Two captains: one see-saw

NOW that our Irani Cup is full, is Sachin your "India cup of captaincy tea"? No way? Seeing how firmly, in the saddle, thoroughbred Sourav is? Seeing how well poised, technically, Rahul is to take over? Well, think again.

RAJU BHARATAN

NOW that our Irani Cup is full, is Sachin your "India cup of captaincy tea"? No way? Seeing how firmly, in the saddle, thoroughbred Sourav is? Seeing how well poised, technically, Rahul is to take over? Well, think again. Think of what happened after our cataclysmic 1999-2000 tour of Australia. A tour during which we faced a 3-0 Ansett Test whitewash and never once looked like qualifying for the Best of Three in the Carlton & United Series. That was the ODI series for which, on the fatalistic Friday falling on December 31, 1999, our selection committee, having Chandu Borde for its arm chairman, repicked Mohammed Azharuddin and jettisoned fellow Hyderabadi Venkatasai Laxman.

Sourav Ganguly ... the firm holder. -- Pic. AP-

Barely 4 days before VVS was set to cast himself in the Sydney Test Laxmantle of 167 (198 balls, 27 fours & a 5) in an India score of 258 for 8. Indeed, that VVS 167 tele-struck Channel 9 viewers as sheer Azharised touch artistry. Point to note — even before Sachin's India lost that January 2000 Sydney Test (by an innings & 141 runs in 3 days), the captain had put his left foot down on Azhar. Sachin had already let Chandu Borde's select committee know that, if it remained adamant about its fag year-end decision of foisting Azhar upon him for the C & U ODI Series to follow in Australia, it could rest assured that the Hyderabad ace would be trumped in the Nayan Mongia manner on tour. Sachin even hurled the veiled threat of playing the ultra-nimble Azhar as India's 12th man!

That Chandu Bordenigrating act of Sachin left our selectors stunned. With no go but to let Laxman, as Sachin's continued preference, stay on for the C & U Series. In which Laxman, characteristically, let down Sachin with an ODI scoresheet of 2, 2 & 3 vs Australia; 9, 7 & 1 vs Pakistan. After that Sydney Test 167, just 24 runs from 6 ODI innings! "India's pride to be or not be?" remains Laxman's classic dilemma as, in Australia on November 1, VVS ceases to be a prodigal 28-year-old. That day, the Hyderabad-born Laxman, going on 30, enters the 30's senior league of Sachin, Sourav, Rahul and Anil. If Laxman makes good anew as a Test player of perennial class — against New Zealand at home and then in Australia — we shall recount our 281 blessings as even better bestowed in Eden.

But we were on the Sourav-Sachin Irani Cup face-off. A face-off by which Sachin became again Mumbai's choice while the Rest of India stayed with Sourav. It was Mumbai Chairman of Selectors Dilip Vengsarkar's brainwave to so pit Sachin opposite Sourav. Sunil Gavaskar, as commentator, has often talked of our Test stars "not being pushed for their places". By the same token, why should Sourav, now, not be pushed for his captaincy? After all, Sachin had never emphatically eliminated himself from the fray. As early as December 10, 2000, Sachin is on record as saying: "At the moment, I have no problems playing under Sourav. When I gave up the captaincy, the situation demanded so. However, I have never said that I will not lead India again. I am pretty open to the idea of leading India — if the situation comes to such a stage."

The situation could, conceivably, "come to such a stage" after Steve's Australia for one, Ricky's Australia for another, have finished with Sourav's India Down Under. Jagmohan Dalmiya is there for another year as Cricket Board President precisely in the vital phase during which Sourav simply has to further fortify his position as India captain. By asserting his role as still one of our leading batting lights on the Litmus Test tour of Australia. Sourav himself has a healthy appreciation of what lies in cold storage for him should he fail as India's striker-skipper in Australia. Hence the urgent consultations with Sunil Gavaskar on the batting adjustments needed to strike out for big scores in Australia. Rahul, remember, comes as a package deal with Sourav. So there is no reason to assume that the captaincy choice would automatically fall upon Rahul should Sourav, perchance, conspicuously fail with the bat in Australia. In any such turn of events, Rahul's overall performance, in Australia, would inevitably be compared with that of Sachin — for a final captaincy decision to be made. Sourav well remembers how all India reacted when he lost that February 15 preliminary match to Ricky's Australia. It was as if it was the end of the World Cup itself for India! That Sourav's India picked up sensationally from that volatile point is something that redounds to the captain's credit. But now, in Australia, Sourav has to be prepared to pay the supreme penalty if he, yet again, fails to win his spurs as batsman and helmsman alike.

Sachin Tendulkar_ still young enough to be a distant challenger? -- Pic. AFP-

The 4 Tests in Australia are going to underpin the future trend. After that, the VB Series is not the World Cup. So that Sourav cannot here expect to make, on the ODI roundabouts, what he loses on the Test swings. Nor can Rahul escape total responsibility, as his deputy, if Sourav fails to score (in more senses than one) in Australia. It is in such a dicey setting that Sachin's name, as captain, could be strategically put forward again. That, of course, assuming Sachin himself does really well in Australia. Sachin's captaining India again might look a TV remote possibility. But never rule out anything in Cricket, Indian Cricket. A sustained array of Ferrarich shots from Sachin's MRF willow and you will be amazed by the speed with which the imagination taxing 1.13 crores begins to look a national waiver not entirely unjustified! Sachin's bat, even now, packs the MRF power to reverse the Ferrari at top speed. In fact, it is my gut feel that the Ferrari issue would never have come to amber light if WorldTel's Mark Mascarenhas had still been the one plotting the points on Sachin's careergraph.

Over, contextually, to the crestfallen Sachin after the 1999-2000 tour of Australia. I am in the top row of the arrow-straight Press Box at the Brabourne Stadium. The Ajay Jadeja-led President's XI is playing Hansie Cronje's South Africa on the Saturday of February 19, 2000. When in troops Sachin — with Jaywant Lele for his sounding Board. Sachin's stock is low, right then, as the leader of Falstaff's ragged army of an Indian team. The tour of Australia has been a total disaster. Still it comes as a shell-shock to hear Sachin read out (from a prepared text) that he is resigning from India's captaincy "accepting full responsibility" for the debacle in Australia. With the first Test vs South Africa, at the Wankhede Stadium, just 5 days away, Sachin's Brabourne Stadium bombshell lands bang on Jaywant Lele's squat shoulders.

Lele's Cricket Board finds itself in a pickle. A pickle whose aftertaste comes through as Azhar's being on his tangy way back. This, in truth, has been the chief motivating reason for Sachin to put in his papers. Only after endless persuasion — reminded of his duty, still, to India — does Sachin condescend to stay on for just the 2 Tests against South Africa. Making 97 in style on the opening day of the Wankhede Stadium Test. After getting to know, at the eleventh hour, that they were not, after all, reimposing Azhar on him. True, Azhar returns for the second Test at Bangalore vs Hansie's South Africa and, under Sachin's resigned gaze, hits that classy 102. But the manner in which Azhar goes for that hook never in his book, immediately after reaching his Bangalore Test hundred, has viewers pondering if Sachin did not have a decimal point to make. Raj Singh Dungarpur had been selectorially instrumental in spotting the late-1989 Pakistan tour spark in Sachin as a 16-year-old stripling. And it is Raj Singh's Brabourne Stadium that Sachin now chooses as his press-box window for standing self-stripped as India captain. There are a million-and-one questions on the Fourth Estate's lips as Sachin so abnegates himself. But Sachin plays hard to "get" by instantly opting to walk. Having made his resignation as India captain known in a box, ironically, exactly above the CCI Long Room in which Vijay Merchant came up with his casting vote for Ajit Wadekar. Against Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Thus does the Indian captaincy drop in the lap of Sourav Maharaj luxury.

In ordinary times, there would have been a longer selection committee debate on the man to take over from Sachin by mid-February 2000. But Sachin's sudden "Quit India resolution" leaves the selectors with little choice. Today Sourav's personality (just before 2003-end) perhaps transcends any captain replacement discussion, Sourav now is the super achiever. But, looking back, the 1999-2000 tour of Australia it was that first punched holes in Sourav's batting technique against peak pace on faster wickets. Sourav, here, progressively lost ground at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Following an Ansett Test series scoreline of 60 & 43; 31 & 17; 1 & 25.

Only the fact that Rahul (batting higher) had a parallel Test scoreline of 35 & 6; 9 & 14; 29 & 0 tilted the scale (as I saw it then) in Sourav's favour as captain. For Ajit Wadekar, when he was India's Manager in the Azhar era, had made it clear to me that "neither Sachin nor Sourav is my next man for the India captaincy job — it's just a matter of time before the leadership passes into the very capable hands of Rahul". But the extraordinary circumstances in which Sachin left made Sourav, at that point, the ideal compromise candidate. Still Sourav could expect to hold the plum job only if he really delivered. How Sourav delivered against World Champions Australia, in March 2001, is Harbhajanised folklore. V.V.S. Laxman, materialising with a Test scoreline of 20 & 12 in the Wankhede Test; 59 & 281 in the Eden Test; 65 & 66 in the Chepauk Test, here stole the thunder from Sachin. The Sachin balance sheet showed 76 & 65 at Mumbai; 10 & 10 at Kolkata; 126 & 17 at Chennai.

That was then, when we even envisioned Venkatasai Laxman as a future India captain, if the Eden strain endured. Today, the Indian captaincy looks Sourav's for keeps. But only looks. Wait until the tour of Australia draws to a February 2004 close. Well might we find, at that pincerpoint, India's captaincy becoming a game of unmusical chairs all over again. Sunil Gavaskar came up with an all-time quote when he likened India's captaincy to the electric chair. Down Under, the electric chair could get warm again. So warm that even Sachin would need to have emerged as a champion performer — from the possible debris Down Under — to be in a position to rebid for the top job in Indian Sport today. That Jagmohan Dalmiya be not reduced to looking to his own chair, first, is the one Sourav eventuality against which all India could but hope and pray. Remember, Sourav's Final Frontier in Australia comes first, Steve's Final Frontier in India only after.