That `Steverdict' on This India

SOURAV'S India displayed the backbone of a jellyfish in the crucial February 15 group clash with Australia.

RAJU BHARATAN

Sourav Ganguly with Steve Waugh. Steve read our team potential right a full three years ago.-— Pic. N.BALAJI

SOURAV'S India displayed the backbone of a jellyfish in the crucial February 15 group clash with Australia. A jellyfish has no backbone. The way we saw our batsmen Fevi-fish outside the off-stump, they looked as deflated as the angular Kamal Chopra in that sticky spot. Our so-called world-class batting could, hopefully redeemingly, have Super Six `caught on' (Rajesh Khera style) by the time this sees the white of print. For where now (on the Saturday of March 1) does Pakistan Super Sport Park itself if not on Centurion Ground. Ground already cut from under our feet by Ricky Ponting & Co. ruling the Kangaroost.

Actually what Steve had to say — when Sachin's India found itself trapped in the `Waugh Zone' by February 2000 — carries tremendous relevance for us in the Veldt, where we are prospecting for rolled gold still. So much was commentatively made of the 36 (59 balls: 3 fours) Sachin crafted while being stranded for the strike by the Aussie game plan. The cardinal point here is that Sachin failed to seize the initiative in the one group match that mattered for India. Failed to take charge at least from the 50-for-5 crunch stage at which Dinesh Mongia (13 off 39 balls) showed an inclination to hold firm at the other end.

Viewers here (among them Barry Richards) expected Sachin to start firing the exact way Brian Lara had turned the lunch tables on Shaun Pollock's South Africa in the February 9 Sunday World Cup opener. — once that Windies idol found a left-handed ally in Shivnarine Chanderpaul (ultimately 34 off 60 balls). Brian Lara's world-classy 100 then came off 121 career-testing balls (10 fours: 2 sixes). With two more gorgeous fours did Black Blaster Lara speed to 116 off 134 balls. The Tony Cozier stuff of which the World's Best Batsman is made! A batsman living up to `that' mantle does not fall, lamely lbw, to Jason Gillespie (for 36) the way Sachin did (at 78 for 6) to hurry India's demise for 125.

Mind you, Sachin could have got going since that cataclysmic Saturday afternoon. Yet the February 15 image of Sachin's failing to call the shots — while calling the spots — against Australia rankles. If that sounds a harsh conclusion to draw of the one Indian batsman who held the awesome Aussies at bay, it is a caveat being entered to ensure that Sachin does not lapse into the mindset he did by the first week of February 2000 in Australia. Sachin's scores as India's captain in the three Ansett Tests then were: 61 & 0 at Adelaide; 116 & 52 at Melbourne; 45 & 4 at Sydney. Not so bad, on paper, as for Steve to `Waugh Zone' conclude:

``I thought Sachin Tendulkar was mentally gone on this (1999-2000) tour from as early as by the time the third Test began (on January 2). He looked out of sorts in this Test match and I remember predicting, at our team meeting prior to the one-day (Carlton & United) series, that I don't think he'd score too many runs in that tournament. To me it looked as if Sachin was struggling under the pressure he and his team were under. And under the colossal expectations he always carries with him. By (C & U) series end, he was reduced to the same level as we mere mortals.

Sachin's "mere mortal" scoreline, in that January 2000 C & U ODI series, is worth studying in this Steve context. Against Wasim Akram's Pakistan — 13 at Brisbane, 93 at Hobart; 41 at Adelaide & 17 at Perth. Against Steve's Australia — 12 (run out) at Melbourne; 1 at Sydney, 18 at Adelaide & 3 at Perth. Out of any such "mere mortal'' Steve syndrome Sachin should have emerged, by now, in the World Cup. Taking into account the `live' Brian Lara factor again determining Sachin's equation with tele audiences the world over.

All India in fact — dizzyingly telly crazy by February 15 — could have read too much into that one 9-wicket thrashing by Australia. It is up to Sourav and his men now to underpin any such home overreaction. By the Team Samsung's staying on as an active contender for the Super Six. A full 80 per cent of the money going into this World Cup is supposed to have come from India. Naturally there was also a full 80 per cent media hype about how we would perform against Australia. The boomerang therefore, when it came, was inevitably severe. As if it was the end of the world. The end of the World Cup it still need not be for India. Depending, of course, upon how Sourav's India fared against first Zimbabwe and then England.

India traditionally peaks late. Better therefore to have peaked by now rather than never! For the backlash of failing to make it to the Super Six is better Sourav envisioned than Navjot described. Steve Waugh hit the toe-nail on the foot when he wrote: "The greatest contrast between Australia and India, during the (1999-2000) summer, was in the areas of fielding and running between wickets. Perhaps this is one area India could look at in the future. They need to select guys who can field to a set standard. At the moment this isn't happening."

It isn't happening as many as three years after Steve drew such pinpointed attention to the matter. So much so that Sunil Gavaskar, after the Centurion mauling India received at the paws of the Kangaroos, zeroed in, afresh, on how our men, snugly smugly, take their places for granted and consequently fail to deliver. Steve Waugh meant the same thing when his February 9, 2000 column read: "Perhaps the biggest problem facing India is the lack of promising batsmen coming up. Unfortunately no one made an impact on this Aussie tour. V.V.S. Laxman had his one moment of glory in the Sydney Test, but failed in the one-dayers."

Our January 4, 2000 finest final hour, in that Sydney Test, saw Venkatasai Laxman just blaze away — from 198 balls, a phenomenal 167 (out of 258 for 8) with 27 fours and a five. This in the shattering moment in which Laxman stood C & U-discarded from Sachin-Kapil's ragtag team touring Australia. That vintage VVS knock of 167 created for Laxman a C & U Tomorrow. Yet what was Laxman's ODI response to the selectors' eleventh-hour renewal of faith in his willowy virtuosity? Against Pakistan, Laxman came up with C & U scores of 9 at Brisbane, 7 at Hobart & 1 at Perth. Against Australia, 2 at Melbourne, 2 at his very own Sydney & 3 at Perth!

I underscore this Laxman nosedive (following 167 of the best) to debunk the notion that VVS's presence, in the middle, would have made a significant difference in South Africa. Frailty, thy name is Laxman! No, there is no alibi whatsoever for the way Sourav's India performed from Wellington to Centurion. Heads are going to roll (including a couple from the tail) if we fail to give it a real Super Six shot in this World Cup. The first two group matches, here, saw us pay the glitzy price for leaning on sadhus and sants, when not on Ma Prem Rithambara, in enunciating our `Tennyson TV' dictum as: "More things are wrought by prayer than this World Cup dreams of." That `Josh Ka Sahara' India Pariwar bit was Sourav spot-carrying things a bit too far.

Sanctimony is but a thin veil for pusillanimity! We Indians have neither a sense of ratio nor proportion in the matter of determining from where to draw World Cup-battling sustenance. We lift our `men in blue' to the skies only for them to collapse like a parachute upon crashlanding. The only prayer we should be sending up, right now, is that India, in the 2003 World Cup, does not go the way of our team did during the January 2000 C & U Series in Australia. "Throughout that one-day series," noted Steve Waugh, "India lacked the players who would consistently take the fight to the opposition. Perhaps I should exclude Sourav Ganguly from such an assessment, for he was a standout, having a reasonable series with the bat and making a couple of hundreds."

Those ODI scores by Sourav came on wickets and in conditions similar to the terrain skipper Ganguly is up against now in South Africa. Just take a second look at those C & U Sourav scores that had the grudging Steve fleshing out Ganguly as Indian's `exceptional' performer during January 2000. Sourav (as India's opener in 7 matches running Down Under) ODI-hit, against Wasim Akram's Pakistan, 61 at Brisbane, 43 at Hobart, 141 at Adelaide, 1 at Perth. Side by side, against Steve Waugh's Australia, 100 (run out) at Melbourne, 5 at Sydney, 5 at Adelaide (missing the game at Perth).

The above Sourav scoreline, against the strongest possible A.D. 2000 ODI opposition abroad, Steve-suggests that Ganguly, mentally and physically, was well equipped to take on the best in Australia. Now Australia, in South Africa, is the team that is favourite still to win the World Cup. Whatever Centurion-ailed Sourav, therefore, that he tried to brickbat his way out of the February 15 dilemma he faced against Australia? Where Sourav leads, others follow. It is the captain's abiding poor run that set off a chain reaction by which the gravy train almost ground to a halt at the Centurion. Sourav needs to pick up the pieces himself first, otherwise he cannot expect this team (even with Sachin scoring as opener) to go places in the World Cup.

The media explosion has been such that the mob will not settle for the debris. It is Sourav's very niche in the Indian team that is at stake. So too the slots of quite a few others in our glam line-up. Sunny and Sherry, between them, were already asking for their pound sterling of STAR flesh at the end of the Centurion day. The day of reckoning is verily here for Sourav & Co. Unless they have at least the Super Six to show for the mega-mega bucks lavished on their `India First' persona by the media in India. Michael Ferreira is already `on cue', sharpening his pen and his wits. Cricket is king in India only if the four aces in our batting pack turn up trumps here and now. `The Lost World' is certainly not what we want Rahul Dravid to end up reading.