'The World' is nobody's oyster

RAJU BHARATAN

IT is a theory that holds good a full 50 years after Polly Umrigar propounded it. "No matter how out of form be a player or a team," observed Polly, "they have only to tour India and play a series here to rediscover their touch!" The West Indies could not agree more. Notably Man of the ODI Series Chris Gayle (455 runs from 7 innings - ave. 65.00) and Man of the Vijayawada Match, night-clubber day-clubber Marlon Samuels (108 not out off 75 balls: 11 fours, 5 sixes). The West Indies began this tour of India with a question mark against its future in the game itself. The manner in which the West Indies lost the first two Tests had Sir Vivian Richards looking first blighted, only then knighted. To tele-espy the same Sir Vivian giving uninhibited Caribbean expression to his sense of 4-3 fulfilment was a Vijayawada ODI statement that said it all. If (sans Zaheer, Sachin and finally Sourav) we could not summon the bench strength to down the wooden-spooning West Indies, we have solid reason to worry for the World Cup.

The point to ponder is that the West Indies learnt exemplarily from Polly Umrigar as 'The Palm Tree Hitter'; while India did not. One 325 Ahmedabad swallow could not our winter make. Truth to tell, India as a team has the steam and the stomach for but a five-match ODI series; not a seven-match play-off. The seven ODIs now due in New Zealand should come as a third eye-opener in this direction. For the World Cup is a campaign sure to run into more than seven matches for Sourav's India, if we manage to stay the Kapil Dev course. Kiwishful thinking it may be to reason that we have attained the level of fitness and toughness so essential for sustaining World Cup battle. Things have come to a sorry pass indeed if the mild-mannered Carl Hooper could make bold to read the 'Art Of War' to us in India.

Just imagine, Sourav's team could have gone out of the treasure hunt even earlier if match referee Mike Procter had not, fortuitously, awarded the third ODI Rajkot match 1-2 to India. That brings me to the theme germane to the World Cup - the art of crowd management. Should not Mike Procter, as the match referee, have taken a stronger stand when the West Indies just refused to Rajkot resume with India 200 for 1 while chasing 301 for a win? As an intent telewatcher, I saw no rational reason for the West Indies not to get back to the Rajkot middle. After having retired to lick the wounds inflicted by Veeru (114 not out from 82 balls: 17 fours, 2 sixes), it somehow looked as if the West Indies was not overkeen to see Sehwag take up, as a personal pursuit, his team's 301 target from where he had left off with 114 not out.

I say Mike Procter here should have shoved back the West Indies to centrestage. Having failed to do that, Mike Procter had no business to award the Rajkot match to India - just like that. He should have specified that he was letting India so match benefit (1-2) precisely because the West Indies was not forthcoming enough to restart play. Consequentially, he should have proceeded to recommend, to the ICC, stringent punishment to the West Indies for its stubborn refusal to get on with the Rajkot game. My own long-time pragmatic experience of such crowd situations is that the game has only to be resumed for the sawdust to settle. In fact, the greater danger lies in the match referee's failing to resume soonest. There was no real danger to life or limb, as far as 'eye' could see, when the West Indies walked off in a Rajkot huff. So that Mike Procter should have just put down his South African World Cup foot here.

The World Cup in South Africa already poses massive problems of crowd management without captains of sides participating precipitating matters. Sadly, it is stalwart Clive Lloyd of the West Indies who began this business of an arbit walkout from the Indian field of play. Not for a moment must you believe the instant historian who tells you on TV, at the height of the crowd intervention ruckus, that Chepauk is one venue that always has been free from this malady. Rewind to the December 1983 sixth and final Test at Chepauk between Clive Lloyd's West Indies and Kapil Dev's India. Yes, the Chepauk Test in which Sunil Gavaskar came up with his infamous 236 not out spread over 644 minutes. After Sunil had won from the then Board President, N.K.P. Salve, 'permission' to bat lower down for India (at No. 4) - to the chagrin of captain Kapil Dev.

That Sunil still came in as virtual Chepauk Test opener at 0 for 2 - as Aunshuman Gaekwad and Dilip Vengsarkar were both seen to Packer-duck in the teeth of a fearsome assault by Malcolm Marshall - was destiny beckoning to Gavaskar to join fresher-opener Navjot Singh Sidhu! Marshall verily looked like gunning through the Indian batting when Sunil, as Malcolm's traditional bugbear, somewhat stablilised the innings for our total to reach 54 for 2. This, somehow, was the point at which the West Indies skipper, Clive Lloyd, opted to withdraw his team from the Chepauk field, arguing that certain missiles from the stands had landed on the ground! Navjot Sidhu was then 20 not out and, his Sardar concentration broken, was caught by Vivian Richards off Andy Roberts as soon as play resumed. Sunny had the mental strength to withstand the 54-for-2 Lloydy interruption, Navjot was still learning the ropes.

I draw pinpointed attention to that Chepauk Test happening only to illustrate that going off the field is no longer the most discreet of solutions to a spot crowd management problem. For such a 'take-off' leaves the whole stadium at the further mercy of the crowd. I have fleshed out an instance in which Clive Lloyd so took his team off (in the December 1983 Chepauk Test) because I sincerely believe that, as a senior match referee by now, this Windies icon himself must have realised that halting play (longer than necessary) only leads to more problems than it solves. To be sure, player security is paramount. But judgment on whether player security is really endangered should not be left to the whim of the visiting captain on the field.

In sum, the match referee's job is, not just to go along with such a walking-off captain, but to act as a balm by staying calm. Just one Mike Denness, via a purely subjective verdict, could do irreparable damage to the conduct of the game itself. The World Cup, since it is in South Africa, is going to be an explosive event to man-manage. All of us saw during the recent Centurion Test between South Africa and Sri Lanka how we could be sitting on a powder keg with the World Cup at our doorstep. As one of the true gentlemen of the game, Mahela Jayawardene is a performer whose point of view we have to esteem. Mahela himself, being the Ranjan Madugalle style of person, probably later discerned that he had overreacted to bowler Shaun Pollock's chivvying him during his knock of 40, as Jayawardene struck a 'heady' four.

What developed into a really ugly situation on the field was saved, off the field in the nick of time, by the match referee's impartial presence of mind. G. R. Visvanath, fortunately, was the match referee during that November 2002 Centurion Test. GRV did not wield the big stick here. He quietly brought the two men involved face to face and sorted out things before the incident could acquire further racist overtones. That both teams mutually respected G.R. Visvanath (as Wisden's Indian Sportsman of the Century) helped matters no end. The World Cup is a happening during which umpires, match referees and captains must, on no account, be viewed as acting even slightly provocatively from the standpoint of the crowd. In fact, all match referees lined up to do duty in the World Cup should be going through an updated refresher course here and now.

The Mahela-Shaun pay-off is a pointer to how things could unsuspectingly get out of hand during the World Cup in South Africa. Never here will I forget how a comprehending Black captain disarmingly eased the pressure at the end of a match in the 1996 World Cup. The match I spotlight is the Kenya-Australia encounter on the Tuesday of February 23, 1996, at Visakhapatnam. The World Cup match that Mark Taylor's Australia won by 97 runs, as Kenya gallantly responded with 207 for 7 (in 50 overs) to the Kangaroos' 304 for 7. At the prize distribution ceremony that followed, Kenya captain Maurice Odumbe - who had hit 50 before being dismissed to make his team 132 for 3 - came up to the podium to be interviewed by Tony Greig. Here White Tony, horror of horrors, proceeded to hail skipper Maurice Odumbe as the one who had led Kenya's fightback to the 207-for-7 end. The Black who had actually spearheaded Kenya's gutsy response had been, not so much Maurice Odumbe (50), as Kennedy Otieno (85)! Clearly Greig had mistaken Odumbe for Otieno, not able, on open TV in public, to tell one Black achiever from another. It was a situation pregnant with possibilities. But Maurice Odumbe, displaying rare understanding, swiftly defused it by observing: "That was my other batsman!" (Kennedy Otieno).

It was a typical Greig gaffe. To be fair, I detected no racial tinge whatsoever in White South African Tony Greig's vocals here. Yet imagine the turn the incident could have taken - in a World Cup - if Maurice Odumbe had not sportingly risen to the occasion. The 2002 World Cup is a media event without parallel as it gets to be staged in volatile South Africa. Match referees, umpires, captains, et al, have to pool their mental resources in helping to hold partisan crowds at bay. Concluding point - walkouts not to be the 'in' thing during the 2002 World Cup! The West Indies to take urgent note, seeing how, by now, Carl Hooper & Co have experienced crowd psychology at first hand in the cosmos that is India.