Indian cricket cynic or believer

ROHIT BRIJNATH

WITHIN the cricketing soul of the Indian lurks a cynic and a believer. We are burdened by our painful past, but we are buoyed by the promise of the future. We are resigned to defeat, but we dream of victory every day. When we lose we believe we will never make it (as a world power); when we win we do not know what to make of it.

When India won the NatWest final, improbably, impossibly, the heart raced and it stopped. We embrace victory, but we are also inherently cautious of it. Sometimes it takes a lot of losing to really appreciate a win. Sometimes a lot of losing makes a win seem more than it is.

There are too many questions and so few adequate answers. Are we a better team or did we just have a better day? Is this deliverance, or have we been deceived (again)? Here is one argument:

THE CYNIC is unconvinced (he's seen this before), and reminds us of spring 2001, when we edged out the Australians, showing nerve and skill, character and colour, but a year on crumbled against a West Indies team whose propensity to collapse has usurped even ours. Furthermore, beating England and Sri Lanka (in the NatWest) is not worth putting on a CV. Big Boys they aren't.

THE BELIEVER argues that we've had away-from-home Test wins against West Indies, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, and fleeting as they were, as a player says, "it's one of the best runs we've had in the past 50 years". In the last 11 one-day internationals, he says, "we've not lost a 50 overs match (the only 2 games we lost were truncated) and consistency has its value." Admittedly, world cricket is broken into two distinct sections, with Australia, Pakistan and South Africa in the upper half, but India is edging towards the top of the chasing pack (England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies).

THE CYNIC sneers that he is surprised by India's performance.

THE BELIEVER responds that when this column posed that question to Sourav Ganguly some days ago, he said: "No, I'm not surprised. This is better side in ability". No one assumes greatness overnight, but this team has travelled some distance from mediocrity.

THE CYNIC insists forget about the final chase, what were we doing giving away 325 in the first place, how many times can you chase that?

THE BELIEVER replies that fair enough, it was too many runs, but let's NOT forget about the final chase. We showed nerve, resoluteness, composure, commitment, and the last time we said that about an Indian cricket team some of these guys weren't born. Better still, we got them without Tendulkar, and without Dravid, and with a bunch of young tyros who eat reputations for breakfast and then belch with delight. As a senior official with the team said, "They're cocky, they're self assured, and they're uncomplicated."

THE CYNIC mockingly says we'll see. Sure Yuveraj and Sehwag and Kaif did well, but you can't judge a generation by one tournament. They had nothing to lose, but now they've got reputations, and will be pursued by pressure and expectation. Their test of maturity is only beginning.

THE BELIEVER won't buy that, because these are hardly virginal performers. Kaif attracted endless censure after failure in Sri Lanka, Sehwag was dismissed as a lumberjack impersonating a batsman (just one evolutionary step ahead of Atul Bedade) and Yuveraj's career resembles a bad Hindi film script. But they're still hanging in, they haven't caved in. To put it bluntly, they've already displayed some maturity. Sure they'll fail now and then but if you can't see their potential, go see an optometrist.

THE CYNIC insists the captain, who is everyone's favourite target (and this is getting tiresome), is no leader, or worse that he's plain lucky.

THE BELIEVER says you got to be kidding. The captain, too weary of defending himself, just says this: "I am not frustrated by the criticism. I know if you win you're good, if you lose you're not". You may not like Ganguly, despite his infectious passion and a steeliness his boyish face belies, but you can't, as he says, argue with statistics. "The bottom line is that I'm the most successful captain", Ganguly says flatly and that is indisputable.

THE CYNIC believes we need a specialist wicketkeeper and Tendulkar to open, and without that we're as close to being a world-beating team as Saddam Hussein is to a dinner invitation to the White House.

THE BELIEVER says, since Gilchrist isn't quite ready to swap national allegiances, we have to make do with what we have. Let's give Ganguly credit. He's the one who put Tendulkar at No.4, who convinced Dravid to keep, and its working. Dravid may have sore quadriceps and a hamstring, but he's enjoying, and has quietly adapted to, both his roles.

Of batting at No.5, Dravid says: "It gives me a chance of a breather after keeping 50 overs, and I enjoy the responsibility and the chance to be there at the end". Of keeping, he says: "It makes a difference to the side, it gives us an extra batsman and winning is fun so it's worth it".

THE CYNIC says we won, so we're gloating, but if we lose the England Test series we'll be back to square one: indisciplined, uncommitted and sledging not the opposition but each other.

THE BELIEVER insists this team is not the team it once was, and next time the president is pinning on those medals at Rashtrapati Bhawan, he might want to include John Wright on the list. Forget the camaraderie, and the focus, and the fact that even fat percentages (players are actually watching what they eat) are down. Just take one example of work ethic. In 1986, says a player, when they went to the West Indies for two-and-half months there was no concept of fitness, and they visited the gym maybe 2-3 times; this tour to England, the first thing they ask when reaching a hotel is not where the closest Indian restaurant is, but how's the gym.

Still, the questions remain. Are we on the cusp of an Indian cricketing renaissance, or was this just a fleeting mirage?

There is too much of this tour of England left to make an absolute judgement. But there is enough of this tour gone by to at least say this. This team has too often merited our cynicism. Now it demands our belief.