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August 26, 1997



Amrit Mathur

Rounding off his early morning golf game, Kapil Dev joined some of us for breakfast, and the conversation inevitably veered around to cricket.

Over the breakfast table, the Indian team was getting roundly criticised. Kapil heard everyone out without comment. However, when one of the critics voiced a demand for Sachin's head on a platter, the former all-rounder very deliberately laid down his knife and fork. And sensing his interest, the rest of us leaned forward, not wanting to miss out on his views.

There was, however, no sermonising. Just one pithy comment. "What do you expect a captain to do on his own? Both he and the boys need support!"

Which, of course, is true enough. Sunil Manohar Gavaskar, who is one former great who thinks highly of the little champion, describes Sachin as India's most precious jewel, a priceless talent and the only person capable of extricating the country's cricket from its current sorry state. But of late, even SMG is concerned that Sachin hasn't delivered on his promise.

It is one thing to say he is on a learning curve - but how long do you stay in cricketing school, how long does the curve last, and just when does promise find fruition? These, obviously, are the concerns worrying afficionadoes of the game in India.

Sachin is a master batsman, which is the one given in this scenario. But of late, his immense talent has proved to be his own worst enemy, because it arouses expectations to fever pitch, with his fans demanding that he provide an immediate fix on the country's cricketing ills. "True, till now Sachin hasn't proved any different from, or superior to, his predecessors like Vengsarkar or Azharuddin," admits Kapil. "But he is handicapped by an ordinary side, and a captain can only be as good as his team."

But is this side as 'ordinary' as all that? Kapil chips in again, with a quick example. "If a captain sets an offside field and his bowlers bowl half volleys on leg stump, what exactly can a captain do?"

That, we all admit, is indisputably true. What is disturbing however, we point out, is that Sachin has not brought to the captaincy the flair and inventiveness that characterises his cricket. After eight seasons and an experience of over 50 Tests and 150 one dayers, he is still struggling to find his feet. And strangely, despite his talent, despite his stature, he has been unable to assert himself, either in the dressing room, or even in the selection committee meeting.

To our mind - and this is the consensus across that breakfast table - Sachin has brought nothing new to the Indian captaincy. There has been no new thrust, no insight, no innovation. The Indian team practises, trains and plays - and continues to lose - as it has always done.

And increasingly, to our minds, it seems as if Sachin is unclear about what he wants.Victories at home on spin friendly wickets - considering his recent, and spirit, defence of the home advantage when responding to suggestions that the Indian batsmen had failed abroad? Then again, when the spinners failed to take wickets in the West Indies, he reversed his stand and made a pitch for better balanced wickets. The same case prevails in one day cricket - there is no constructive thought, just quick-fix solutions revolving mostly around changes in the batting order. First Dravid to open, then Dravid to go down the order, Saurav to open, then Robin Singh to go up the order - cosmetic changes, when every symptom calls for radical change.

"The problems of this Indian team can't be erased in one swift stroke," argues Kapil with heat, quickly adding, "but it is time the captain starts leading from the front. He has to resist getting tossed around by the media, the players, the selectors. And the Board should also take some steps to extenguish some of the unsavoury controversies that have created such turbulence. Especially, the controversies surrounding each team selection should end."

The problem, suggests Kapil, is not as much about the actual selection as about the low credibility of the men who are making the selections.

Kapil, in defence of his argument, points out that despite loud criticism, time has proved that the selectors weren't all that wrong about either Mongia (who didn't do anything outstanding) or Kambli (who didn't get to play a single game despite being the captain's personal choice). "The main problem here is, who will respect a selection panel with three non-Test players and a chairman who retired before any member of the current team was born? A panel consisting of Shastri, Srikkanth, Arun Lal, Sandip Patil and Madan Lal, say, might still select the same boys. But at least, given their reputations, their team announcements won't create such a major problem, such an outcry in the press.

"Selection," says Kapil Dev with finality, "is not the real issue, because of late, the Indian team is losing due to poor cricket, and not because the wrong players are picked."

More vital, says Kapil, is the question of wickets. Unless there is progress on this front, India's continued slide is certain, he argues. "Better tracks are absolutely essential, but they need time, effort and deep vision - and that is asking too much from the officials who run the game."

Expecting the Board to wake up and do things for the betterment of cricket, says Kapil with a smile, is about as unreasonable as expecting India to win a close game, or wanting Laloo Yadav to write the next vigilance manual.

Ajay Jadeja, who for all his youth has a surprisingly wise head on his shoulders, suggests that one immediate way to lift performance is by showing greater flexibility in planning and strategy, to play within the existing limitations. "Planning has to be positive and it has to centre around team strength," suggests Jadeja. "There is no real point in harping about what is missing, like a quality all rounder or incisive spinners. What it boils down to is self believe, clever thinking and a positive attitude."

It is an argument Kapil appears in agreement with. Sri Lanka, it is pointed out, also has no bowler worth the name with the exception of Muralitharan, their domestic wickets are as bad as India's, yet they spank us without raising a sweat. When Ranatunga rolls out onto the field, it is as though he is leading a family - a self-confident, determined, cohesive group, and not a team weakened by doubts, divided by jealousies.

"It is for Sachin to take control and lead the side instead of flowing with the tide," says Kapil in conclusion. "In the future, the little champion's contribution to Indian cricket, like that of Imran's in Pakistan, will be assessed in terms of how successful he was in raising the profile of cricket in the country, not on personal achievements."

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