The face-off

V.V. KRISHNAN

By revealing the gist of a pre-first Test team meeting, Ganguly broke an unwritten team rule, writes S. DINAKAR.

COACH Greg Chappell desired change. Sourav Ganguly could be stubborn. And a conflict was in the offing.

Indian cricket is at the crossroads. The days ahead are loaded with possibilities.

The flare-up brought the low profile India's tour of Zimbabwe to the centre stage. Not for the right reasons though. `Are there two camps in the Indian team? Is Team India disintegrating?' were the questions asked.

In the coming series Chappell will surely pursue the path he has chosen for the team. And this would call for some hard decisions. Work ethics will continue to be a key element of the process put in place by Chappell towards taking India to the next level. Aspects like fitness, discipline and the right attitude are the basic requirements.

By revealing the gist of a pre-first Test team meeting, Ganguly broke an unwritten team rule. The exact details of what transpired between Chappell and Ganguly ahead of the Bulawayo Test would only be known to the two principal protagonists.

But the message came out loud and clear: 1. Chappell was unhappy about Ganguly's batting form. 2. He wanted to send out a strong signal to the captain. 3. There would not be one set of rules for the captain and another for the rest of the side. 4. The skipper had to deliver in his specialist job, earn his place.

In Chappell's book a captain has to show the way. He, in fact, has to be the role model. Ganguly, at least in the present phase of his career, is certainly not one.

For most part, Ganguly has been a strong captain. He is also the most capped Indian skipper with 49. The man from Kolkata has captained India to the maximum number of victories too — 21. He has been a tough leader who evokes fierce loyalty from a section of the team. Is this very factor creating fissures in the side now?

His struggling ways while coping with quality bowling — runs against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe count for nothing — have left him with a diminished stature. Most of Ganguly's present problems stem from the fact that he appears hopelessly out of sorts when pace bowlers of ability test him with well-directed short-pitched deliveries. He is opened up, gets into a tangle, and his response lacks conviction. It sends the wrong message to his men. A captain has to ooze confidence.

Ganguly's reported reluctance to face the second new ball in the tour game at Mutare — we are talking about a second string Zimbabwean attack here — does not present him in favourable light if the doubts surrounding the nature of the injury forcing him to walk back are true.

Similarly, there was a strong feeling that Ganguly should have courageously led India in the third Test against Australia on a green-top at Nagpur last season. The `Dada' pulled out on the morning of the match with a hip strain.

There was a view that he should have braved the injury in a make or break Test for India.

Is Ganguly's lack of faith as a batsman influencing his thinking as a captain? Has the need to preserve himself in the Test side resulted in him putting self above team?

It is sad that Mohammed Kaif had to sit out of both the Tests in Zimbabwe. He is the in-form man. He has the hunger and the temperament. He deserved a chance. Young cricketers have to be given a fling when their body and mind are in harmony. Kaif is striking the ball well and brings with him a carload of positive energy to the arena. He could have consolidated on this form, gained in confidence, and built a platform for further success in Test cricket. Right now, his Test career is moving in fits and starts. For no fault of his though.

The case of Yuvraj Singh is also a sad one. Here is a man who produced a rather majestic Test hundred at the Gaddafi Stadium on a green, first day wicket. The Pakistani pacemen had made significant inroads and the left-hander's innings surfaced during a crisis situation.

Why was Yuvraj pushed to the opening slot in the following series against Australia? Now Yuvraj is no opener. His feet movement can be tardy and he reaches out for deliveries outside the off-stump. A slot in the middle-order is just right for this talented strokemaker. Was Yuvraj made a sacrificial lamb to safeguard Ganguly's place in the middle order?

Ganguly recently completed 5000 Test runs, a creditable feat considering the technical shortcomings in his batting. But he would struggle to make the Test side as a specialist batsman in his current form vis a vis facing better attacks.

In the two key home Test series last season, against Australia and Pakistan, he averaged 19.66 and 9.60. His average handling the sub-standard Bangladesh attack was a whopping 79.50. And he notched up a hundred against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, although the knock consumed 262 balls. Is it a question of form or ability?

And then Ganguly committed a gross folly by revealing Chappell's pre-match conversation with him. Probably, he was emboldened by a Test hundred achieved after an eternity. The timing of his words was awry and triggered a sequence of events Indian cricket could have done without.

Rahul Dravid has emerged the real winner from the episode. He is a strong, constructive deputy, who is not clamouring for captaincy. His long-term stint in the top job should be around the corner.

Should Ganguly captain India till the 2007 World Cup? Or is it time now for a change at the top?