Send Sachin and Dravid away for a holiday

Written by: S K Sham
Published: Monday, April 10, 2000, 0:00 [IST]
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Is captaincy of the Indian cricket team an unbearable burden or, perhaps, a curse on the man so selected to lead? This is going to be as much a topic of debate in coming days, as is going to be the dismal performance of the Indian team in Sharjah, even as one talks of the tremendous comeback made by the Pakistani team, after being virtually written off even by their staunchest supporters.

Another outstanding performer went through the mill of captaincy and came out flattened both on his leadership qualities as also his own batting caliber. And mind you, this did not happen at home to Saurav Ganguly, but on foreign soil, which seems to be the heartbreak of many a leading light of Indian cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar may have gladly given up the captaincy after an unsuccessful Test series against South Africa, hoping to start on a new slate, purely as a batsman, but he too does not appear to have fully recovered from the bitter experience that was his, in Australia and back home.

One is not sure that Surav Ganguly, who had run into such tremendous form as a batsman, as soon as the leadership was thrust on him for the one-dayers at home, will indeed relish the idea of continuing as captain after the lean patch he struck in Sharjah.

On his own submission, "Such things happen to the best of teams." And as if to convey that he had lost none of the enthusiasm for leading the side, added, "This is just a passing phase and the sooner we forget it, the better for all."

Before anyone passes judgement on Ganguly's brief stint, so far, as India's captain, he should discount Sharjah as a true test of his, or for that matter any captain's, ability to lead the side successfully on the shifting sand of form at the desert venue.

The reason for that is that, but for a few exceptions, like the recent one in 1998, when Tendulkar almost single-handedly won the title for the team, playing sterling knocks against Australia, India's records at Sharjah has never been anything to talk about.

It is said, come Sharjah and the Pakistan, whatever it's preceding record, will invariably come our trumps. In other words, Sharjah and Pakistan appear to be made for each other.

Look at what Pakistan cricket had to go through in recent times. It was almost a full year of turmoil, for the players and administration alike. From facing all manner of official wrath and condemnation after their World Cup final defeat, not to mention betting and match-fixing charges.

The confusion all round was worse confounded by repeated and large-scale changes in the administrative setup, as well as in the constitution of the team, when ever leading players were dumped in the name of discipline.

But like the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Pakistan team rose gradually but surely, using each adversary as a stepping step to success to be eventually capped champions once again at Sharjah. This despite injury problems faced by at least half-a-dozen key players.

For the Pakistan team, having its fourth captain in less than a year, it wasn't too rosy a beginning of the campaign and the new skipper Moin Khan had so much worry written on his face when the team lost the first two matches, that he hardly scored any runs, leave aside play his usual cavalier innings even once.

The return match against India was one of very survival in the tournament. A defeat and that were definitely out. But they hit back with such vengeance that made the Indian team look so palpably weak in every department.

Well, that is the magic of Sharjah that works on the Pakistan team.

Having said all that, it must be noted, and with some considerable consternation amongst their followers, that India's performance this time at Sharjah was probably the worst on all counts, a victory over Pakistan notwithstanding.

The Indian team, in fact, looked unrecognisable as the one that had beaten a strong South African team, 3-2 in the one-dayers at home, just a few days ago.

How and why did this sudden transformation take place in the Indian team on reaching Sharjah? In the one-day series at home, where the ultimate margin could well have been 4-1, instead of 3-2. It was the strong and aggressive batting that had helped India to dominate the South Africans. At Sharjah, the team's batting was a big let down. For a side that had topped totals of 300 on a couple of occasions, just a few days ago at home looked far from capable of reaching even 200 in all their matches, except one, at Sharjah.

The surprise of surprises was that it was the much-maligned Indian bowling that came good in all but one of the matches. And this one factor would have made a big difference to the team's fortunes... only if we had batted even half as well as had done at home in the series against South Africa.

Ganguly, the captain and the side's spearhead in batting, admitted as much. But by merely being brutally frank in self-condemnation, the team management could not wish away this terrible failure, which, to this writer, appears inexplicable.

The start was never quite as good as the world's best opening pair of Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly, in this form of cricket, ought to have given them. The middle-order caved in all too often and the late middle-order struggled to last out the overs, leave aside brings a touch of any enterprise to the slog overs.

Well as did the rival bowlers, especially Pakistanis, Shoiab Akthar and Waqar Younis bowl, the total batting failures were too regular to be true. It appeared as if something within the team's mental makeup had snapped to shatter the confidence of the side.

As the team took one match after another, the nuances of batting in this form of cricket were completely forgotten.

Rahul Dravid, just when he had appeared to play true to his known form, got needlessly bogged down. As a consequence, his scramble for a run in order to rotate back the strike to his more enterprising colleague Tendulkar ended in a disaster against South Africa, in a match in which victory was very much on the cards for the Indian team.

The point to make is that, there were several occasions when we made needless haste, and there were long stanzas during which the Indian batsmen adopted back-to-the-wall tactics in the manner of Test cricket.

Most of India's leading players were guilty of being unaware of what their responsibilities were. The entire onus of explaining this object failure must surely rest on the team coach Kapil Dev. For a cricketer who was so dashing during his playing days, Kapil appeared throughout to take the back seat.

The despairing look on his face was natural because his team wasn't doing well at all. But then what did he have to do about it? Just brooding all the time could not have helped the cause of the team. The batting orders were reshuffled all too often and yet the team just could not hit upon a right combination.

The only conclusion to be drawn from the frequent batting failures is that a side so much used to getting off to a flying through Tendulkar and Ganguly was completely lost when the two most exciting batsmen failed to click, either together or even individually.

What then is the remedy to this pressing problem of the team?

It would be best for Sachin Tendulkar to take a short break from the game and rest himself. As he had done sometime ago. This measure is also recommended for Rahul Dravid. Ganguly, being the captain, has perforce to continue.

This forced omission of at least two key batsmen will enable the rest of them to regain their own identity and be more greatly aware of their responsibilities. The habit of over-dependence on Tendulkar, Ganguly and even Dravid, has somehow to be broken. It is time to give some of the deserving youngsters like Mohammed Kaif, who has so far had a new deal, and Reetinder Singh Sodhi, a break.

There are lessons for us to be learnt from the way the cricket administrators in Pakistan, or rather those vested with the powers of selecting their national side have been plumping for fresh talent.

One would not have seen such an exciting prospect as young Imran Nazir, had the selectors in Pakistan not taken this kind of calculated risks, even as they have such profusion of talent, be it in batting or fast bowling.

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