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MEN AND BOYS
- In India, it is a long, hard way to the final victory lap

It is, wise men will say, good for both the losers and the winners in any walk of life to be able to tell themselves it was only a game. As Lance Klusener is reported to have quipped after he and Allan Donald got trapped in a run-out while playing Australia and costing South Africa the World Cup, “So what' No one got killed!” Not everybody can take such a philosophical view, for nearly every competitive game is governed by the law of the market: You get punished each time you lose, rewarded each time you win. In fact, the market actually tries something extra. It tries to separate not only the winners from the losers but also the men from the boys.

It happens in history that sometimes a few unusual persons are around who are not just watching a game, or playing it for the normal rewards — be it a game like cricket played on the open field or one played in the more secluded world of the academia — in classrooms and laboratories. These persons do not have ordinary ambitions but are after the breakthroughs. They look out for extraordinary ways of achieving supremacy without necessarily breaking the rules of the game. They practise what we may call white magic that turns, for example, timid boys and girls unexpectedly into warrior men and women. Of course, these are not normal people. Therefore one should not be surprised to see them suddenly plunging into the boiling cauldron of controversy without thinking once of the price they may have to pay. Strictly speaking, regardless of where they come from, they also do not necessarily behave like proper gentlemen.

In my eyes these new-generation gutsy people are the real leaders of the developing world — acknowledged or not. They occupy very special positions in society today as crucial yet utterly vulnerable leaders of people and captains of activities in every competitive sphere. I feel fascinated by these young leaders, for sometimes I think they can change the equations that normally define the relative strength of the contenders. Before my very eyes I seem to see them inspire others, enthusing the boys and drawing in the men, in one big huddle, conjuring up an unknown variable X, in the equations that did not contain any such before.

Almost by hypothesis, these new leaders fail more often than they succeed. Often at the end of the day, after one more heroic effort, they will manage to harvest only a spectacular failure that would attract the taunts of the frantic and desperately expectant crowd, and only add to the merriment of not only the enemy ranks but also their own professional peers who “told them so” even before the game had started. Sometimes I see amongst such expert detractors one or two characters who can best be described as failed captains of the past themselves, who are best forgotten. Often too, when our players are down, they do not get cover, while the very ordinary reactions of the onlookers draw wide coverage from the media, sadly of our own country.

These thoughts passed through my mind many times over the last four weeks as the vicissitudes of life unfolded for our cricketers in distant Australia, millions of us sitting and watching virtually from a few feet away. As I followed the media reports on the internet and also read my daily Bengali and English papers I noticed an intriguing contrast between the fiercely loyal and often antagonistic Australian and the fickle Indian public opinions.

Australian public opinion and media look upon the cricket team Steve Waugh led as not only by far the best in the world today, but the best in history, stronger than Bradman’s legendary “Invincibles”. Indian opinion goes up and down in cycles of euphoria and self-flagellation, holding the captain responsible for the failures but not particularly for the few successes that come by.

In the event when the unthinkable happened and kept happening as India dominated cricket for a full three weeks this Australian summer, there was confusion all round. Contrary to all expert forecasts in two continents, India forced the latter-day Invincibles into a fantastic defeat once, close to defeat twice, and lost a match only once and that courtesy the operation of the dubious Duckworth and Lewis rules. The Indian team, with their vintage greats and their callow youth fused together into a hitherto unheard-of metal, tore through the Australian side and almost turned Steve Waugh’s pre-arranged farewell (fairway') parade into a farce — some Australians said almost a funeral. Knowing how harsh and relentless the Australian public and press can be, I genuinely had thought they would now turn round and start tearing Steve to shreds. In the event, we had the unforgettable sight of the prime minister of Australia standing and cheering Steve all the way as the players shouldered their captain in a great orchestrated “victory lap” round the Sydney cricket ground!

Almost apologetically, another little ceremony, hardly noticed, had to be gone through at Sydney. Since Australia could only manage to draw this series after losing the one in India last year, it was India that had actually won the Gavaskar and Border Cup again. So it had to be handed over to India a second time, before the disbelieving eyes of millions. India showed remarkable restraint in not making much of it. The Indian public, perhaps even the media, not accustomed to the Ashes system of rewards that governs the G&B Cup did not make much of it either. And the Australian prime minister and the sporting Australian public did see to it that their great captain would be remembered for his past achievements and not for his last debacle. Steve Waugh was soon elected the Australian of the year.

Let me contrast this with how Indians chose to react. I heard some talk in Delhi of our leaders too thinking of suitably expressing the nation’s appreciation for the unexpected three-week success in Australia, which was damped by the fourth week’s disaster. But eventually the honours were announced: the Indian captain and the vice-captain were both awarded the Padmashree medals. Padmashree is not anything like the knighthood that the English captains are usually considered for. In a previous incarnation in Imperial India it was the Kaiser-e-Hind Medal, Third Class. But something is better than nothing. The question of electing the Indian captain “the Indian of the year”, of course, did not arise. Higher dignitaries would be soon vying for that honour themselves at the hustings.

Unfortunately, the three sweet weeks were followed by a fourth that brought only bitterness all round. India lost in the one-day internationals heavily in the hands of the world champions. That India had won handsomely all their four matches against the third contender Zimbabwe did not mean a thing. In fact, having been defeated by the world champions so heavily India lost the right in the eyes of the press even to call themselves the second best team in the world.

In one of the national dailies the front-page headline was striking indeed: “Ganguly and his gang let down India”. In my Bengali paper on the front page was this large photograph of the Indian captain, sprawled on the alien outfield a yard from the boundary, defeated in his last desperate attempt to stop a ball . He lay Jatayu-like, the giant bird winged at last. The shattering though telling caption: “Aussies break India’s wings.”

Hardly anybody stops to think that we cannot avoid some heroics if we do want the quick breakthroughs — which path comes with, in our country, the unavoidable risk of humiliation at the end of the day. If you cannot stomach that, you can continue to enjoy your drab but protected existence, as do most other countries of the world.

In terms of a cricketing paradigm the question then is: would you want to be like Zimbabwe, fighting gamely all along, your brilliant captain earning the respect of all, but also going back home defeated by all the top teams of the world' Or would you rather be India of the new generation' You will then often have to throw caution to the wind, play a desperate game sometimes, perhaps risk a physical or mental burnout even before the season is over. You will earn the affection and respect of only a handful of fans and some odd onlookers like me and, thankfully, many experts (even some greats in the “enemy” ranks as it now turns out).

You will then play on equal terms with the “invincible” best of the world, beat them once or twice. But you will be thoroughly thrashed when you run out of steam which will be often. That will be the time the world will start laughing at you, and your “admirers” back home start throwing stones. Your only hope can be that over time the occurrence of such disastrous ends would grow fewer and fewer and someday you will be the Invincibles.

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