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Effigywallahs, keep matches dry

- India a cricket powerhouse, says Chappell and adds after a pause, ‘off the field’
Greg Chappell delivers the second annual Tiger Pataudi Memorial Lecture, a joint initiative of the Bengal Club and The Telegraph in association with the Oberoi Group. Picture by Bhubaneswarnanda Halder

Calcutta, Feb. 27: He came despite the effigywallahs. There were enough of them at a time, especially in this city, for him to ponder cheeky profit — craft miniature effigies, trade them at a dollar a piece and die a rich man.

He came despite having had to wonder often whether it had been worth trysting with India or Indian cricket, which can often begin to seem the same thing.

He came winging all the way from Melbourne for 40 minutes on an arc-lit stage erected in another man’s honour.

Greg Chappell must believe there are more pieces to his mind than got picked during his truncated tutorship of Team India. Any takers or none, he revealed some of them this evening in the course of a meditation on whether India can become the Brazil of cricket.

The core of it he laid bare in a single gaunt sentence, just as dry as the pitches his Baggy-Green mates are currently being tested on by Dhoni & Co. And probably just as crisp.

“In recent times, India has become the powerhouse of world cricket,” he said, and paused just a fraction, almost like a wily spinner’s loop hangs benignly mid-air before pitching and turning a devil. “Off the field,” he then added. Sentence completed; sentence pronounced.

He had slipped a snorter through the loosened guard of an audience that had all but assumed that the ceremonial air had finally brought the testy Chappell round to paying unqualified tribute.

He hadn’t come to be cutting or unkind on his hosts, but then Chappell hasn’t made himself known for politeness where he doesn’t think it is required.

Chappell didn’t say it in as many words, but Indian cricket had a long way to go before it could imagine embracing the Brazil metaphor.

“It’s not merely enough to build state-of-the-art stadiums, it’s far more important to spot and train the boys who’d come to play in them. Indian cricket can do what Brazil has done with its football, but that is not happening because plans haven’t been put in place.”

Chappell’s speech almost rasped with a suffocated undertug of regret he hadn’t been allowed to complete what he had come to achieve.

Aveek Sarkar, chief editor of The Telegraph, called Chappell up to take guard at the lectern with a duly understated “The usual leg stump I presume, Mr Chappell?” Chappell’s riposte was an extended, though equally understated, grouse why he had been sent off the wicket in the first place.

Sarkar didn’t omit to bare the needle with a mention of Sourav Ganguly, though he didn’t plunge it on his guest. Chappell made as if to take no notice at all. The only contemporary Indian players he mentioned in his discourse were Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ajit Agarkar and Gautam Gambhir. The first for his unique homegrown talents, the latter two only by association to the first.

“Excellence is never an accident,” he said. “It is a choice to be made and for India to become a champion superpower of cricket, for that to happen, some things need to change.”

It was a sentiment that Sharmila Tagore, guest of honour for the evening, was later to pick on and appreciate. “I especially liked the way you said, Greg, that excellence is never an accident,” Sharmila said, after Chappell had closed the second annual Tiger Pataudi Memorial Lecture. “I think we need to especially remember that.”

Chappell remembered, with particular deliberation, a long evening’s conversation with the event’s raison, Tiger Pataudi, and sought to submit that they had agreed on most things.

“He was a prince, I was a pauper, but we had cricket in common, and he was very supportive of what I had to say about Indian cricket and what needs to be done,” Chappell recalled.

“We needed a many-layered plan, we needed to develop fast bowlers, different kinds of pitches, we needed to spot and encourage and support talent, we needed to make cricket a game all Indians could play in their environs. That’s what talent comes from, from raw environments, not from academies. Brazil learnt from the mistake of pulling boys out from the fields and putting them in academies. They stopped winning and didn’t play two World Cups because the skills that came from playing barefoot in small sand fields began to vanish.”

The exemplar he picked to push his point was Dhoni, a candidate he once nudged towards captaincy.

“I have always been amazed at his ability to hit balls in areas where most others couldn’t even conceive hitting them, and that came from playing on broken, crumbly grounds, in alleys, on all manner of surfaces, with all kinds of playing material, tennis balls and so on. That is how he came to develop these unique skills. You won’t get talent to perform unless you work with it. Indian cricket can have a very strong future but there are critical things it needs to put in place for that.”

Again, he never said it in as many words, but he was meaning to say what was happening was nearly not enough.

For those gathered at the event, a joint initiative of the Bengal Club and The Telegraph in association with the Oberoi Group, which laid out its glittering ballroom for the evening, this was just the Chappell they had come to know — blunt, unfussed, professorial. Only, there wasn’t a cricketer in the audience taking notes, other than Raju Mukherjee whose visage would persuade the blind he isn’t contemplating a return to the crease.

Not so Chappell himself; he’s erect and engaged and probably still willing, the effigywallahs notwithstanding.