlers put on their pads and come out for a turn at bat. And find Andrew Kokinos and Anshuman Gaekwad -- and maybe a Ganguly and a Tendulkar -- bowling to them.

That is the kind of bowling Kumble, Srinath, Agarkar and Mongia practise against -- so how then do we expect them to score runs against Akram, Akthar, Donald, Pollock and company?

Given that conditions in England, in the first half of the tournament, are going to be inimical to batsmen, contributions by the tail are going to hold the key to the the team's performance. And the tail is more likely to contribute if it can practise its batting against quality bowlers -- which is why getting a squad of backup bowlers to go along with the selected 15 is of paramount importance.

Sending five reserve bowlers to England will do a damn sight more good for the team's prospects than applying tilak on their foreheads, that is for certain sure.

We'll move on to other items in the to-do list, coupled with an analysis of India's prospects, in the concluding segment of this column, tomorrow.

Meanwhile an aside, in passing: There was one heartening aspect of the Wankhede tamasha. And it was that for once, cricketers past and present put their hearts ahead of their bank passbooks. Not only did they, by turning out for the game (having flown in just that morning from Sharjah), help raise Rs two million apiece for the widow of the late Raman Lamba and the wife and children of the seriously ailing Ramnath Parkar, but they also handed over their individual prize monies to the two families.

That felt good. Cricketers today make fortunes undreamt of by their predecessors. It is heartening that when the opportunity arises, they pitch in to help out those in real need.

 Sachin hands over his cheque      to Kim Lamba.
I do wish, though, that the board had handled the presentation of those cheques with a bit more sensitivity. Kim Lamba has lost a husband. Ramnath Parkar's wife and children are struggling with the intense emotionalism that comes of having a loved one on a bed of pain, his prognoscis uncertain. To make a big hungama out of calling them up on stage, having some industrialist present them an outsize cheque and then having them pose for photographs was, to my mind, a touch de classe.

'How does it feel, Kim?' This, with the glare of the television camera on Lamba's widow!

Bloody hell, how is she supposed to feel -- thrilled to bits that she lost her husband?

The response to suffering should be sympathy, empathy. Grief, however, should not -- if we really care, that is -- be seen simply as another photo op.

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Prem Panicker

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