The honourable schoolboy


Pride and prejudice

Music can be the food of collective amnesia. This is the danger inherent in the suggestion made by Mr Sekhar Bajaj, the president of Assocham, that Bengalis, instead of trying to industrialize West Bengal should concentrate on the music of Rabindranath Tagore and culture. The underlying argument is that people should play to their own strengths. Since culture is the forte of the Bengalis, it should utilize culture to promote their state. Mr Bajaj suggested that West Bengal should market tourist packages which would include items like “relaxation with Rabindrasangeet’’. There is no way of knowing how close Mr Bajaj’s tongue was to his cheek when he made these pronouncements. There exists ground to suspect that the statements were made with a dash of mockery behind them. An impolite person would have expressed the same sentiment by saying that Bengalis are no good at things like economic development, they should stick to culture and Rabindrasangeet. One could put irony and mockery to one side and take Mr Bajaj’s comments seriously. At that level, it should be emphasized that Mr Bajaj has articulated precisely those sentiments which Bengalis do not need to hear at this point of time. The cultural superiority of Bengalis is a well worn myth and like most myths it has a past and no present. West Bengal has already been relegated from the top table of Indian states; if it does not want to descend further to become an also-ran, it needs to listen not to Rabindrasangeet but to the doctrine of free market and the clarion call of capital.

Before patriotic Bengalis jump at the statement made about their cultural superiority being a myth, they should perhaps look at their gallery of icons. Tagore has been dead for 59 years; Subhas Bose has not been heard of or seen for over 50. The major work of the scientist Satyen Bose was done in the Twenties; the best films of Satyajit Ray were made in the Fifties and Sixties; and Amartya Sen’s accomplishments were all achieved outside West Bengal. That takes care of the major icons. Among minor ones, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen belong to time past as does Sombhu Mitra. This leaves Ravi Shankar whose achievements, wonderful as they are, cannot exactly be described as recent. In politics there is Mr Jyoti Basu of whom history will have to decide: maker or destroyer of West Bengal. The cultural world is singularly barren and one reason for this is the singular inability of Bengalis to recognize the poverty of ideas and creativity that surrounds them. Every educated Bengali has cultural pretensions: the word pretension is the operative one in that phrase.

Complacency about their own condition and cultural arrogance have been nurtured in the ambience of an utterly misdirected radicalism. This radicalism has successfully eroded an aspect of culture without which all other accomplishments become completely meaningless. This is the culture that relates to work. More than a generation of working men in West Bengal had been taught that there was no need to work and that a revolutionary culture would spell progress for the state. This lie now stands exposed but the price that West Bengal has paid is enormous. Capital fights shy of investment in the state; avenues of employment are clogged; infrastructure is crumbling and the best talents are fleeing. Under the circumstances, a prescription to strengthen culture through the utilization of Rabindrasangeet, if taken seriously, can spell only disaster. The danger is that there are enough Bengalis around who will take Mr Bajaj at face value and reach for their harmoniums. West Bengal needs a revolution in attitudes. It must recognize that the world has left it by and accept that a people, however proud, cannot live in the past and off its past. It cannot cling to a spurious cultural achievement and be oblivious of the surrounding gloom. Bengalis need a healthy dose of realism, a virtue that is never engendered by Rabindrasangeet.    

Sourav Ganguly must be very close to becoming captain of India. India has now lost every international game played on this tour of Australia: three tests, three one day internationals, half a dozen matches in succession. Why has India done so badly? If this was an examination question, undergraduate historians who love collecting causes could compile a whole dhobi list: poor team selection, an inability to adapt to the pace and bounce of Australian pitches, dodgy umpiring, bad running between wickets, dreadful fielding and so on. If I were correcting their exam scripts I’d probably give their answers a B minus because they’ve missed the wood for the trees. India has been routed because it is led by a schoolboy.

Sachin Tendulkar began his test career as a child star, moved on to become world cricket’s juvenile lead, and then leap-frogged Lara to become the greatest batting hero in the contemporary game. Ask Bradman. From the time he established himself in the team it was on the cards that one day, Tendulkar would be captain. He was the anointed one. In contrast, Azharuddin, who had captained Tendulkar for most of the latter’s career, became captain by accident because the selectors couldn’t agree on anyone else and then went on to become the most successful and longest lasting stop gap skipper in the history of Indian cricket.

But half way through Azharuddin’s first stint as captain, an odd thing happened. Normally, the vice-captain of a team is the understudy, an apprentice to the master, but in Tendulkar’s case, he was generally perceived as the master, the heir-apparent, while Azharuddin was cast either as a regent keeping the throne warm, or worse, as a usurper denying the young master his birthright.

There were good reasons for this widespread feeling: India hadn’t won a test match abroad for years, Azharuddin had led India unsuccessfully through two world cup tournaments, Tendulkar had displaced him as India’s champion batsman, Azharuddin was inarticulate, laid-back to the point of inertness while Tendulkar did magically decisive things like snatching the ball from his dithering captain and bowling the winning over in a one-day match...so in 1996 the selectors sacked Azharuddin and gave the guttering flame of Indian cricket into the boy wonder’s keeping.

When Tendulkar was sacked in his turn, a year and a half later, it was because India had lost every series it had played abroad under his leadership, and his one day record as captain wasn’t much better. It was certainly worse than Azharuddin’s. In his brief tenure India was demolished in South Africa by Cronje’s men, and then beaten in the Caribbean by an ageing West Indian team.

When India hosted the Independence Cup in 1997 with Tendulkar at the helm, it had to watch Pakistan and Sri Lanka contest the finals. Tendulkar was sacked because the team had done so badly that it made Azharuddin’s reign look like a Golden Age.

But public memory is a strange thing: people persuaded themselves that Tendulkar had to be relieved of the captaincy because the responsibility was affecting his matchless batting.

More strangely still, it was rumoured that Tendulkar believed that one of the main reasons he had failed was because Azharuddin had let him down by batting recklessly and irresponsibly. Recall that Azharuddin was dropped from the team for the Independence Cup and it was quite clear that this was a kind of exemplary punishment.

Tendulkar’s dreadful results as captain were forgotten, and as soon as he destroyed Warne and the Australians, Azharuddin’s days were numbered. He went to the World Cup with his head on the chopping block and when India was eliminated before the semi-finals, the guillotine fell. This time, though, he disappeared from the team as well, first through injury, and then, when he recovered, he was left out of the team for Australia. So was wicketkeeper, Nayan Mongia, who had reported fit before the Australian tour commenced. The whole tour was deformed by these two omissions. The squad that went to Australia was very much the squad that manager Kapil Dev and captain Tendulkar wanted.

They had asserted themselves over Agarkar’s selection, taken Lele on and gotten their own way. There was a general feeling Azharuddin and Mongia weren’t popular with the team management. Tendulkar, said the gossips, was reluctant to lead a team that included them. What began as suspicion congealed into conviction when Mongia was flown to Australia as a possible substitute for an injured Prasad. The team management made it quite clear that it wanted the Bombay keeper, Sameer Dighe, not Mongia.

Bewildered and miserable, Mongia was flown back to India once Prasad recovered. When the test series ended, the sports pages in the dailies reported that Tendulkar and Kapil Dev had apparently told the selection committee (which wanted to send Azharuddin and Mongia for the one day series), that the two men weren’t welcome. The selectors complied: Jacob Martin went as the specialist batsman, and Sameer Dighe replaced Prasad as wicket keeper.

The two middle order batsmen who kept Azharuddin out of the test side were Vijay Bharadwaj and Hrishikesh Kanitkar. Two bits and pieces players from one day cricket replaced a man with 21 test centuries and a batting average of nearly 45, who had scored an 87 in his last test. And they replaced him for the hardest overseas tour in cricket, where even specialist test match batsmen like Dravid found it hard to cope.

The men who played in the middle order in the one-dayers in the place Azharuddin might have filled were Kanitkar again, and a debutant, Jacob Martin. Kanitkar has made 150 in 30 one-day matches at an average of 18. He has never made 50 in tests. Besides owning seven centuries and 57 fifties at an average of 33 over more than 300 one-dayers, * Azharuddin at 36 is fitter than everyone in the present Indian team and by some distance the best fielder.

The reason for Azharuddin’s exclusion couldn’t have been youth or his lack of it, because Robin Singh is the same age as Azharuddin, and Dighe, handpicked by Kapil Dev and Tendulkar, is a debutant at 31. Merit couldn’t have been the yardstick either — Ian Healy said with derision that Indian team had to be a great one to do without Azharuddin. Wasim Akram said much the same thing.

Prasad was embarrassingly clumsy behind the stumps and Dighe, ostensibly chosen for his ability to both keep wickets and bat up the order, could barely lay bat on ball the one time he was promoted. Mongia, whom they edged out, is not only a better keeper than Dighe and Prasad put together, he has also scored a hundred and fifty against Australia in a test, batting as an opener.

So if the team management thought that Bharadwaj, Kanitkar, Devang Gandhi, Martin, Prasad and Dighe were better at what they do than Azharuddin and Mongia, it was being daft or disingenuous. Likes and dislikes haven’t just deprived the team of quality players — the extent to which the tour selectors have gone to justify their preferences has seriously compromised the team’s chances at crucial moments.

Dighe was promoted to number three to prove that he merited selection for his batting ability. He used up 25 balls to make three and India fell short by some 25 runs. Tendulkar who has made 24 centuries as an opener in the one day game, didn’t open because in the absence of Azharuddin and Jadeja there was a hole where the middle order should have been. V.V.S. Laxman was forced to open when Gandhi failed as an opener because there was no Mongia to fill that vacancy.

Selection aside, Tendulkar doesn’t seem much good at reading a match situation. In the recent one-dayer against Australia at Sydney he preferred the off spinner, Nikhil Chopra, to his swing bowler, Debashish Mohanty, then chose to bat first on a lively, seaming greentop and didn’t give Chopra a single over when India bowled, because the ball seamed off the pitch all day and thanks to Mohanty’s omission, India found itself a seamer short. Yes, it’s time for a change.

It’s also time to stop telling Tendulkar that he’s the best batsman in the world. He isn’t; Steve Waugh is. During the World Cup the English press was entranced by Tendulkar. So famous, so good, so rich yet so nice, modest and self-effacing, still living in a modest middle class locality, look at that unbalanced Lara with a palace on the hill, that cocaine-snorting soccer hero Gazza, that oafish, star-struck David Beckham. What a well-behaved champion!

And I thought, no soccer fan would call a player the greatest footballer in the world if that player had failed to help his team win a single away game in 10 years. Doesn’t it gnaw at Tendulkar that he has never helped India win a test abroad? Doesn’t it burn him up?

Yes, it is a team game, but Steve Waugh batted the West Indies into the ground in the Caribbean, Jayasuriya destroyed England with a magical double century, Richards and Miandad have made the difference for their sides abroad, Gavaskar, Vishwanath and Sardesai won us matches in the West Indies in 1971, Vengsarkar put his hand up for India in England... but Tendulkar hasn’t.

Why doesn’t he take the responsibility of demystifying McGrath on this tour? He has the ability to do it, so why doesn’t he? After 10 years at the top, why is he so timorous , so weighed down by responsibility, so drugged with concentration — like a schoolboy oppressed by a board exam.

Twenty two centuries in test cricket and a batting average of 56. Are we meant to be impressed? What is he...some kind of gymnast? Nadia Comaneci, perhaps, getting perfect tens for a solo routine on the pommel horse? Cricket is a team game, and champion players should make the winning difference.

Abroad, Tendulkar’s centuries don’t seize the moment, they don’t tip the scales: they are self-contained performances. Adults execute; children perform. Tendulkar is no Bradman; he isn’t even Gavaskar: he’s just the best schoolboy cricketer that ever lived.    


Sounds of silence

Sir — There seems to have dawned a ray of hope for the old and the needy in Calcutta with the charitable organization, Dignity Foundation, coming to the city (“Three cheers for GenerationEx”, Jan 14). Though there are so many old age homes in the city, hundreds of aged people living in so called happy homes remain uncared for. It would be a mammoth task for any organization to locate these “unhappy” people, as it could mean an encroachment into the privacy of their households. Those unable to express their needs for “fear” are actually more in need of help than those willing to share their problems with the organization. Will it ever be possible to break the silence in the lives of these elderly people?

Yours faithfully,
Tapas Sen, Calcutta

At the receiving end

Sir — Since the time C.M. Stephen was Union communications minister in the Eighties, every minister has promised that telephones will be given on demand within the next three to five years. The national telecom policy, 1994, promised telephones on demand by 1997. The current minister for communications, in a recent speech at Washington, has said it will be done by 2002.

The department of telecommunications recently created a separate entity, the department of telecom services, as a step towards corporatization by 2001. The M. Athreya committee had already recommended this. It is difficult to fool all the people all the time. But this is just what telecom ministers and the DoT have been trying to do.

Yours faithfully,
A.Sujatha, Secunderabad

Sir — Apparently, a majority of the telecom regulatory authority of India members have recommended that private telecom companies should give five per cent of their adjusted revenues to the government. Some members felt the revenue share of the government should be as high as 15 to 16 per cent. But why share revenue at all? Document couriers, private airlines, independent power producers do not share their revenues with the postal, civil aviation and electricity boards respectively. Sadly, when there is need for more telephone connections in the country, especially in the villages, TRAI is more concerned about the share of revenues.

Yours faithfully,
Bhavani Gupta, Hyderabad

Sir — It was heartening to hear that the DoT has decided to waive the payment of telephone bills up to Rs 1,000 and provide rebates in telephone rentals in rural areas hit by the supercyclone in Orissa. This is commendable. Customers were not the only ones to suffer, much damage was caused to DoT equipment.

Yours faithfully,
T.H. Chowdary, Hyderabad

Sir — TRAI and Calcutta Telephones have revised tariffs on the erroneous assumption that subscribers consuming the maximum units are heavy users. So they have attempted to prevent clogging by fixing steep rates for calls made during prime time. This is unfair. One caller might take a short time on an international call yet consume a higher number of units, while another might make a much longer local call or even use standard trunk dialling at a much cheaper rate. Yours faithfully, Manjit Singh, Calcutta

Sir — Calcutta Telephones is in its annual post-monsoon flurry of checking its underground cable. But after the department has finished, the roads stay dug up for months. Will government departments please show some consideration for the city’s residents?

Yours faithfully,
M. Ghosh, Calcutta
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