This India, this captaincy

RAJU BHARATAN

Sourav Ganguly... back at the helm.-AP

HOW come Sandeep Patil is always the fall guy in our cricket? There was this `flash' neo-Hindi channel that, in announcing the return of the native, Sourav Ganguly, as India captain, startlingly named Virender Sehwag as Dada's deputy for the ODI triangular series in Zimbabwe! Indeed Sandeep Patil was summoned to comment on the `development'. Poor Sandeep, he had to rationalise the Sehwag deputy `happening' somehow. So Sandeep submitted that the selectors obviously took Rahul into confidence — about how a new young deputy to Sourav was India's 2007 World Cup need of the hour — and then named Sehwag as Ganguly's vice-captain!

How the media today distorts and disports itself! No cricketing allowance made for the fact that Team India was just launching into a fresh season with a brand-new coach. That too in early-August. A time when we have traditionally faltered in Sri Lanka. From 50-plus years of `doing' cricket I say that Team India, in its main-strength batting, was just beginning to peak (against Sri Lanka in that final) when the Rahul run out came. Just before that, at 186 for 3, Rahul (ultimately 69 from 99 balls, 3 fours) looked to be acting as the just the victory trail-blazing counter to Yuvraj Singh (42 from 58 balls, 2 fours). This, sadly, was when our southpawing dazzler holed out. Shaken but not shattered, Rahul still looked determined to guide India to victory with Mohammad Kaif (finally 31 off 36 balls, 3 fours). This was when Rahul misjudged that single and was so fatally run out (205 for 4) — 59 runs to go.

Rahul, ever so graciously, blamed no one except himself for India's faltering at the victory post yet again. In that moment in which he lost single-minded poise, Rahul knew the cup was gone. Becomingly, Rahul chose to carry the can himself. By conceding that he, as captain, "left too much to the later batsmen". All this talk about bickerings in the India team, as a Sri Lanka result, is so much hot air. Tell me, in which long-losing team is there not momentary schism? This tour of Sri Lanka was no ordinary one. Sri Lanka and the West Indies alike enjoyed the advantage of being already `into the groove' at Colombo. An advantage that saw even a depleted Windies team raising itself against an India still finding its feet in the new season. Obviously, India needed two-three `seasoning' matches to strike rhythm. Something manifest in the way Viren Sehwag, at last, riproared to 48 off 22 balls (9 fours, 1 six).

Given a 62-for-1 (6.2-overs) platform, India could have won. But give some credit to Sri Lanka and its skipper, Marvan Atapattu, too, for the vision with which he held back Murali. Sri Lanka knew they only had to snare Rahul to turn the tide. In fact, the stages at which Rahul came in and left offer a fascinating study to the insightful student of the game. As Sehwag exploded and folded, who should Rahul join but Sourav! Rahul, for `The Wall' part, made it known, from Ball One, that his vision, as series captain, was to pace India to victory. In effect, Rahul was switching the onus on Sourav to get a move on, while himself playing the ideal-foil strike-rotator. Sourav sensed as much and did try a couple of daring shots. But discovered that the original Sourav touch had yet to fully return.

Now Sourav, even before that six-match clamp, had identified his problem by noting: "I have to spend time in the middle." This, precisely, is what Sourav had done in crafting that 50 on his August 3 Dambulla return to cricket vs Sri Lanka. It could be argued that Sourav, in fashioning that 50, looked to be playing for himself. But could you expect fireworks straightway from Sourav, after such a long lay-off? A hasty heave (leading to his wicket's being yielded) would have witnessed the media's descending, upon Sourav, all over again.

Rahul Dravid... graciously conceding his mistake.-V. GANESAN

The issue, therefore, simply boils down to whether Sourav had spent enough "time in the middle" by the point he reached 26 (off 45 balls, 2 fours) in Rahul's captaincy company during the cup-final vs Sri Lanka. Rahul, fresh at the crease, logically reasoned that Sourav, by then, had seen enough of the Sri Lanka bowling to get a move on, while he himself mentally prepared to bat through the innings. This is the gut point (in the India innings) missed by those driven purely by passion. To be fair to Sourav, he did try a couple of daredevil shots after Rahul joined him. But Sourav sensed that he was still a bit rusty — that a couple of overs more seasoning should help him really open out. That Sourav, when 26, caught an old Tartar in Asoka de Silva is the irony of it all. That lbw verdict against Sourav (off Dilshan) could have gone either way. That Asoka was empirical in ruling Sourav out is Ganguly's tragedy. Ganguly's dismissal for 26 meant that there had been no fresh solid batting evidence for Sourav to seize back the mantle from Rahul.

Rahul saw as much and gave — to what remained of his captaincy — all that he had. Rahul almost accomplished the miracle but for Yuvraj's being no less keen to prove that he, too, could `build' an innings! A projection of 42 runs from 58 balls (2 fours) is not vintage Yuvraj — not once he is set. But the media has been so carpingly after our superstars that each performer now feels the pressure to deliver. Which is as it should be. So what if one IndianOil Cup slipped out of our hands? This final at least saw our megastars feel the pinch to come good. Sri Lanka represented the Here and Now. So reason lies in giving Team India, under Greg Chappell in a new season, some leeway to settle.

Rahul was the one truly grounded in reality here. Even while leading India in a style the reverse of Ganguly's, Rahul never lost pragmatic sight of the fact that one mistake and it was Sourav back at the helm. As that mistake came in the shape of the 69 run out, Rahul instinctively knew that he had staked his all and lost. Having wrested the captaincy of India for a full series at last, Rahul gave it his best shot. Looking mindset on holding the job. But philosophical grew Rahul the instant the Indian innings lost its motive force with his run out. Rahul had discerned that this could well be his last stab at least at the India-ODI captaincy. It needed tremendous mental discipline to take all the flak on oneself in admitting that he, as captain, left too much for the later batsmen to do. This was Rahul's elegant way of resignedly preparing himself for the captaincy possibly reverting to Sourav. Captain or not, Rahul has demonstrated one thing. That this India- ODI team is stable in the middle only so long as he is there, as the Roundhead, to hold the Cavaliers together. The BRITANNIA label Rahul retains is evidence that Indian captaincy is transient while batting integrity is permanent.