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January 2, 1998


Sachin sacked, Azhar back!

Prem Panicker

Sachin Tendulkar Sachin Tendulkar was today removed as India's cricket captain.

Mohammad Azharuddin was reinstated in the job he lost at the conclusion of the England tour of 1996.

And the selectorial cow jumped over the moon!

New year or no, some things never change -- and the alarmingly contradictory face of Indian cricket is first on that list.

Mohammad Azharuddin Consider recent history. After a dream run leading India in Tests and one dayers on home soil, the first cracks appear in Azharuddin's captaincy when, flying in the face of perceived wisdom, he wins the toss and opts to bat second against Sri Lanka in the World Cup semifinal at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta. The clearly underprepared track crumbles and Sanath Jayasuriya has India in a spin, leading to a riot and the abandonment of the game, which is awarded to Sri Lanka by match referee Clive Lloyd.

The cracks widen during India's disastrous tour of England. The team stumbles from one bad performance to another, Navjot Singh Sidhu adds controversy to confusion when he abandons the tour, media reports and, indeed, the report of the tour manager speak of a disinterested captain who has totally cut himself off from the rest of the team and spends all his time with his inamorata.

Ironically, at that point in time, Azhar has really done little wrong. The defeat in England owed to factors other than the captaincy -- the cold weather told on the bowlers, especially the spinners; batsmen found their fingers cramping, fielders lumbered around in clothing more suited to an arctic expedition...

Look back at that tour, and you realise that as the biting cold of winter eased towards the end of the tour, both batsmen and bowlers began performing a lot better -- though the improvement came too late to do any good in terms of overall results.

The team returns. And Azharuddin is sacked. The selectors replace him with Sachin Tendulkar -- and the nation goes into collective frenzy, expecting the master batsman to produce miracles. Sachin for his part records fine wins over Australia and South Africa in Tests at home, then leads the team to the Titan Cup ODI triangular against the same opponents, before taking off to South Africa where the team is caught on the backfoot on the fastest wicket in the world, and goes down 1-0 before it can even catch its collective breath. From there on, it is all downhill, till the third Test, when India's bid for victory is thwarted by a combination of rain and what can best be described as "patriotic" groundstaff.

Again, after a bad start, India storms into the final of the SBI ODI series -- and an exciting run chase made more difficult by rain and a consequent readjustment of the target later -- lose, but emerge the real heroes for a brilliant performance.

From there to the West Indies -- and an eminently forgettable performance by the team. And in retrospect, it is here that Tendulkar's troubles with the selectors begin. Ahead of the tour, he asks for an off spinner to combat the Windies array of left-handers. The request is turned down by selectors on the grounds that there are no off spinners of quality in India (never mind that the same bunch, later, rediscovered Rajesh Chauhan). Tendulkar protests. Protests again when the totally unknown Noel David is flown over after Srinath breaks down.

His protests, for the first time, lead the selectors to realise that he is no rubber stamp, to meekly toe the line.

Meanwhile, master batsman Mohammad Azharuddin slides. Badly. Initially it is seen as loss of form. Then, as the run outs mount, as instances of his over-ruling the captain's instructions surface (for instance, in the St Vincent's one dayer), the groundswell of opinion turns against him.

He is dropped from the Indian side to play the Independence Cup quadrangular. And the selectors -- the same bunch, mind you, who are doing duty right now -- explain that it is his lack of commitment, his apparently disinterest in the game, that has led to his ouster.

Reinstated for the Asia Cup and the Test series in Sri Lanka, Azharuddin comes good with the bat.

At this point, a section of the selectors openly come out in favour of the sacking of Tendulkar and reinstatement of Azharuddin as India's captain. The timing is important, here -- this is before Toronto. At this point, Sachin Tendulkar is doing very well with the bat. And yet, sections of the media carry on the inspired campaign -- that Tendulkar is feeling the pressure of captaincy, that his batting is falling apart, that India's losses are attributable to this factor and this factor alone.

The five game Sahara Cup in Toronto sees Azhar still in fine touch -- while Tendulkar hits a bad patch. Pakistan, and the three ODIs for the Jinnah Cup, and Azhar is still doing okay, if a shade under the form he showed in Lanka and Canada.

However, the selectors, who have been making a case for the sacking of Tendulkar, fail to muster a majority within the committee. Further, the 5-3 win record in eight games on the trot against Pakistan make it rather embarassing, for them, to talk of the sacking of the skipper. And board president Raj Singh Dungarpur steps in to read the riot act, and indicate firmly that Tendulkar should not be tampered with.

Then comes Sharjah -- and a performance from Azharuddin that is so downright shocking that international television commentators of the order of Geoffrey Boycott and Mark Nichols comment adversely. Sunil Gavaskar, also on live television, is scathing. The media reports are uniformly condemnatory.

And as Mohammad Azharuddin gets run out -- in a fashion that would discredit a novice -- in the key game against Pakistan, a section of fans at the ground hold up a banner that sums up the collective mood. "Manoj Prabhakar, you are right!", reads the banner, referring to the former all-rounder's allegations of bribery and match-fixing within the Indian squad.

The national selectors, shaken by the storm, summon Azharuddin to a closed door meeting. And at the end of it, Ramakant Desai, chairman of selectors, announces that he has been reprimanded, and pardoned.

Board secretary Jaywant Lele, who was in Sharjah at the time of the selection committee meeting in question, announces on his return that he believes Azharuddin should have been sacked. Saying that he was basing his views on the evidence of having seen Azhar play, at first hand, in Sharjah, Lele says, "The national selectors should have shown more courage and dropped Azharuddin. Reputations should not count, only performance should be the criterion..."

Follows three more ODIs, against Sri Lanka. Azhar's bad run of form continues.

At the end of it, Azharuddin is made captain of India!

Not just for the three-nation tournament in Bangladesh beginning January 10. But also for the three Test series against Australia to follow. And for the triangular ODI tournament after that.

Contrast this with SachinTendulkar, who was recently appointed "captain for 27 days".

Lele is totally, completely silent.

National Selectors So, interestingly, is Ramakant Desai, chairman of selectors, who stumbles in the face of acerbic, at times angry, questioning by the media at the press briefing after the selection committee meeting in Bombay on Friday.

Desai opens his account in style, by saying "There was no pre-determined move to sack Tendulkar. All five selectors felt it would be a great disservice to Indian cricket if he continued his lean trot in one dayers because of the extra burden of captaincy."

No pre-determined move? When, both before and after the Asia Cup, two selectors have systematically, under the guise of anonymity (the heck with the no names policy -- the two selectors in question are Sambaran Bannerjee and Shivlal Yadav) spoken to the media about their determination to sack Tendulkar? No "pre-determination"? When the board president, then in London, is constrained to telephone the national selectors ahead of the Sharjah tournament to insist that they do not sack Tendulkar? No "pre-determination"? When national newsmagazine The Week carries a cover story, quoting a national selector and an unnamed BCCI official as saying that there was a move, with sanction from a section of the board, to sack Tendulkar? And when the same magazine, and others, openly allege that a cartel of bookmakers, unable to make any headway with Tendulkar, have begun exerting monetary influence on the selectors to axe him?

The "no predetermination" number by Desai is flayed by the media. A volley of questions follow. Desai subsides into silence.

Finding him lost for answers, his colleague, Kishen Rungta, steps into the breach. And comes up with some of the best specimens of double-talk seen in living memory. We present samples:

"The reason why the selectors fell back on Azharuddin was that he was the only player, other than Tendulkar, to be a certainity in both forms of the game...."

Oh really? Granted that Rahul Dravid has been dropped -- never mind, for now, the wisdom or lack thereof of that particular move -- how about Saurav Ganguly, to name just another certainity? Again, wasn't this the same bunch of selectors who, just a while ago, spoke of having one captain -- Ajay Jadeja -- for one-dayers and another for Tests? So why does the captain for Bangladesh have to be a certainity in "both forms of the game"?

No reply.

Wasn't Azharuddin originally dropped because he was seen to be an unimaginative captain? No, says Kishen Rungta. "He was sacked due to a turbulent period in his personal life. He had remained tense and preoccupied, which showed in his leadership. He is now settled back as a family man, married to Miss Bijlani (sic!), he has got an amicable divorce from his first wife and his parents have also accepted him," is Rungta's reasoning.

In other words, the most essential qualification for becoming captain of India is a happy married life. Which, of course, rules out the bachelor boys, Dravid, Jadeja et al. But last we heard, Sachin Tendulkar was perfectly happy with wife Anjali and newborn daughter Sara. And Ganguly, to cite another name, was very happy with wife Dona. Or do the selectors know something about the personal lives of these players that the rest of us don't?

Was there any doubt about Azhar's commitment to the side? Of course not, says Rungta. Then why was he summoned to the selectors' meeting, ahead of the Sharjah tour? "We simply wanted to give him a pep talk, to boost his spirits which seemed low after so many negative things were written and spoken about him in the media and on television."

There was no question of his ability and his sincerity? "No, that was never in doubt by any of us!"

The statement is a downright lie.

"Azharuddin was pardoned," Desai told the press at the end of the meeting on December 18. The members of the national press were present. The words were quoted, verbatim, in all media reports the last day. As to what else actually happened at that meeting, here is the full story. Read it, you will see just how dramatic a turnaround Rungta's words are, from those of his chairman, in just over a fortnight.

However, there is more still. Asked why Tendulkar was sacked, Rungta on behalf of Desai said that the only criterion was bad batting, and not any perceived defects in the captaincy.

If that is the case, then why is Tendulkar not captain of the Test side, considering that he is aggregating over 1,000 runs, and averaging over 63, in Tests this year -- the highest of any of the Indian batsmen?

No reply.

But more of the same. "We wanted to make a last ditch effort to avoid the unpleasant step of axing Tendulkar, so we asked him to bat lower down in one dayers. This, however, failed to produce any extraordinary results, he got only two fifty-plus scores in six innings, so we were forced to take this step."

So the selectors determine these things on the basis of runs scored. Interesting.

Now examine the facts. The selectors ask Tendulkar to bat lower down. He does so, in six matches. His sequence of scores, beginning with Sharjah, are as follows: Versus England, 91 off 87 deliveries. Versus West Indies, 1 off 2. Versus Pakistan, 3 off 4. Versus Sri Lanka in the first ODI, 82 off 86. Second ODI, abandoned. Third ODI, 6 off 13. And one of those innings, the 82 off 86 undefeated, is a match-winner.

Compare Azharuddin's sequence, in the same period, in the same order: 3 off 19, 4 off 8, 39 off 57, 28 not out off 46, 24 of 36. In fact, against Sri Lanka, Azhar is ranked below Tendulkar, who tops with 88, Ganguly (73), Jadeja (60), Sidhu (53) with 52 runs to his name. In other words, Azharuddin, whose form, and commitment are not in doubt by the selectors, ranks last among the 6 specialist batsmen in the side.

Therefore, he -- deservedly, in the opinion of the national selectors -- gets to lead the side. Because for the selectors, statistics are not a beacon light but a crutch -- to be used, selectively, when they do not have a logical leg to stand on.

It is not my intention here to belittle the achievements of Azharuddin -- who, by any yardstick, deserves to be ranked among the top five batsmen India has produced in contemporary (even, perhaps, in all time) history. In fact, a look through our own archives will indicate that at the conclusion of the England tour of 1996, when there was a collective demand for his head, Rediff consistently argued that his personal life should not be the yardstick used to judge him, that the team failure in England was collective and could not be laid at the door of the captain alone, and that it was bad policy to sack him at that point.

However, applying the same yardstick, we maintain that it is even worse policy to reappoint him now. His form is suspect, his commitment even more so (Rungta notwithstanding, do keep in mind the selectors' move in calling him for a "reprimand and pardon"). If captaincy can have a negative impact on Sachin Tendulkar, how much more then, by the same logic, could it impact on an already struggling Azharuddin? Wherein lies the logic, here?

Meanwhile Desai, once the storm of questioning about the appointment of Azhar subsides, takes over from Rungta to mouth an extempore elegy to Sachin Tendulkar. Samples:

"All of us have tremendous respect for Tendulkar, and not since Gavaskar has anyone received so much admiration from all as Tendulkar has got. But unfortunately, the selectors could not come to any other conclusion for his batting failures in one-dayers, except that it was due to the prolem of captaincy."

Interesting. How then do they account for the fact that Tendulkar's average in Tests this year is higher than his lifetime average? The "problem of captaincy" adversely affects a player when he is playing one-day cricket, and beneficially when he is playing Test cricket?

More from Desai: "The selectors have gone on record appreciating Tendulkar's sportsmanship of taking all the blame on himself. He is the type to carry on the battle. Very few captains put their head on the block as he did, but we want him more as run-scorer than as captain."

And -- as television anchors are so fond of saying -- with this, we come to the end of today's programme. The next installment will be brought to you on Saturday, when the national selectors meet to finalise the team for Dacca.

Tailpiece: Two peripheral issues need passing mention, here. On Friday, the national selectors unveiled their latest theory to explain why Sachin had done badly as captain, and why Azharuddin was doing badly as a batsman. "The media has been writing irresponsibly, and putting pressure on the team," says Desai.

Right. The media chopped and changed teams at will. The media held a gun to Tendulkar's head and asked him to bat at number four (interestingly, Desai before the Sri Lanka series vehemently denied that the selectors had asked Tendulkar to bat lower down, and said that was a media-propagated lie; today, Rungta confirms that the selectors had indeed done so in a "last ditch attempt" to avoid sacking him -- so who is lying, here?). The media consistently refused to give Tendulkar the team he asked for. The media dictated that Prasad should not play in certain games. The media dropped Dravid. The media got Azharuddin run out with some bad calling... and so on... Right on, Mr Desai!

Meanwhile, was Sachin sacked, or did he quit? The last 48 hours have brought a spate of denials. From Desai, from Lele, from Shivlal Yadav. Every denial is couched in the same way... "No, we have not officially been informed of Tendulkar's resignation..."

Nice. The media reports, since denied with extreme heat, were specific. They said in so many words that after the third ODI against Sri Lanka, Tendulkar has told the selectors that he would like to step down. He did not put it in writing, to "whomsoever it may concern". And so the BCCI establishment kept harping on not having been informed "officially".

The most illuminating statement on this issue comes from Desai. "It is true that for some time now we have been debating a change in captaincy. However, it must be made clear that any decision on the matter will be our own decision, and not Tendulkar's."

In other words -- "Sorry, Sachin, you can't quit, because we want to sack you!"

By the way, friend Desai, when he said on Thursday that "it is true we have been debating a change in captaincy", could not foresee, poor chap, that 24 hours later, he would inform the press at the briefing that there was "no predetermination about the move to change captains".

Prem Panicker

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