The Veldt 'World' of Sourav

AS the media savaged Sourav in a Joseph Chamberlain vein of, "But the cup is nearly full. The career of high-handed wrong is coming to an end", well could Ganguly have apostrophised with William Ernest Henley: "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul"!

RAJU BHARATAN

AS the media savaged Sourav in a Joseph Chamberlain vein of, "But the cup is nearly full. The career of high-handed wrong is coming to an end", well could Ganguly have apostrophised with William Ernest Henley: "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul"! Soul-searching is okay so far as it goes, but there is no way you opt to change thoroughbreds in midstream, for the World Cup is a horse of another colour altogether! In for a Sourav penny, in for a Ganguly pound. Another pounding it need not be. If only because it was in South Africa that the selfsame Sourav, just 17 months ago, refound his touch. The 2003 World Cup-eve situation, therefore, is not unlike that obtaining when Sourav's India head-spinningly devalued World Champions Australia, 2-1, in March 2001. We Indian individualists, forgetting the team, even then stayed stuck on the fact that Sourav's personal scores, in those three torrid Tests, were but 8 & 1 at Mumbai; 23 & 48 at Calcutta; 22 & 4 at Chennai. The campaign against Sourav became even shriller as the first four ODIs vs `Stevengeful' Australia telewitnessed Ganguly fall for 6 at Bangalore; 4 at Pune; 0 at Indore; and 9 at Visakhapatnam.

With the one-day series tantalisingly squared 2-2, at that point came the Margao decider. A humdinger seeing Sourav land his `left' so tellingly as to make watchers wonder why he had to spar for so long. That Margao ODI Ganguly 74 — struck in a spirit of "Easy meat, these Kangaroos!" — beheld Sourav to be mindset on the conquest of World Champions Australia in the one-dayers too. When he was most dubiously ruled `caught', Sourav (74) verily looked poised to post a Margao total of 300-plus for India. Rather than just 265 for 6 (from 50 overs) that Australia overtook as 269 for 6 (from 48 overs) to `rubber' stamp that grudge series 3-2, following Australia's Steve-diminishing 1-2 Test demise. At the time, I wrote that, very likely, Sourav would be back at his battling best in South Africa — as the ball came on to the bat there. I so go along with Sourav even now in South Africa, after Ganguly all but lost batting caste in New Zealand with ODI scores of 14 at Auckland; 0 at Napier; 4 at Christchurch; 2 at Queenstown; 0 at Wellington; 23 at Auckland; and 15 at Hamilton.

Yet who except Virender Sehwag survived the `Kiwicked' cricketing conditions John Wright encountered in his own New Zealand? Okay, Veeru was all bravura in that Napier ODI 108 he fetched off 119 balls (9 fours, 2 sixes). But Sehwag's 139-ball 112 (11 fours, 3 sixes) in the 6th Auckland ODI really had telebuffs wondering if they had ever watched a batsman trying harder to gift away his wicket! It might sound churlish to snipe at Sehwag when he was the only bright spot during our ultra-gloomy NZ tour — a refreshing 299 runs from 7 ODI knocks (ave. 42.71). But then Sehwag is at that nodal point in his career where he needs urgently to introspect. There is a curiously fulfilled look about Sehwag once he tips the scale at a ton. This smug attitude's surfacing is perhaps natural in one who has risen so remarkably from the ranks. But Veeru is now bidding to be a breed in the same bracket as Sachin, so that he has to take enlightening note of Sunil Gavaskar's Coca-Colament: "Don't leave things to others when you can do it yourself."

It is a Bob Beamon-style leap that has seen Veeru Sehwaging war so far. But Sehwag has even further to go in the World Cup. So that Veeru simply must learn to set his sights higher by putting, say, a 150 price-tag on his ODI wicket — once he touches 100. It was Sourav who gave this chestnut his head in South Africa during the October 2001 Standard Bank Triseries there. Before that, in what was Rhodesia (inside South Africa) and is now Zimbabwe, Sourav's abiding faith in the lad saw Sehwag (while not opening in the triangular Coca-Cola Cup) come up with modest ODI scores of 11 not out, 4 & 2 vs the West Indies; just 2 in the only knock Veeru had against Zimbabwe. So rewarding for us, up to that mid-2001 point, had been the Sourav-Sachin opening tandem on tour that there could be no visible `opening' for Veeru Sehwag in the triangular Coca-Cola Cup to follow in Sri Lanka. Indeed, in the Emerald Isles, Sehwag registered but 0 (at No. 6) vs New Zealand and 12 (at No. 8) vs Sri Lanka. That Sourav still promoted Sehwag to open vs New Zealand is what found Veeru whiplash 33 — run out! Further Veeru opening scores of 27 & 0 vs Sri Lanka meant Sourav could not have `put up' Sehwag's case — but for Sachin's having been rendered hors de combat for that triangular series in Sri Lanka.

To Sourav's eternal credit, he daringly stayed with Sehwag as India opener in the key August 2, 2001, pre-final Coca-Cola Cup interface with New Zealand. How Sehwag here, sizzling with gratitude, came up with that Sachin-rivalling 100 from 69 balls is by now part of our cricket legend. That Veeru yet again dropped guard against Sri Lanka, in the final, to depart run out for 4, underlines the two areas in which Sehwag needs to work ceaselessly for Sourav in the World Cup. Veeru must not only run with more common sense but also venture to hold firm after getting to 100. With Sachin back for the October 2001 Standard Bank Triangular Series in South Africa, Ganguly as skipper had the Zimbabwe ODI series scores (2, 85, 20, 62 & 28) and the Sri Lanka follow-up (5, 69, 4, 0, 64 & 1) to choose to open as and when he felt like it. Thus Sehwag had once again to go lower down in South Africa. Sehwag ODI scores, then in the Veldt, of 5, 33, 4 & 34 vs South Africa, alongside 55 not out (when opening) and 55 not out (at one-drop after Sourav and Sachin) vs Kenya meant that Veeru remained a factor to be reckoned with in determining Ganguly's personal opening equation with Tendulkar.

Sachin, perhaps for the first time sensing genuine competition in the ODI opening slot while reclaiming his No. 2 spot in South Africa, pre-empted Sehwag, in the Standard Bank Triseries, with knocks of 101, 38, 37 & 17 vs South Africa, alongside 3 & 146 vs Kenya. As Sachin thereafter sustained his opening tempo during the six ODIs in India against Nasser's England — 36 at Kolkata, 45 at Cuttack, 68 at Chennai, 87 not out at Kanpur, 18 at Delhi & 12 at Mumbai — Ten's moving down the order could cross no one's mind. Here is where Sourav put the Veeru cat among the Sachin pigeons by letting Sehwag open with Tendulkar against Nasser's England in India — from the 3rd ODI at Chennai that Ganguly missed. Given such an opportune breather as opener, Veeru got going neck and neck with Sachin's 68, 87 not out, 18 & 12 via parallel ODI knocks of 51 at Chepauk; 82 at Green Park, 42 at Kotla and 31 at Ten's own Wankhede Stadium.

Such instant January-February 2002 opening success of the Tendulkar-Sehwag twosome against Nasser's England is what has led to the present piquant situation. By which viewers are thinking aloud about Sachin's coming up and Sourav's going down. Forgetting that the World Cup is a true-blue international contest in which the left-right Sourav-Veeru open pairing is rotatingly crucial to discomfiting the opposition. The unvarnished truth here is that Sehwag has not looked back since he providentially displaced Sachin, as opener, in the seven ODIs against Carl Hooper's West Indies. All talk of Sourav, instead, making room for Sachin at the ODI top makes little cricket sense in a contest so daunting as the World Cup. We still tactically want a left-right combo at the top — just like when Sourav-Sachin used to open.

It was V.V.S. Laxman at No. 3 while Sachin was away from the one-day scene. So now is it not the VVS one-drop spot that Sachin logically takes? To that strategic one-drop slot did Viv Richards uplift himself as captain in the West Indies one-day team. Sachin, at No. 3 now, similarly gives us all the World Cup options we want. At one-down, Sachin yields us a destructive enough left-right pair, at the helm, in Ganguly and Sehwag. Leaving Sachin just below — in a competition so razor keen as the World Cup — with enough visualised overs (from the first 15) in which to show his Wisden ODI mettle as rating next only to Sir Vivian Richards. It also significantly means that Rahul remains India's voltage stabiliser at No.4.

Forget the NZ fiasco. Those were `Kiwickets' made to belittle India as potentially the best batting side in the world. Stephen Fleming's winning one key toss after another is a reminder that Sourav was unusually unlucky, as a coin collector, almost each time it counted in New Zealand. On that fatally ill-timed New Zealand tour, Sourav and his team had all the bad luck in the world. So that all the luck in the World Cup it now logically has to be! Sourav, Sachin, Rahul, all three know they are getting no younger. So that, in South Africa, this triumvirate must envision their personal reputations, as world-beaters, to be at stake.

Anything less than runs by the ton from their pricey blades would place the trio's cricketing future itself in economic jeopardy. Be sure therefore that Sourav, Sachin and Rahul would respond to such a career challenge in the only way they know — with heaps of World Cup runs. Just as Anil Kumble knows he desperately needs even more ODI wickets to hold out.

Even before that Margao ODI 74, I wrote in The Sportstar that Sourav could spring a surprise on his critics by rediscovering the wickets in South Africa to be to his stroking liking. Sure enough, Sourav came up, in that October 2001 Standard Bank Triseries, with an ODI tally of 127, 24, 85 & 9 vs South Africa; 24 & 111 vs Kenya. Enough to give Sourav, in South Africa, the authority to lead India from up front again. Not that Sourav eveled India from any other position. Yet this is the hour in which Sourav has to believe in himself. It certainly is not the hour in which to query Sourav's credentials as a leader of men. South Africa after the NZ nosedive, in fact, is the place and point for India to peak under Sourav. The wickets in the Veldt are not going to be the forest rain-freshened strips we had in New Zealand. They are going to be South African pitches on which much cricket has already been played. February-March is the time these pitches are laden with runs. So do not tell me that we lack the batting ammunition to make it to the Super Six. May it, ideally, be a Sourav six that lifts India into the Super Six. Or a Sehwag six. Or a Sachin six. Or a Yuveraj six. Let it just be an India six into the Super Six. But is getting to the Super Six enough? By no means. Even while bidding to be in the Super Six, Sourav & Co chant the Michelangelo mantra: "The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it."