Swings in being India's captain

IN the white heat and the brown dust of India's being "at home" — confronting Australia minus its World Cup pace battery — let us, in no way, underestimate the Live Channel 9 threat set to be later posed.

RAJU BHARATAN

IN the white heat and the brown dust of India's being "at home" — confronting Australia minus its World Cup pace battery — let us, in no way, underestimate the Live Channel 9 threat set to be later posed. Through 4 Tests and 11 possible ODIs in the supreme fitness-testing VB Series rounding off the tour of Australia. All swings going well, India should be making it (at Zimbabwe's expense) to the VB Series Best of Three . Starting Thursday, 6 February, 2004, at Melbourne. Moving on to Saturday, 8 February, at Sydney. Finally to Brisbane (if necessary) on Monday, 10 February. If, by easing out Zimbabwe, we do push Ricky's Australia (as a side back to peak bowling strength) to the Best of Three at Brisbane, Team India would be truly coming of World Cup age. To be in the mood to take on Pakistan. Even in Pakistan's own bailiwick.

Sachin Tendulkar... a 'blinder' admirer of Laxman (102) following his own 35th ODI 100. -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

Still Team India would be looking for something akin to the World Cup miracle — to live to fight Australia through 3 ODIs, in 5 days, during the VB Series round-off. Very likely, on those huge grounds extending from Melbourne to Sydney to Brisbane, our team would be dead beat by the time we finish with Ricky's Australia. If (World Cup inspirationally) we do stretch our VB campaign to the Monday of February 10, 2004, our Cricket Board, by that date, could have firmed up India's tour of Pakistan. Via an itinerary extending from 3 Tests to 7 ODIs. Given subtle Government pressure to go the whole hog once cricketing hostilities cease, the BCCI could well be entertaining the idea of such a punishing playing schedule for Team India inside Pakistan. Just over a week after a dauntingly draining tour of Australia.

In what mental state India returns from such a tour of Australia (spanning 78 possible days) is better envisioned than detailed. I for one expect — no matter what be the DD picture right now — the Kangaroo tail, by then, to be so up as for Indian heads to roll by the 10 February 2004 landing stage. A stage by which our players would be having hardly any breathing space to prepare to take on a fiercely motivated Pakistan. For a tour likely to commence on February 19 and end only on April 8.

Team India is thus likely to have but 8 days' respite between the 78-day tour of Australia and the 48-day visit to Pakistan. Even if our Selectors here want to make certain creative changes in the team's form and composition for Pakistan, they would not be left with the time and the space needed to do so. In the welter of confusion prevailing, India could scurry to Pakistan with virtually the same team that toured Australia. Nothing could be more counter-productive than such a denouement. For the tour of Australia, by its known 1999-2000 nature, is destined to throw up a host of queries.

A query about whether Sourav retains primacy of position as India's striker-skipper. About whether Rahul vindicates himself in the one country where he is still to prove his Test pedigree. About whether Sachin stays cast in the Bradmantle bestowed upon him by The Don himself. About whether V.V.S. Laxman underlines his January 2000 Sydney Test 167 lineage as a would-be world-beater. About whether our neo-pace attack retains the ammunition to fire on the flat Pakistan wickets after its exacting exposure in Australia.

From 4 Tests in Australia to 3 Tests in Pakistan, from a conceivable 11 ODIs Down Under to 7 ODIs across the Wagah Border, Team India is thus going to have its hands full. Through 4 gruelling touring months. Atul Wassan might "DD Sports reason" that this is the trendy time to tour Pakistan "since their team is weak enough for us to beat right now". Atul should know there is no such thing as a weak Pakistan team against India. Especially in their own country. Recall how Zaheer Abbas destroyed the super spin trio of Bedi, Prasanna and Chandra in October-November 1978. With 176 & 96 in the Faisalabad Test; 235 not out & 34 not out in the Lahore Test; plus 42 in the Karachi Test. For India to be mauled 2-0 in 3 Tests. For fresher-skipper Sunil Gavaskar to apprehend that, next, "Pakistan would smash India to pulp" on our own wickets.

Pakistan has always raised its game at home where it comes to the Battle Royal with India. Sourav's India could, therefore, expect to encounter, in Pakistan, an adversary worthy of our steel band. Am I presuming things in assuming Sourav would remain captain after the tour of Australia? In this touchy context, let us focus upon a recent TV debate taking our Boycott breath away. In encapsulating the BEST OF THE DAY, it was the idea extraordinaire coming from one of Geoffrey's cricket seasoning. Geoffrey, while summing up the long-drawn 0-0 Test series in India vs New Zealand, began viewing the prospects of Rahul's India. In our public's TVS Cuppa joy.

Geoffrey here turned to the then possibility of Rahul's having to India "cap", to 'keep and to anchor (with the bat) the team he was suddenly leading. With Sourav away from it all, Geoffrey engaged in some loud thinking. About whether they could not hand over the one-day captaincy (purely as an interim measure) to Sachin! Just when Sachin (before his 35th Gwalior ODI Man of the Match 100) had plodded his way through that 55 in the Mohali Test. Further to leave "the wicket gate" open and be bowled (for 1) by Daryl Tuffey! The notion of any India captaincy takeover by Sachin, right then, was enough to make the Cheshire cat laugh. Coming from one of Geoffrey's vintage, such a train of thought was a mind-blower.

Of course Rahul foreclosed any "Sach" option. Rahul just Chennai took off from behind the sticks — the moment Sourav's shirtless back was turned. However, as India's ODI stumper-that-was, Rahul merely bought time. Be certain that Sourav, as his own captaincy man, would be pitchforking Rahul back behind! The instant Sourav assumes one-day charge again. For Sourav entertains no illusions about the ODI enormity of his VB Series job on the tour of Australia. In the Kangaroomy stadiums there, Sourav instinctively knows he would be needing the extra batsman. For Team India to be able to cope on the bouncier wickets Down Under.

V. V. S. Laxman was promoted to one-down after his good show in the Mohali Test. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Meanwhile, as the Big Rahul Gloves are off, observe the new simultaneous equations developing in the Indian team. Geoffrey hit the bail on the head when he noted that our players would be just about mentally adjusting to the Sourav-antithetic Rahul (as captain) when it would be time for the Prince of Calcutta to be brashly back. It is amazing how the best of them just revel in remaining the cosy next-in-command! Until pushed to deliver as a leader of men. You could thus take nothing away from Rahul's leadership qualities that saw Team India (World Cup Final avengingly) Gwalior-put it across Ricky's Australia. Even if this was but India's opening TVS gambit vs Australia.

As the vice-cap leading, there is also the other side to the coin Rahul is match referee-handed to toss. This is that, as "the coin drops", the deputy rather gets to begin to like the captain's job! Yet it is just when the deputy is getting the feel of being firmer, in the skip saddle, that he has to hand back the stirrup. A stirrup having a rider attached to it! The rider that Sourav ODI returns to want things very much his own kick-starting football way. A Stump Vision line of thinking by which, no matter what be Parthiv Patel's showing now, Rahul ultimately takes his Sourav-appointed VB Series position behind the sticks. Short point — Rahul is his own boss for but now. As Laxman (102 at Gwalior off 134 balls: 9 fours) realises his full one-day "blinder" potential in new-found tandem with Sachin, Sourav and Rahul would be viewed to be bonding all the more. After Rahul, in his own enlightened interest, gave Laxman his ODI head, afresh, at one-down.

The team thus always comes first, whether it be Sourav or Rahul leading the way. Yet, within this broad ambit, there is always a kind of "levelling out" in any star-studded team-cast, drawn up for prime-time TV screening. It is Sachin's degree of dominance — in such a purely human level of competition — that had Sourav projecting (to the forefront) Virender Sehwag as one advancing by Najafgarh leaps and bounds. For Sehwag now to bid to be Sourav deputy's deputy! Somewhere along the line bowled, therefore, VVS did Hamlet mess up things. By failing, when it mattered, to underline his classy seniority in the Indian team. Who then was Rahul's more natural deputy — Laxman or Sehwag?

Truth to tell, such velvet rivalry you get to sense in any team playing for as high stakes as India is now doing. As long as Team India does not suffer, any such satin interface is even to be welcomed. In the sense that it draws the combative best out of each performer venturing to hit the high spots. Not since The Don reigned has one single player become such a show-stealer that Sachin is for the other big guns in the team. Happily Sachin, by his unique prowess, has had only the positively healthy effect of other topnothers, in the team, vying to telematch him. The gainer, in such face-offs (as between MRF, Hero Honda and Britannia), has been Team India.

Sachin thus remains the Little Phenom nonpareil as Sourav and Rahul spearhead India's challenge in Australia. The best part of Team India, today, is that any ego clash remains within true-blue bounds. It is this huddling-cuddling spirit that saw India make it to the World Cup Final. Banished is the self-defeating outlook by which Vijay Merchant, as Chairman of Selectors, genuinely regretted that India went to England (in 1946 as in 1936), not "as one team", but as "a collection of talented individuals". We could now but conjecture as to what would have happened if Vijay Merchant, not Lala Amarnath, had gone as captain on India's maiden (1947-48) tour of Australia. Do here remember that Vijay Merchant was actually appointed India's captain for that landmark tour.

This on the momentous day India became free — August 15, 1947. Not only was Vijay Merchant here named as the man to take over from the Senior Nawab of Pataudi for that tour.

Our Cricket Board also historically ruled (by a resolution still standing) that the captain's preference would always prevail in the event of the selectors disagreeing about a certain player's choice. Something for Sourav Ganguly and Syed Kirmani alike to weigh when the time comes for Rahul to take his "ODIous" place, yet again, behind the sticks.

Tact is a trait easier demonstrated than defined. A trait certainly easier demonstrated by Syed Kirmani now. As Sourav Ganguly sticks out his roughneck yet again. Sticking to his conviction in the contentious matter of Rahul's remaining his one-day conscience 'keeper during the one-day VB Series in Australia!