| Fascinating play
Indian cricket wins again. There I was, working on this column, salivating as I got my teeth into rubbishing the idea that the recent Ashes series was 'the greatest cricket battle of the modern era'(!). There I was doing what cricket nuts do, chortling as I compared Shane Warne's figures against India and against England, shaking my head as I remembered the alternatively clownish and stodgy displays by both sides' top orders across the summer, fantasizing about what a repaired and rejuvenated Tendu might do to Freddie and Harmy, when I was brought back to earth with a rude shock. Hurricane Greganguly hit home and reminded me that my primary responsibility as a writer is to comment on culture, politics and Indian cricket, and not that silly, inconsequential game that other countries play: the one that only looks like our great sport but which, actually, has about as much to do with proper cricket as some Hollywood homage has to do with a proper Hindi film.
Compare the quaintly parochial celebrations in London once the English team had managed to squeak past a decrepit Aussie side, contrast those desperate Ingrej, with their sad little open-bus processions, confetti and spurting magnums of champagne, to the real action brought about by the demon storm Greganguly. Did the English burn effigies of once-great Aussie cricketers in Trafalgar Square' After its initial triumphalism, did the English press give any front-page space to the so-called 'great win' Were all the UK TV channels occupied 24/7 for a week with every minute facet of the event' Did they, were they, heck! How could they, those pathetic amateurs'
The crucial clue, as to the chalk-and-cheese difference between the all-time true masters (us) and the wannabes (the English) is the endless repetition in the British media of lines such as: 'This Ashes series has given a new lease of life to cricket in England,' 'For the first time in decades, Cricket has pushed football off the sports headlines,' and 'Finally, a new generation of children will have cricketing heroes to look up to in Flintoff and Pietersen.' It seems cruel to say this to our erstwhile rulers but the fact is, as usual, they've got the whole thing back to front, missed the wood for the trees, gone right past the money. It is we, us Indians (and occasionally Pakistanis) who really know how to keep millions in the constant grip of the great game.
Take, for example, the way we deal with the idea of the country's cricket captain. By any cricketing logic, the correct moment to say 'esho', 'goodbye', 'thank you' etc to the Prince of Behala as India captain was right after the World Cup final in Johannesburg. In the short period of time between walking out to toss and the end of the first over of the Aussies' innings, Sourav the Gourav had effectively handed over the World Cup to Ponting. Choosing to field first while boasting the best, in-form, batting in the world was bad enough, not giving Zaheer a fielder early for Gilchrist's standard slash to short point was the icing on the cake, and letting both his opening bowlers expend energy sledging in a language they can barely speak rather than getting them to concentrate on line and length was the cherry; typical, empty, costly Ganguly bravado.
Any other captain's job would have been under threat but not our man's ' the Board and the public understood perfectly well that what Ganguly brought to the team was a vesh, in the traditional Indian theatrical meaning of a 'role', and this was more important than a captain who is Brearley, Lloyd and Waugh rolled together. What the Indian public needs is a melodramatic simulation of a captain rather than some boringly effective chap who can do field placings, play consistently and win us things. There was and is no better person to play this role than Prince 'Dada-Tiger' Ganguly.
Till this point Prince Dada-Tiger had 'succeeded' as a captain because he had, as the immovable core of his team Tendulkar, Dravid, Kumble and, for a time, Javagal Srinath. Four of the best cricketing brains playing at the time. These Deccanites had and have one thing in common: each had had his own share of glory but each wanted to go beyond the personal highs achieved by many Indian cricketers before them and be part of a great, winning team; my suspicion is they were happy to be where they were, at their peak, free to play their game and also engine the team from behind the blustering popinjay. As long as the results came in, Ganguly could have the onerous tasks of keeping Steve Waugh waiting at the toss, whirling his shirt about and so forth. Like the public and the Board, the team-engine also understood that it was a vesh Ganguly was playing and it was one that none of them particularly wanted to go near.
The other main character slot in the theatre of Indian cricket is, of course, that of the coach. This is probably the perfect time to join hands with Mr Chappell OBE and agree that John Wright did, indeed, do great harm to Indian cricket. There was the team, recently damaged from match-fixing allegations, with two great batsmen, Tendulkar and Dravid, two solid bowlers in Kumble and Srinath, and a few players with old and new promise in Laxman, Harbhajan and Zaheer and others. Then there was the Prince-shaped negative space in the middle, which was 'the captain'. Coming into this situation what the canny Kiwi brought to the table was great, quiet energy and a genuine belief that this team could beat absolutely anybody. The fact, that the huge machine that continuously pulverises diamonds into dust, aka the Indian cricket establishment, eventually ground Wright down should not blind us to the fact that it's not so much that Ganguly is India's most successful captain as Wright who is India's most successful coach. It is palpably not what we as a cricketing nation required from a coach.
Had we been English, and desperate to win, we would have done the tedious thing of providing Wright the kind of backing the ECB have given Duncan Fletcher; our captain, having yet again run out a far more talented younger player, would then have completed his final test hundred and promptly resigned in favour of a player better suited to lead; in his departure would have been the double acknowledgment, firstly, that his place in the batting line-up was blocking better players and, secondly, that he had to make way precisely so that all the hard work he and the coach had so far put in could bear proper fruition. Pause and imagine for a moment that Ganguly had gone gracefully, after a decent innings against a decent attack. Imagine that Wright and Dravid had been given the chance to continue and build upon the great work done by coach and core-team between late 2000 and early 2004. Imagine, Dravid working now with Wright, or even with another quietly brilliant non-star such as Tom Moody, imagine our younger players without their bloated heads delivering under this regime and India winning regularly and without fuss. Imagine the mantle of world champions passing to us with a sense of inevitability, as England, South Africa and the deposed Aussies continued to slug it out for the number two spot.
I'm sure the prospect would be terrifying to most supporters of Team India but it's worth contemplating, if only to feel the huge sense of relief at how narrowly we've escaped going the England way. As we anticipate the challenges that lie ahead, including the 2007 World Cup, it's good to know we are in safe and steady hands and that, barring some bizarre disaster, we have absolutely no chance of repeating the debacle of the 1983 Lord's final. It's good to realize: if Sourav Ganguly took the shirt off Indian cricket then Greg Chappell has now taken off its pants. Which now leaves us resembling nothing more than, say, Warney and Kev caught by the paparazzi in a hotel suite with a couple of bar waitresses, both holding large-ish mobile phones (or, in this case, printouts of e-mails) to cover their modesty. Now, what can be more gripping than that' Certainly not Ashley Giles or Brett Lee fending off bouncers at some obscure cricketing venue in North England.