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Home > Cricket > The Cup > Column > Jitesh Chanchani

And the post-mortems begin...

April 03, 2007

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Two miserable games later, India exited the World Cup. Predictably, we now have to suffer through the collective knee-jerk hysteria fuelled by the paparazzi section of the sports media. Flip through any channel on TV and you are bound to see the circus. Cricket luminaries, analysts and reporters provoked into mindless dribble by anchors that know as much about cricket as Dhoni does about Murali's topspinner. 

Look through newspapers and there's one banal piece after another. The nuggets of wisdom are plentiful, but let's consider some that are recycled more often than others. 

First and foremost is the usual suspect -- the lack of "mental toughness" within the Indian team. Then, there's the alleged preoccupation with commercial interests distracting from the game, and dare I say, the National Cause. And finally there's the ubiquitous refrain of "Sachin failed us yet again, when it mattered most. Drop him".

As a fan, it rankles because I believe we fielded the best possible team in the World Cup. Prior to the tournament, if we had polled any number of cricket experts on this planet, my bet is that eight or nine members of this very team would be on every single roster. Truth is, our team had a bad day at the office even as the underrated opponent chose to raise their game. But, yet, instead of applauding the pluck of the Bangladeshi team our TV channels will broadcast TRP-chasing parodies that ridicule our players.

Let's first dwell shall we, on this intangible of mental toughness. For a batsman it might be the ability to concentrate on the next ball, even as the mind wants to submit to a dismal scorecard, a sledging slip-cordon, mounting asking-rate and a tail-ender at the non-striker's end. For a bowler it could be the ability to land that perfect yorker after a Tamim Iqbal has pummeled him for successive fours. I am no Sandy Gordon, but it seems implausible that virtues like mental toughness and killer instinct could be acquired through coaching (sorry Viv!) or crash-courses in commando-training and rope-climbing (sorry coach Greg!). 

These are cultural traits that are developed right throughout one's formative years. The Australians appear to have them in generous measures while only a few Indians can lay serious claim to such qualities. Why so?  It's because our domestic cricket is played at a level that's orders of magnitude lower than international cricket. The Aussies grow up playing their first-class cricket in typically hard-nosed spare-nothing fashion. There are six teams that compete for the top spot. Indian domestic cricket on the other hand is completely diluted by the more than 20 teams competing in several tournaments -- Ranji, Irani, Deodhar, Duleep, Challenger and what have you. Only a handful of teams at the Ranji level have players of any mettle and so it's no surprise that our cricketers appear to crumble in the pressure cooker of international cricket.

Consider this for mind-blowing stats: In a career spanning nearly two decades Sachin Tendulkar has played only 32 Ranji matches, and scored 18 centuries. His last 11 matches have yielded 8 tons with the latest one coming in the recent Ranji finals against Bengal. The guy walks into a Ranji game after a gap of 7 years, the final at that, and scores a hundred! How do we expect our players to contend with the mental rigors of international cricket when their preparations are carried out on flat tracks with mediocre teams? 

So instead of accusing the petty pickpocket that is the Match Ka Mujrim, perhaps our panelists on TV should train their guns on the mafia that is the BCCI. The Harsha Bhogles of this world have been writing about this for years but until the mass media takes this up in earnest, there will be no changes. Until then, stay tuned to inane rhetoric about how "our boys lack the mental toughness required".

Another recurring theme is the allegedly corruptive influence of the hefty endorsement packages doled out to our cricketers. All of India is embracing capitalism, so why should cricket be any different. Cricketers have a shelf-life and every right to maximize their returns within that window of opportunity. And the argument that commercial interests are hampering their performance falls flat on its face. It's pure market economics after all.  If the players do not perform, the endorsements are just as quick to vanish. We heard the other day that Videocon will pull all commercials featuring Dhoni and Dravid.

As ridiculous as it sounds, let us for a moment assume that Dhoni is spurred on solely by the lure of the lucre.  Surely, he must be at the nets right now working hard on his game so that he's back on the tube soon, goldilocks and all.  So what's wrong with that? Truth be told, if commercialization were bad for sports, America would not have such lofty standards for baseball and basketball. 

If anything, more commercialization can only lead to the advancement of cricket in India by creating incentives for young cricketers. Until that happens, Indian parents will continue badgering their kids over the CAT and the JEE rather than the college cricket tournament. 

If the BCCI had courage and foresight, they would scrap the domestic circuit and create a professional cricket league with the full force of corporate India behind it. Imagine if you will, watching the Delhi Daredevils take on the Bombay Bulldozers in a 20-20 tournament sponsored by Reliance Industries. Alas, it will remain a pipe dream. For now, we must continue watching Orissa take on Bihar in the Ranji plate league -- telecast live from Jamshedpur on DD Sports.

Like his brother Trevor, Ian Chappell lobbed an under-armer the other day. He frowned upon Sachin for trying to "eke out a career" even as he tried to eke out some limelight for himself. No better way to make headlines than slam Sachin. Back home as well, many a cricket pundit would like to see Sachin hang up his boots for the betterment of Indian cricket. 

But there is one fundamental problem with all this opportunistic advice: no one wants to talk about who replaces Sachin. It's all very well for him to retire, but where is that young gun waiting in the wings and ready to carry the torch into the future. Here's a basic premise. You need at least six batsmen in the team and even the harshest critic would be hard-pressed to say that Sachin is not amongst the top six batsmen in India today. 

I would argue that with the exception of Rahul Dravid in the last few years, a past-his-prime Sachin is still several notches above any other candidate for the Indian batting lineup. Besides, Sachin missed a good eighteen months of cricket due to injury, thus providing the perfect opportunity for a youngster to make their mark. Yet no one came to the party. No doubt Sachin had a forgettable world cup, but so did half a dozen others in the team. 

Why do we still expect him to be the one-man-army that will take on the world? Why can't we accept him simply as a senior member of the team who still has much to offer, but is likely to fail once in a while?

It's not the Indian team that needs to be overhauled, but the administrators and the structure of our domestic cricket. It's not commercialization that's harming Indian cricket but the fact that it is not channeled appropriately. And last time I checked, there were 10 other guys that took the field with Sachin during the World Cup.

Jitesh Chanchani is based in Houston, Texas and manages a software product line for work.  He follows cricket for a living.

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