Rotation policy under scrutiny

ROHIT BRIJNATH

SPORT is fickle. One day Australian cricket has the pink glow of health, next day it is red with embarrassment. One week they are standard- bearers of all that is right with the game, the next they are held up as a poor example.

In the past few weeks, crowds have misbehaved, so (seemingly) has the team in the context of performance, and a shrill call for the captain's head has echoed in some quarters. We could well be in India. Conversely, Indians might well say that any further finger-pointing in their direction is out of order.

Misbehaving crowds are boring and ugly, and one of the less attractive components of one-day cricket. At a mela people tend to be free-spirited. In India, arcing bottles are now routine; in England, pitch invasions were a blot on last summer's cricket; now the Melbourne Cricket Ground is gaining a seedy reputation.

To Australia's credit, they did not excuse crowd disturbance at the MCG by suggesting it was merely one high spirited (literally) section. The immediate response was a warning that the MCG would be struck off the list of stadiums to host one-dayers, and one suspects despite riots at Eden Gardens, Dalmiya would never countenance such a move. Whatever, public reaction here has been damning: cricket is a family sport, and hooligans will not be tolerated.

A fence, as we know too well in India, has limited utility; it can supress a human invasion but not a bottle throwing contest. Nets, which come swishing down from the rafters in Bangalore, are an inventive but not always workable idea. Nevertheless, there are few barriers to bad behaviour.

Alcohol, which is available here at all stadiums, is clearly the issue. As the sun goes up, and the beer goes down, and the cricket turns tedious, all manner of idiots decide to create their own entertainment. As it is fans are no longer allowed to bring their own beer into stadiums, and must buy it: clearly many people will pay to be stupid it seems. One suggestion may be to close the bars earlier, or water down the beer even more. Of course, closing the bars completely would be akin to asking Australians not to breathe.

Increasing fines for misbehaviour and running onto the field exist, it is their severity that is under sensible scrutiny. In Melbourne, a pitch invasion merits a $1000 fine and ejection from the ground. It is not enough. In Perth, two years ago, when India were playing a one dayer at the WACA, I questioned a likely suspect in the crowd on this matter: he said they would egg on a friend to commit the offence having guaranteed him they would pool in for his fine. Of course, the heft of some fines can even cut through the alcohol haze, like the $5000 in Sydney.

Perhaps though they have been too quick on the draw in banning the Mexican wave. Acceptably, it is now become a tiresome exercise, an indication of boredom. Admittedly too, hooligans fill their cups with urine and beer and then toss them into the air during the wave, which understandably does not lead to a pretty result. Still, if one-day cricket is billed and marketed as entertainment, they cannot expect totally starchy behaviour from the fans.

All manner of other measures are being debated: using the in-stadia cameras to identify troublemakers and eject them early; banning hooligans for a season and more, and not just from the cricket but from all sporting competitions. The worst case scenario is the MCG itself becoming persona non grata; some grounds in India should be similarly warned. Players being hit by coins is normal; last summer a full beer can, a hefty missile, collided with Michael Bevan's cheek, and serious injury is not far away.

But debate soon turned to the team itself, three straight one-day losses leading to extensive soul-searching.

Australia's reaction was in fact quite telling. In some nations, they might have been accused of overreaction (after all they still may be victorious in the series). It also suggests that they have become too used to winning. On the other hand, perhaps Australia do not wait to dig themselves a hole before recognising they need change. A reason perhaps why they are so dominant in the first place.

This is a fine line to walk, between tampering and leaving alone. Steve Waugh has said leave alone, and he has a point.

Under scrutiny has been their rotation policy, one structured and supported by Buchanan and Waugh Sr. Almost every match some players come in, some go out. The idea is obvious: to create a pool, keep everyone match-fit, ensure longevity and stir competitiveness. Yet the selectors forced an end to rotation for a match and selected what they considered was their best team; it has led to much speculation and debate has ensued.

Some believe rotation means players are not being given ample opportunities, others that chopping and changing irritates players (as in Michael Bevan being a top-scorer in one match yet being dropped for the next), others that it is hard to tell who is in form and who is not. Waugh is his own man, backing off a phrase not in his vocabulary.

He believes the panic button was being pressed; after all, he said, rotation had worked well so far. Of course, a more bruising debate involves Steve Waugh and his brother Mark, and that is whether they should be in the team at all. The last time Australia lost the Carlton-United series was in 1996-97; six months later Mark Taylor and Ian Healy were less-than-gently put to pasture. That Taylor had just led his team to the 1996 World Cup final was neither here nor there. It was a useful indicator that romance and worship do not always cloud Australian judgment.

Both Waugh brothers have had seasons of mediocrity, both in the Tests and one-dayers. In some other time, it might have led to a few sarcastic remarks; their middle-age has led to harsher scrutiny. Steve's comment that he sees the 2003 World Cup as his final destination has been a declaration of intent: he will not go quietly and a fierce battle of wills could well lie ahead.

How Steve will react over the next few weeks is to be carefully charted. For long now he is used to being an Australian icon, revered for his wisdom, venerated for his skills.

But no country likes losing, and memories in sport do not last long. Soon David Hookes may not be the lone voice asking for his head. From hero to zero, a phrase that has a wonderful Indian resonance, is a very short sporting journey.