Cut the hype and get to work

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Is Mahendra Singh Dhoni guilty of believing in hype?-V.V. KRISHNAN

SOON the fact that India was a World Cup finalist in 2003 will seem like some distant myth. As a feat it appears exaggerated in the light of what has followed. Did it really happen, we will be entitled to ask? Were we that good, we will wonder? Some names have altered since then, many have not, but there are more lines on faces, some that arrive with endless defeat and some only with age.

Indian cricket owns a frustrating uniqueness, for it is forever rebuilding. Teams learn, grow, flex their muscles, consolidate, but this team had barely begun to look good when it seems to be resuming its search for confidence again. Momentum means nothing to us.

India has work to do and Greg Chappell's must-do list must have already grown from a page into a dossier. One view will be it is only the season's beginning and thus no rush to judgement must be made; another can be that India continues to start seasons like an awakening geriatric. It is hard to indict players for a lack of urgency for we cannot peer into their hearts, but eventually opinions are cast on the evidence at hand and it is not pretty. If this is India's best team and effort, we are in trouble.

Old players and younger ones are at fault and India's selectors must find the nerve for bold decisions they have historically been too feeble to make. If Sourav Ganguly has been returned to the captaincy he must swiftly demonstrate it is not an error by a meek committee, that he is still worthy and capable of changing to meet a more demanding time. A man cannot live off his reputation, he must enhance it, for sport is a hard mistress and cares little for the past. This is not about him but a future that we are failing to grab. Already sections of the regional media have begun playing unattractive politics, putting man and zone before country, and television channels are spinning imaginary rifts, a reminder of an older and less distinguished age we cannot afford to return to.

The coach is a leathery fellow and whoever captains must be the same; leadership is not a popularity contest but about getting things done, many of them unpleasant. Decisions must be made on older men, of whom many abound. Age, as this writer recently wrote, itself is not necessarily a liability, but like Agassi or Vijay Singh it must be demonstrated so. But when performance flags, age abruptly becomes a factor, for 30-plus men do not significantly improve, especially as one-day athletes. The greying Australians had ridden roughshod over this argument with a series of convincing display over the years but even they are now creaking; India has offered no such proof in the one-day arena.

India's fielding is substandard and a team cannot afford Laxman, Kumble, Nehra, Ganguly, Zaheer together in the field for too many singles abruptly turn into twos; some of it is tired bones, some of it lazy feet. Men like Kumble and Laxman are gifted, honourable fellows, who have been grand servants of their nation, but their one-day futures must be determined swiftly. Every day gone by is opportunity missed.

Kumble is too civilised a man to do it, but should he point to the uncertain form of his peers he would not be wrong in this. India must demand higher standards from all its practitioners, irrespective of age, or seniority, or post, or reputation. Everyone from Ganguly to Dravid to Tendulkar to Yuvraj to Kaif to the bowlers must be kept under scrutiny; playing for India is no one's due, it must be earned. Great players will not mind such honest inspection for they understand the value of hard work; only the mediocre complain.

The herd must not be culled indiscriminately for chop and change has got us nowhere, yet we must abandon all talk of holy cows. There are younger men in this team who have been there a while, wear stardom as if it is a birthright yet do not produce performances to match. Consistency is the real proof of ability and it has not come, and a willingness to sacrifice is the issue at hand.

Even Sehwag, certainly not on the above list, a grand cricketer by any measure, must deconstruct his batting to discover why his one-day form does not adequately mirror his superb abilities. Every man must demand more from himself, and then only can he demand it from the next man in his team. Greatness is not found merely by showing up.

Chappell, in public, has counselled against change but perhaps he knows India's limited cricketing stocks makes it meaningless. This itself requires urgent review, and it must be asked why India, for all its human and financial resources, is unable to produce sufficient cricketers of quality. There is a tendency to say "Oh, the system sucks" and leave it at that, but excellence cannot be found unless it is demanded.

Say this about Kumble and Laxman, they will be sweating manfully, as has been their style, to polish their games, which only means that younger men must work doubly harder to squeeze them out. If fine players must bow out, they must be replaced by men who are determined to exceed them. It is the best way to honour them.

The media must play a role in this, and part of it is a putting away of their "instant deification" kit. India is constantly looking to be rescued from its one-day mediocrity, and any man with a glimmer of talent is hailed as our liberator. Two fifties is worth many headlines; a sole century in a few early matches, even if at home, is saluted by numerous television appearances.

Greatness takes time but we are in rush, part of it our anxiety, part of it the impatience of an instant generation, part of it a growing media's craving for a new story. At manufacturing heroes we are adept, at engineering exaggeration superb. It has been said that Mahendra Singh Dhoni is guilty of believing in his own hype, but why the hype in the first place. He is a young player, starting off, with much to learn, yet was abruptly anointed as some batting-wicketkeeper saviour. We prepare reputations for men, insist they fit them, and then reprimand them for falling short.

Some bricks in the masterpiece we crave must be laid by the board, but the players must provide the cement on their own. Some athletes look in the mirror and preen, satisfied with what they see; others see clearer the flaws they have yet to rectify and continue to polish their art with sweat. History is cruel to those who make the wrong choice.