We must look at the past with greater independence

THAT the Indian Cricketer of the Century should be named and honoured in London must fall in the category of the unusual. But this is an Indian summer in England, that the Victoria and Albert Museum is displaying Indian movie posters is even more unusual, and a ceremony at Wembley is perhaps indicative of the flavour of the moment. The dinner at the Long Room at Lord's was a strange choice though given that the MCC has rarely been too inclined towards Asian cricket and there is little to show there as acknowledgement.

Given the shared political history of our nations, and given the fact that cricket was essentially an English sport, it was perhaps inevitable that the cricketing history would throw up several shared moments. It is 70 years since India first toured here, since Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh first marked out their run-ups and earned handsome praise from those that had seen Larwood and Voce and Allen. That Indian side was charitably received, an honour that most other visiting sides were denied. I don't know what was the greater disappointment; that Indian cricket was made fun of or that such opinion was allowed to be regarded in India as gospel.

But we must move on, not bearing those scars yet aware of the fact that they were inflicted. We must look at the past with greater independence even if that is easily said. As a nation evolves with its sport, so does it with its media and a very large part of India's cricket history, certainly in England, was seen through English eyes. How then do we acquire that independence? How do we make dispassionate, unencumbered judgments? Age dulls the limbs but it strengthens myths, players often seem to become better cricketers after they retire than when they are playing. How do you balance that against the fact that modern television, with its commitment to glamourise the moment, makes today's cricketers seem larger than life? Is it possible at all then to put players from 68 years into one basket and come out with the best of them all?

Yet, it is an exercise that must be carried out because it reminds us of the distance that we have travelled. It allows us to focus on the shared interests that our nations have when an essentially English company organises an essentially Indian evening. The East India Company, in its original form, may be part of history but different avatars are sprouting. Spices and cotton may no longer be opportunities but Indian cricket has much to offer to the modern businessman.

There is much of England in modern Indian cricket history too. It was an English company, Trans World International, that first scented the opportunity that an incompetent state-driven monopoly presented. The demise of Doordarshan as the custodian of Indian cricket was perhaps inevitable but it was the old English rigour that TWI brought to Indian television that hastened the much-needed end. In the hands of the old DD, Indian cricket would have struggled to have a tenth of the excitement and a millionth of its wealth. Just as the old English built roads and bridges, the modern English showed how sport should be covered to a fine young generation.

It was an honour to be asked to host the awards evening, though television commitments meant that couldn't actually happen. That would have been an easier exercise than being part of the jury. How do you shortlist five from so many? How do you pick one from five? It was an agonising and yet thrilling exercise, one that opened my eyes to how little we really know.

How, for example, do you evaluate players at different levels on the evolution scale? As a pioneer, was Vinoo Mankad's job harder, was his achievement greater than Kapil Dev's? One, the best left-arm spinner of his time who was also an opening batsman, the other, one of the finest new ball bowlers who also scored 5000 Test runs! As a country evolves, so does the quality of its cricket. Succeeding generations become smarter, more aware, they do not need to make the mistakes of an earlier one. Older generations have little to remember them by. I found myself gravitating to the energy and attitude of Kapil Dev for whom even relatively small events were brought alive by television. With Vinoo Mankad, I had only numbers and the stories told by former cricketers to go by. Had the Test match of 1952 been available on television, even of the quality of the tied Test, would Mankad have suffered in comparison to Kapil?

Also then, how do you make a distinction between Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar? Till Amarnath, Vengsarkar and Azharuddin came together in the early eighties, Gavaskar had only G.R. Viswanath in the middle order. Did that fashion his legendary defensive style? Did the pressure of being the sole batting performer stifle him, or did it raise him to a different level? On a similar note, what effect has the absence of a stable pair of openers had on Tendulkar? Like Viv Richards, with whom he bears comparison, would he have flowered with a Greenidge and Haynes above him? Or did their absence pull the spotlight closer towards him? Has his modern television presence made him a larger than life cricketer and if so, how do you strip away the aura to judge the cricketer? Hasn't Tendulkar had easier attacks to encounter than Gavaskar did at the top of the order? But then, hasn't constant one-day cricket, and its untold pressures, made it more difficult for Tendulkar to focus?

Happily, one thing is clear. When you pick a winner from 70 years of international cricket, you can be sure he would have done enough to deserve it. You can also be sure that a country so sold to the present that it does not have a museum to honour the past, would not have organised this by itself. It is a sobering thought. Let us move on to the Test matches.