A 'brand new' Sachin

RAJU BHARATAN

FROM Lord's we came away 'one-day'. To Lord's we return for five days! For the first of four Tests starting next Thursday (July 25). Why Board President Jagmohan Dalmiya had to make the Fourth Test at The Oval (September 5-9) a prestige Mike Denness issue is something that now passes comprehension. For come September and the new 'World Cup' season it is in India. In such a milieu, a five-day Test could prove a viewing drag in the ODI mood by then all-prevalent. Unless, of course, The Oval Test sees India poised to win the rubber. To obliterate the 1-2 memory of the manner in which Sourav's India was viewed to Park itself at Sabina. Such a 2002 Test rubber in England would be breaking a 16-year jinx.

Come to think of it, that 1986 Kapil Dev-led decisive 2-0 India win in England must actually rank as a greater achievement than even Ajit (1-0) Wadekar's 1971 breakthrough. Tellingly did Dilip Vengsarkar observe that we had then the strongest batting line-up ever from among the 10 Indian teams to tour England in 50 years (1936-86). Sunil Gavaskar and Krish Srikkanth, Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammed Azharuddin and Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev and Chetan Sharma - Kiran More and Roger Binny somewhere in between! Even Sunil conceded that, for once, he took it somewhat easy in the runaway company of Krish Srikkanth. Knowing that there was a wealth of batting to follow. So much so that, for once, Sunny appeared to drop arm-guard - his 1986 Test scores in England reading: 34 & 22; 35 & 1; 29 & 54.

During our first four NatWest triangular games in mid-2002, was Sourav's India guilty of falling a victim to the same Sunny syndrome? Of leaving the final job to those to come? At Edgbaston vs Sri Lanka (Saturday, July 6), recall Sourav's tortured 24 off 51 balls? How the skipper threw his wicket in a style (caught flashing) proclaiming that he himself had lost all concentration. As the pressure of keeping up India's victory run got to him. About Sourav Maharaj, it could be always argued that he was yet again only exercising his divine right to be consistently inconsistent. But what about the way Sachin (19 off 25 balls) made bold to knock the white ball around when it was visibly doing a bit? Had the English, for once, damned Sachin with faint praise? With praise showered for that wand-in-hand 105 off 108 balls (8 fours, 1 six) that saw Sachin put Nasser Hussain's England under enormous pressure to chase 286 to win? Of course the British media got to see the genuinely mettlesome merit in Sachin only when, in their own clime against their own England, he came up with a life-and-times 105 not out. Still, to Wisden, I suppose this unbeaten Sachin 105 is of but academic interest since it did not lead India to victory! No matter that it was the notorious English weather that acted as the damper.

That said, we in India cannot excuse Sachin, seven months before the World Cup, for the attitude with which he approached the deadly serious business of the team's getting to the 188 deadline set to overcome Sri Lanka. It was crucial indeed here (33 for 2) for Sachin to stand firm - as India's 'Edgbastion'. To be belligerent is one thing, to be arrogant another. If Viv Richards was arrogant all the way, it was because that was the body language in which he habitually spoke to bowlers the world over. Sachin, on the other hand, is right now at the turning-point in his career. The point where he is called upon to live up to his role of being India No. 4 in one-day cricket too. Sachin did the job exemplarily to add 169 with Rahul (82 off 117 balls, 7 fours) after Sourav's India had snub-nosedived to 52 for 3 vs Nasser's England (Thursday, July 4). Sensing it as the need of the Chester-le-Street hour, Sachin cast his knock here almost in the Test-match mould. He first got the full measure of Nasser Hussain and his men - bowling and fielding. Then let so fly as to make it plane sailing for the stroke-laden Yuveraj Singh (40 off 19 balls: 4 fours, 1 six). That 105 not out had Tendulkar looking so mindset as to art and craft a knock seeing Rahul's talent instantly recognise Sachin's genius.

For all that, even genius has to remember that its MRF bat has seen so much cricket service, at 29, that Ten is still young but not so young! What came instinctually to Sachin earlier needs a little more build-up, now, in aiming for the World Cup as his 'sixy' target. That Sachin obliged espnstar with a brand-ambassador century certainly made his batting persona come through as even more telegenic. Yet cricket remains the great leveller. All Birmingham looked to have turned up on the Saturday of July 6 to watch Sachin explode. Only to see him damp-squib when on 19, leaving Rahul low and wry. All Edgbaston, if disheartened, would still have rationalised Ten's soft dismissal for 19. As something only to be expected going by the law of cricket averages after that quality 105 not out. But what hurt was Sachin's attitude here. An attitude of "What's this Sri Lankan attack to me?" is not something you expect from someone so level-headed as Sachin.

This accent on attitude is all-important right now. For, in the World Cup, Sachin (a la Chester-le-Street) might well be called upon to be first the Roundhead, only then the Cavalier. Is it really a top-drawer top order India now has? Veeru Sehwag, for instance, is fine when he gets going. Yet we must resist the 'instant' temptation to be value judgmental if Veeru falls early. Or goes when set. For that is Veeru's game. As the ball wobbles, Sehwag will willy-nilly be airy-fairy. If it is his one-day, he will get away with it. Ask Sehwag to draw in his horns and he is of no value to India. Dinesh Mongia is not much different. Those who have their cricketing roots in Kotla will predictably hit 'through the line' just when looking teleset for big things! When it has taken a Fateh Maidan product of V.V.S. Laxman's gifts so many years to adjust, we have to give Veeru and Dinesh time till the end of the year at least. By then the two would have played enough ODIs, at home and abroad, to be able to strike a pragmatic balance.

My point to Sunil is straightforward. Did Sunny as fellow opener ever try to strait-jacket Krish Srikkanth? So must he now leave Sehwag alone. To live and learn at the wicket. Veeru will not always live. Nor always learn. Still the Najafgarh in Veeru must not be stifled. The World Cup is not so much about technique as about flair. And the five letters of Veeru are the five letters of flair. You do need flair as the foil to Rahul's technique. Here I cannot but marvel at the way Rahul has realigned his sights behind the wickets as in front. From one to six, Rahul has batted everywhere for India in the last 18 months. A less committed player would have lost all poise. But Rahul has emerged mentally even stronger from the exacting experience.

The burden of the critical ODI song against Rahul was that this grammarian was not 'one' to rotate the strike. But a return to England - Rahul's happy hunting ground during the 1999 World Cup - has changed it all. Rahul's sterling contribution to India's making it to the NatWest triangular final is not to be underestimated. It was the calculating way Rahul paced the innings in stroking his way to 51 (82 balls, 4 fours, 1 six) that saw India reach 162 for 5 and breathe free about overtaking Sri Lanka's 187 (Saturday, July 6). When he was run out with the victory post in sight, Rahul with 64 (95 balls, 5 fours, 1 six) had come up with a knock that was worthy of comparison with his 73 not out at Lord's and 82 at Chester-le-Street (both invaluable vs England).

The spotlight's being on Sachin and his 105 not out at a determinant stage in the triangular should not obscure the view that (through three of our first four ODIs in England) Rahul it was who was India's linchpin. Yuveraj Singh, in fact, owed his Nairobi-veined comeback almost entirely to Rahul's finely tempering influence at the other end. Even Sachin was gracious enough to acknowledge that it was Rahul who had set the tone. But is Sachin not already speaking too much on TV for one whose aura is based on the eloquence of silence? The espnstar attempt to 'brand' Sachin is full of crease-occupational hazards for a performer of Ten's temperament. Each word Sachin now utters is being weighed in a new scale. If those views begin to get recurring airing, will they not shed some of their weight?

Look at it another way. Is this perhaps a subtle espnstar attempt to 'market' Sachin as India's 'brand new' captain-in-waiting? The consensus is that Sourav will remain India's captain till and for the World Cup. After that, who knows? Who would not like to watch India win the World Cup again? But then the World Cup is no 'magnum of champagne' waiting to be handed over to Sourav as India's captain. If Azhar lost caste after the 1999 World Cup, so could Sourav after the 2003 World Cup. That is when the brand ambassador could present his credentials afresh as 'heir apparent'! Short point - Sachin looks an espnstar captaincy investment for the future. Think I am jumping fences? Here is what Sachin himself had to say end-March 2002 - to who if not STAR Sports - upon being queried about whether he was prepared to take over as India's captain for a third time. Even while covering his Sourav tracks, Sachin is on STAR record as stating: "To be honest, I am not really thinking about it right now. But I haven't ruled it out completely. I just want to give myself some time and, when I am ready to take over, I will let the concerned people know." You never know!