The 'men in blue' mood

RAJU BHARATAN

TRUST India to go all but Zimbabwest in the 2002 Mini World Cup as in the 1999 World Cup! Then Sachin's not being there made all the difference. Now Ten (out for 7) had to make up with the ball (7-0-41-2) by sending Andy Flower packing - 145 off 164 balls: 13 fours. This after Mohammed, clinchingly, had been able to 'Kaifree' his arms as the unconquered Nelson (111 off 112 balls: 8 fours, 1 six). As our 'men in blue' went red in the face (87 for 5), the Sourav Gang of Four experienced, first hand, how their cricketing focus had suffered in the agonising process of failing to see third eye to third eye with their own Board. The moment the team touched Indian soil (following the contentiously long-drawn tour of England), the ground reality of having to deal, at all times, with our own Cricket Board struck Sourav & Co with the force of a thunderbolt. Sourav as captain, therefore, did well (in a personal TV appearance on India's Day One in the ICC Champions Trophy) to extend the olive branch to Board President Jagmohan Dalmiya. Anil Kumble further tried to make out that all was hunky-dory again - after the Board had turned the contract-signing screws with a vengeance in Bal Thackeray's Mumbai.

On STAR News earlier, Arun Lal had not exactly advanced the rebel players' cause by dwelling upon the point that the Cricket Board had all along tried to "bully" them. Point taken, Arun. But, then, had our topnotch players on England tour not employed the same intimidatingly bullying tactics to deter the lesser fry in the team from signing on the slotted line? There is a case-history in India of the big boys in the team using their clout to get the freshers on tour to tiptoe their line. No, I hold no brief for the Board. God knows that A. C. Muthiah, Jaywant Lele and Jagmohan Dalmiya together got India into the kind of tangle that did no credit at all to the Board's autonomous aura. Jagmohan Dalmiya (as the one-time ICC honcho) treating Malcolm Speed as a mere paid employee led to an ego clash of personalities not readily to be settled across the table.

The way Dalmiya and his Cricket Board confronted our superstars in England with a fait accompli is to be deplored. Having said that, let me assert that Player Power in India is a myth. It is only because of the media-savvy TV projection Sourav and his men today get that they look as large as 'Life' magazine even when engaged in a sudden-death duel with the Board. All this talk of the players being everything and our backroom boys being nothing is so much hot air. Sunil Gavaskar's dream of our players having their own magazine (in which to air their own point of view) is 'Cricket Talk' that got thus far and no further. Our players can no more administer than they can deal with the Minister trying, all the time, to rob this one game of the unique autonomous standing it enjoys against all match-fixing odds.

So form a Players' Association by all means, Sourav. Yet on the wrong foot you start as you get someone so incorrigibly laidback as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi to head it! I have the benefit of genuine insights into Tiger Pataudi's mindframe and can state with certainty that 'The Noob' could only be revolted by the idea of any National cricketer sticking out for a price-tag on his name. For Tiger, cricket is still a game, not war. It was Tiger who, by failing to apply his mind to it (as India's captain), uncaringly went along with the idea of the prize money's being shared among the 15 players. Ajit Wadekar, as his sly deputy, shrewdly planted the plums' sharing idea in Tiger's mind. "Jitya wants it that way!" was Tiger's unthinking okay to the concept of all cash prize money's being shared, only what was won in kind being kept by the player (named winner). I can already see Tiger Pataudi, his only eye rarely attuned to points of detail, making a royal hash of any discussion with the Board about more money for players. So go right ahead, Sourav, Rahul, Sachin and Anil, anoint Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi as your status symbol. Be sure Dalmiya and his Board minions would welcome Tiger with open arms!

Why, Tiger failed to stick up for Bishan Singh Bedi when Purshottam Rungta, as the Board President, suspended that maverick Sardar from playing the very first Test against Clive Lloyd's West Indies at Bangalore in November 1974. Rungta's Board by then had driven Ajit Wadekar out of the game itself to trump Vijay Merchant's casting-vote ace. It had brought back Tiger Pataudi as captain when the man had played no Tests at all abroad for three years, barely three Tests in India (under Wadekar) - in that fatal phase of his career (1971-74). Our selectors needed to give Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi all support the Board could muster in the circumstances. Yet what was the first thing P.M. Rungta did when Ajit Wadekar and his men returned from a disaster tour, having been clean-swept 3-0 by Mike Denness' England? Purshottam Rungta, as Board President, cut the sword-arm of our spin by summarily standing down Bishan Singh Bedi from the Test series opener vs the West Indies at Bangalore - on the specious ground of the left-armer's having made an innocuous TV appearance (without due permission) in England.

Rungta knew enough about cricket to divine that such an arbit move was fraught with the danger of a first Test defeat for Tiger Pataudi's India. But the Indian team under Wadekar had gone to regional pieces in England and heading the brigade against the Bombay captain was Delhi's Bishan Singh Bedi. So P. M. Rungta, as Board President, felt he had to make an example of Bedi straightway. Rungta acted fearlessly. In the knowledge that there was no other way of restoring discipline in our cricketing ranks even under a man of Tiger Pataudi's charisma. Rungta sensed that Tiger's authority had been undermined by that casting vote and by long absence from command. So Rungta brought the whole Indian team in timely line with that single daredevil move against Bedi. I know it for a fact that Khushwant Singh personally met Rungta to plead Bedi's case. But Rungta as Board President was unbending.

So was Jagmohan Dalmiya unrelenting in the matter of Sourav, Rahul, Sachin, Anil and Veeru's congregating in Mumbai to sign the neo-ICC contract - 'as a team'. Dalmiya (like Rungta late in 1974) knew he was risking a non-performance by our star players against Zimbabwe in the key opening match of the Mini World Cup by acting so high-handedly. Yet, in one stroke that Dalmiya here played, the entire team was cut to size. Not that these players were rebels without a cause. Their cause was just enough. But their mode of discomfiting their own parent body (via an Ian Chappell style of Board-baiter in Ravi Shastri) was bound to be viewed as provocative in the extreme. What could you say of a Ravi who argued that Sunil was not totally supportive of the aggrieved players because that master opener wanted son Rohan Gavaskar in the Indian team?

But then the savage Sunil Gavaskar, even he was tamed by our Cricket Board when Sunny rushed into print, calling our selectors "jokers". The Board (then headed by the genial M. Chinnaswamy) extracted a written apology from Sunil. I have that Sunil apology in my computer folder but the idea is not to 'forward' it. Not at all. The idea is merely to underscore that this is a Board that put even Sunil G in his place. If therefore Sunil now counselled restraint to Sourav and our other superstars in England, it was because Gavaskar well knew that you do not fight the Establishment and win in the long run. Maybe Jagmohan Dalmiya had used our prime players as mere pawns in the game of Russian roulette he played with the ICC. But this is a game only Dalmiya knows how to play, not our players. For long did Sunil Gavaskar lock horns with our hoary Board. The utter contempt with which Sunil struck out the portion about the Indian cricket captain's writing while touring (before condescending to sign the contract) was a matter of ceaseless astonishment to those who beheld him so hurl defiance at the Board.

Maybe Sourav now entertained visions of similarly confronting a Board led by his own Dalmiya of Kolkata. Where Sourav erred was in thinking that he was taking on only Dalmiya. Sourav and other leading lights of our team were taking on the whole Board. The Board that is as much the proverbial blunt instrument as Veeru Sehwag. The Board that has traditionally used a hammer even to kill a fly. Under the hammer it was Jagmohan Dalmiya's future (as Board President) that our mega players were bringing. So Dalmiya struck the moment the eleventh-hour opportunity presented itself. Dalmiya's cold war with the ICC continues. In this anti-White war with the ICC (our players must remember), Dalmiya has the tacit support of the government of the day. Sourav's India may lose. But Dalmiya's Board always wins. Anil, for one, is already a marked man. In this age of youth, Anil (for all his brain power) is the weak link in the alarm chain.

This alarm chain the Cricket Board is a pastmaster at pulling from the time it permitted our players but 'Inter Class' rail fare. Our cricketers today, for all their marketability and visibility, do not quite realise how their magnetism abides because the game in India is still controlled by an autonomous Cricket Board. Recall how diminished in stature Sachin Tendulkar emerged from that Commonwealth Games experience at Kuala Lumpur in the benign Government-blessed custody of Suresh Kalmadi? Our players need to count their autonomous blessing in having a Cricket Board least kowtowing to Government. John Galbraith called Indira's India "a functioning anarchy". So is Dalmiya's Board a functioning anarchy. It is this peculiarly freewheeling style of our Cricket Board that leaves Sourav, Rahul, Sachin, Laxman and Veeru with the autonomy to play their shots while calling the 'spots'. Ignore this factor at their viewable peril do our run millionaires.