Patchy patch-up -- will it last?

Published : Oct 08, 2005 00:00 IST



Chappell is his own man. As is Ganguly. The cricketing town is not big enough for both. Which is why the patch-up seems as if it's held together by chewing gum, writes S. RAM MAHESH

LIKE two angst-ridden characters of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, their eyes narrowed to slits, nervy fingers on twitchy triggers, and a sneer of mock casualness playing on their lips, Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell faced off.

The first bullet that sloughed through the tense air was the Indian captain's. After a laboured century against the world's worst bowling attack in distant Bulawayo, Ganguly affirmed in a press conference that he had been asked to step down. His silence, mumbled Ganguly, said it all; other questions should be directed at the coach.

Chappell strode into the dark room lit only by a camera light — Bulawayo's power had failed almost as if the electric surge of the impending clash had overloaded lines prematurely. His manner brusque, Chappell refused to comment. "A general chat on team composition that encompassed a wide range of issues" was all panicky newsmen could coax out.

The face off shifted to Harare where a clear-the-air statement was read out by Chappell, and the two even managed a few contrived conciliatory cue pokes at pool balls. All's well, thank you very much. But in between, the Indian coach had banged out a 2600-word-long private, confidential (now widely read) email to the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) — a scathing indictment of Ganguly.

Even to an organisation that thrives on arm-bending power struggles this was a first. Accustomed to divisions in the team, the BCCI was caught off-guard by a coach who had made a stand. It's a different matter that the email was leaked in what is widely seen as an attempt to deflect attention from the Board's murky politics.

How things change. In 2003, Ganguly had air hopped to Australia to seek guidance on both batting and strategy to overcome the world champions from Chappell. And leapt in delirium after his masterful century in Brisbane. A little over a year back, the man from Bengal had proposed the Australian's name not once but twice as a candidate to take over from John Wright.

A tapering off of the team's performance under Wright and Ganguly forced the administration to look for someone to take the team forward. An uncompromising man who could clutch India by the collar and shake off the lethargy of also-rans, Chappell was chosen as much for his cricket brain as his stature. His record as a coach was modest at best. Under him South Australia finished no better than fourth out of six.

Ravi Shastri, who was part of the panel that selected the coach, said: "Towards the end of his reign, I don't think John (Wright) was pulling his weight. It is very important for Chappell to instil discipline, get the right camaraderie between the seniors and the juniors. If a senior gets out of hand, it is his job to reprimand him. He must tell him it is a team sport and by what he is doing the team performance can get affected."

An admirable brief. One geared to giving India a realistic shot at World Cup 2007 and winning Test series abroad. Yet, the first time Chappell looked to execute it, he was stymied by the system. Which begs the question — what really is his brief? Is it to make a new Indian team, to re-engineer a side that had faltered and forgotten, to inspire the genesis of future Indian teams?

Or is it to kow-tow to the system, work within it and make the best of what he gets? And are the two sets of questions mutually exclusive? One of Wright's successes was his ability to find how much he could bend the system, not break it. "I always looked at it this way — the team was selected for me. You didn't get a vote on selection but my job was to ensure as coach they were prepared and performed to the best of their ability."

Chappell is his own man. As is Ganguly. The cricketing town is not big enough for both. Which is why the patchy patch-up — "working together in the team's best interests" — that emerged out of the Review Committee seems as if it's held together by chewing gum. The `tenuous truce', as some have called it, is built on a creaky foundation of mistrust that will not go away.

In his email, Chappell has accused Ganguly of being selfish, maximising personal success to the detriment of the team. The 57-year-old has also called the Indian captain's modus operandi one of "divide and rule". On cricketing merit, Ganguly, Chappell claims, falls below the acceptable limit of the performance indicators developed by the support staff. It's more a clash of philosophies than one of cultures.

Clearly, Indian cricket needs the Australian legend more at the moment than the Indian prince. Notwithstanding Ganguly's past success, it's time to move on. A fallout of the Review Committee was the accent on performance being the sole criterion for selection — the path for shunting out non-performers has opened. The message to the 33-year-old is one of Chappell's oldest: "perform or perish".

Hard decisions need to be taken in Indian cricket. One pertains to overhauling the side. "I think it puts everyone on notice," Chappell said in a different context early this year to an Australian newspaper when asked about Australia being in a similar position. "It doesn't matter what you have done in the past, it's all about your performance now and looking at the future. A lot of guys in that squad (Australia) will be on the wrong side of thirty by the time the next World Cup rolls around. The selectors can't make half-a-dozen changes in one go.

"History shows they have tapped Allan Border, David Boon, Ian Healy, Steve Waugh, and Mark Waugh on the shoulder and basically told them, `Right ho guys, it's time to move on and let the next generation through.' You've got to freshen up every so often."

Just two series old, it's too early to judge if Chappell's methods are working or if a majority of the team has bought into his `Commitment to Excellence'. The vision if not translated will sound more like braggadocio, and the man who made centuries in his first and final Tests will need to guard against that. The fleshing out of the vision will call for unpopular measures.

Chappell certainly can't be accused of being soft. Americans might call him a `tough cookie'. If anything some players have indicated he's too tough. Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh's outburst that the coach was spreading "fear and insecurity", while uncalled for, raises two interesting points. First, how good are Chappell's man-management skills? With coaching being a function of communication, the Australian's rapport with the team is important.

But not at the cost of performance. Which leads to the second point — are some of India's cricketers, unaccustomed to the work ethic demanded by the hard taskmaster, laying the ground for his ouster and a return to old comfortable ways? Either way, there is a conflict that must be sorted out. In sport it's often about intent, and the manner in which the BCCI handles this disagreement will shape Indian cricket's future.

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