Split wide open in Zimbabwe

Pool diplomacy? Or the beginning of a disastrous relationship between Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell?-V.V. KRISHNAN Pool diplomacy? Or the beginning of a disastrous relationship between Sourav Ganguly and Greg Chappell?

The year 2005 had its share of controversies with the Ganguly-Chappell spat taking the centre stage, writes N.U. ABILASH

A CITY that is not famous for soaring development indices. A country that is certainly not famous in recent times for democracy. It is paradoxical that Team India's advancement towards World Cup 2007 — which had as its genesis an attempted exchange of unhindered views between two strong-willed individuals — started in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Indian cricket lovers were to realise that all exercises in democratic practices move only towards one direction in the land of Robert Mugabe, that of complete disaster.

On September 12, Sourav Ganguly sought the free and frank views of coach Greg Chappell about his place in the side and his captaincy. It turned out to be an eve-of-the-first-Test disaster. The Australian batting great, who was hired earlier in the year by the BCCI, told India's most successful Test captain that it would be better for him to drop himself from captaincy and get his batting act together. On September 15, after crawling to a century against Zimbabwe, Ganguly, perhaps in mock recognition of the fact that a free press is an instrument of democracy, stated in a live TV interview that he found "extra determination" for the hundred from certain suggestions that he drop himself from the captaincy.

On the morrow, the captain continued his insinuations in a media conference after India's win. "You know what has been happening in Indian cricket," he stated, following it up with an indirect reference to the coach's authority and the fact that he is a cultural outsider. "Other people are making the decisions. My silence speaks everything and I'll stick to it." The `Prince of Kolkata' was clearly miffed at the growing influence being exercised by Chappell, who after his appointment as coach in May, had spelt out his view on the dynamics of the coach-captain relationship thus: "Once the game starts, the captain is the boss. It's his team."

On September 23, a few days before the early autumn madness that was the BCCI's AGM in Kolkata, the Board President Ranbir Singh Mahendra confirmed receiving an email from Chappell from Zimbabwe in which the coach questioned the captain's ability to lead the side. The email was leaked in the media two days later. Chappell criticised Ganguly for his "attitude towards the team" and lambasted the captain for the poor example set in matters such as training and physical fitness. He took Ganguly to task for his "divide and rule modus operandi" of captaincy and for good measure stated that John Wright, his predecessor, had obviously allowed this to continue and that he would not take the passive route.

Ever the fighter, Ganguly reacted to the leaked email as is his wont. Referring to the `pool diplomacy' in Zimbabwe intended to convey an image of peace before the media, Ganguly spoke thus to a Bengali newspaper: "You can imagine the character of a person who within hours of a truce goes and writes such an email." Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh passed the buck back to the coach, accusing the Australian of instilling fear and insecurity among the players. Just as it appeared some more players would take the polemical route, the BCCI introduced a media gag for the players.

To sort out the leadership crisis in Team India, BCCI set up a review committee comprising the then BCCI President Ranbir Singh Mahendra, the then BCCI secretary S. K. Nair, former BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya and ex-cricketers Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and S. Venkatraghavan — the same people who chose Chappell as the coach influenced, no doubt, by the then captain Ganguly's favourable disposition to have the Australian as John Wright's replacement. On September 27, the Review Committee had a four-hour meeting in Mumbai, during which both Chappell and Ganguly presented their sides of the story. At the end of the meeting, Mahendra announced that a truce had been brokered, and the need for a professional working relationship in the best interests of Team India was stressed. Chappell and Ganguly would continue to be coach and captain, it was announced.

It was time for the Indian public to recollect Abraham Lincoln's famous words, "you cannot fool all the people all the time" when Rahul Dravid was appointed captain for the ODI series at home against Sri Lanka and South Africa and when Ganguly, one of the world's most successful one-day batsmen, did not figure in any of the 12 ODIs. However, when the selectors met to choose the team for the Test series against Sri Lanka in November just a few days before the adjourned BCCI AGM of September, Ganguly found himself making a comeback as "a batting all-rounder", in the words of Kiran More, the Chairman of the Selection Committee.

After the November AGM, supervised by a Supreme Court-appointed supervisor so that sanity returned to voting procedures, the transfer of power in the BCCI shifted from Kolkata, or the Jagmohan Dalmiya faction, to Mumbai, or the Sharad Pawar faction. All three selectors who voted for Ganguly's comeback were fired summarily and Ganguly was dropped for the third Test in Ahmedabad despite playing two crucial innings in the Delhi Test victory.

Even as India's first captain who won a Test and ODI series in Pakistan spends the final week of the year relieved that he was given a chance to be a footsoldier of Team India in Pakistan in January 2006, it will do Ganguly a world of good to give a sense of perspective to circumstances that have befallen him by thinking about his rival captain during that momentous Bulawayo Test. Young Zimbabwean wicket-keeper batsman Tatenda Taibu, whom many thought should have played instead of Mark Boucher for the World XI in the ICC Super Series, is unlikely to play Test cricket again. Worse, he and his wife have been forced to disappear after a senior member of Zimbabwe Cricket — an organisation controlled by Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party — issued threats about the safety of him and his family. All because Taibu, who individually had been the recipient of a good contract himself, had stood for the rights of some lesser players to have a better financial deal.

The major cricket controversy of 2005, from an international perspective, was thankfully resolved towards the end of the year. The threat of the ambush marketing fiasco — which climaxed in August when the West Indies was represented by a `B' team in a triangular ODI series in Sri Lanka — incapacitating West Indian cricket before World Cup 2007 in the Caribbean has died down thanks to intervention by the ICC and FICA, the international players' body.

However, we haven't heard the last of ICC's 15-degree flexion rules concerning bowling actions, which claimed its first major victim, Pakistan fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed, who was banned for one year in December. We also will hear more about the issue that was at the core of Ricky Ponting's `sour grapes' outburst against Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher in what was the only dark cloud over a riveting Ashes summer: the use of substitutes by fielding captains.

Now comes the tale of another sport, football; and another continent, Europe of free-speech and democracy. But, the experience of Swedish referee Anders Frisk, who retired from top-class refereeing in March after being subjected to threats of a physical nature to his family by Chelsea supporters, is strikingly close and equally chilling as that of Taibu. Frisk was accused by Chelsea manager Jose `The Mouth' Mourinho of having conspired with Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard during half-time to blow the lid off his team's chances to win the first leg of the European Champions League quarter-final encounter between the two teams in Barcelona in late February.

Football lovers wondered whether the paltry dent in Roman Abramovich's pocket and a brief two-match touchline ban for Mourinho for creating a hostile atmosphere with his malicious and untrue allegations were adequate compensations for the psychological torture undergone by Frisk and his family.

Talking of Barcelona, the Catalan club had a hero last season. A young man from Taibu's continent took inspiration from the most perverse form of European racism to emerge as joint top scorer of the Spanish League last season and in the process helped his club to a title triumph after five years.

Samuel Eto'o memorably said that the racists would have done well to think about the golden rule before making those monkey noises — what goes around comes around.

One heard die-hard Manchester United fans, disgruntled about American businessman Malcolm Glazer's controversial debt-ridden takeover of the most famous sporting club in the world in June, echo Eto'o when their club went from one footballing disaster to another this season, the most recent being a humiliating first round exit from the European Champions League. One can almost hear large sections of the Bengali public and some sections of the Indian public echoing Eto'o if Team India, minus Ganguly, fails to go one step beyond the 2003 World Cup final appearance in 2007. Greg Chappell and Kiran More have their work cut out for 2006.