This India, that 'world'

RAJU BHARATAN

DO viewers realise that, by the time their crystal-gazing eyes travel to the small screen in South Africa come 2003, it will be a full 20 years since Kapil Dev held up the champagne World Cup - since all India drained it to the dregs? Bees Saal Baad, India goes into the 2003 World Cup feeling no more assured than did a Lata Mangeshkar thinking she was in the grip of chronic sinus, as she entered the studio to put over Kaheen deep jale kaheen dil. If India now heads for the Greatest Cricket Show On Earth, having shed all its World Champion lustre, Lata (early in that 1962 year in which she was to come up with Ae mere watan ke logon) genuinely meant what she said: "I felt I had lost my voice." This even as her velvety vocals caressed the Raag Sohani notes of Kaheen deep jale kaheen dil. As composer Hemant Kumar persuasively motivated Lata by prompting, "You're doing fine", this diva suddenly found her voice - to sing like the champion again.

Lata Mangeshkar only momentarily forgot that she was still the champion performer. While 1983 champion India has all but lost sight of the World Cup that had the same Lata vocalising: Bharat Vishva Vijeta. This Polydor record, ironically, was released just a day before Clive Lloyd's West Indies invaded Kapil Dev's India, afresh, on the Friday of 21 October 1983 for the first Test at Kanpur. The Green Park mood in India was to see red by then - Lloyd's West Indies looking vengeance bent even as Kapil's India appeared down for the Malcolm Marshall count. Now Sourav's India appears no less lacking in true fire-power, as the countdown for the 2003 World Cup has begun with the one-day face-off against Nasser Hussain's England. Such is the telemindset in India, in this trial-and-error hour, that Rahul Dravid could well find it tough to work his way back, so attacking, in its outlook, is our younger crop of batsmen knocking at the 2003 selection door. "Stardom overnight on the Small Screen" is what such wannabes seek, forgetting how Yuvaraj Singh was here 'one-day' and gone tomorrow.

Against South Africa in the recent 3-0 whitewash Test series, look to how Steve Waugh's Australia (in the face of its team getting no younger) lifted its game. Divining that it was a tussle for the World Test crown, Australia came through that ordeal New Zealand-shaken but not broken. It is this rare capacity to recharge their grey cells for the big event that distinguishes Australia from the rest of the world. Fitness is all, now, and Steve Waugh's Australia knows that cricket is athletics first, as far as the 2003 World Cup goes. From a champion team like this Australian outfit that has already seen much onfield service, it has to be a special effort - now or never. And be sure that Australia will raise itself to such a peak level of effort. Strain every nerve, in fact, to retain its hold on the World Cup that South Africa's Herschelle Gibbs "dropped" at Lord's - as sledge-viewed by Steve Waugh.

By stark contrast, what is the extent of effort we can expect from India, now that the seniors in the team have made sure of their specialist 2003 slots alongside the coach and the physio of their choice? It is the seasoned players, I say, who still promote the Ali Irani type of "vested interest" in the Indian team. Any team, in the field, can be only as nimble and supple as its senior exemplars show themselves to be. Could we, by 2003, swear that Sourav, Anil and Srinath will set the sinewy tone in the deep? Even Sachin (past 30 by then) is just about okay in the field today. As for the alpine Laxman, he could be excused for rationalising his springy presence in the middle along the Ekky Solkar lines - that he is in the Indian team for his catching alone! Take away Laxman from the Indian Test eleven and who is left to leap-dive for those slip catches? But there are not going to be too many slip catches for Laxman to close his capacious hands on in one-day cricket, so that VVS, willy-nilly, has to be extending his six-foot-plus gaze to the knee-bending outfield.

Lifetime Achiever Polly Umrigar is the model to hold up to our younger players here. Place Polly in the slips and he could stretch for the most impossible-looking catch. Move him out and Polly could chase the ball like a cub and throw like a lion. To career end, Polly Umrigar ran his first run superfast. That was a style of commitment knowing no age-bar. Kapil Dev, as the World Cup hugger, will testify as to how readily he tuned with Polly Umrigar as manager-coach. But what could even John Wright do if Sourav himself, now, looks a Kolkata tram just chugging along the track.

If India won the World Cup against all idiot box-office odds in 1983, it was primarily because the West Indies, as Black Blasters, underestimated the latent strength of Kapil and his Devils in the teeth of the Haryana Harpoon's India having performed with rare flair in the matches preceding that June 25 Saturday afternoon Lord's finale. There was a ruggedly raw aggression about the way Kapil Dev spearheaded India's challenge that time. For instance, it looked a shot out of this world as Viv Richards (33) sent Madan Lal soaring into the Lord's heavens. With what raking strides and staking hands did the electric-heeled Kapil move to convert that Shot of Shots into a dream catch! Verily was it the World Cup that Kapil Dev reached out for as he turned King Richards into the kind of prize catch that Vivy, since, has been only for Neena Gupta.

It is that blithe Kapil spirit we miss in the India of today. The way Sourav & Co began the Test series vs England with that Mohali stranglehold, Nasser Hussain and his men should have been easy grappling for India in the one-dayers now. But, by the end of that three-Test series, Sourav's "vintageing" India had deteriorated in the exact proportion by which Nasser Hussain's fledgling England had improved. To zero in, here, on the mean manner in which Nasser Hussain aimed at Sachin's pads would be to lose viewing perspective. What about the rest of India's batting? Was it not because Nasser Hussain knew that he already had the Test measure of Rahul, Sourav and Laxman that he could think in terms of blunting the keen edge of Sachin's blade at the other end?

Even Sachin, was he innovative enough in the extenuating circumstances? Why couldn't Sachin, for example, have adopted the stance of exposing all three stumps, for a while, in taking inventive guard outside the leg-line? That would have instantly confused Ashley Giles, even Andrew Flintoff, about which area of Sachin's batting armour to attack. But the problem with Sachin was that, even while being a rebel with a cause in the dimension of his strokeplay, the Elfin One tended to become curiously inhibited (on the Test scene) following the Mike Denness experience. Sachin simply must shake off the shackles so self-imposed. "World Cup 2003" is likely to see captains and bowlers alike try every stratagem thinkable to stem the stream of Sachin's rungetting at the fountain-head itself. Brian Lara, for one, is not going to let any such mind-game plan (drawn up against him) succeed. So must Sachin imaginatively counter any body-line of attack pursued against him. In fact, this is the World Cup that is going, conclusively, to settle the Lara-Sachin score. Tony Cozier adopts a unique strategy in his writing when discussing the big-scoring ability of Brian Lara. Cozier cosily identifies Brian Lara as the Best Batsman in the World - studiedly not even mentioning Sachin by rival name!

No doubt, in India, the spotlight being near exclusively on Sachin is resented in the Indian team, to this day-and-night, by each one of our topnotch stars. Each one bar Laxman. And there's the VVS rub! The six letters of Laxman recognise the six letters of Sachin as readily as the six letters of Talent recognise the six letters of Genius! Inherent in such ready recognition is the failure of Laxman to spot the 167-281 genius spark in himself. Laxman, figuratively speaking, is content to be "one-up" by raising his Chepauk Test score from 65, in one stanza, to 66 in the next. That is to say, Laxman aims for a team win, not for a personal ton. Forgetting that an Indian win comes concurrently the moment Laxman arrives with a ton!

How, in No. 3 tandem, both Laxman and Rahul have (since "Chepauk 2000") come down in public esteem! Laxman might well have scored in the ODIs against England by the time this sees the green light of print.

But Laxman's Test shortfall (after March 2000) still "Aussie" rankles. If only because there has, since Chepauk, still to be a Test innings by Laxman in which he has not looked a world-beater the moment he brings off a shot. What is doubly saddening in Laxman's Test-case is that VVS fails to build on such starts even while being untouched by the first of the seven deadly sins: Pride. All because Laxman must recurringly fall a prey to the last of the seven deadly sins: Sloth. Laxman simply must overcome this tendency to charm and alarm in the same breath.

There are times when Laxman looks to be cast in the tall-and-rangy mould of Dilip Vengsarkar. With this elegant variation that Dilip, once set, got his head down even while keeping his chin up. Rarely, in such a scenario, could you fault Dilip in his shot selection. Because Dilip's shot execution always matched his shot selection. With Laxman, the shot selection looks suddenly flawed only because the shot execution is not always carried out turning those eligibly roving VVS eyes into pinpoints of concentration. Laidback artistry, I say, could take Laxman thus far and no further. Definitely no further than the 2003 World Cup. It is a World Cup in which you expect Venkatasai Laxman (as a superstar now rating next only to Sachin) to bat in a vein calculated to put the stamp on him as India's future captain. Not an illogical line of reasoning looking to Laxman's being peripherally younger - compared to the other big names in the Indian team. Laxman's batting pedigree even Ted Dexter does not doubt. Only, the blue blood in Lax's batting has to translate into solid performance by the end of the 2003 World Cup. That is the cut-off point for Steve Waugh to weigh VVS in the Sachin scale and determine, once for all, if this virtuoso has lived up to that pretty Ugly Aussie's insight - that "potentially Laxman is as good as Tendulkar".