Why this idle captaincy talk?

RAJU BHARATAN

IS there a man more lonely in the dressing room than the captain of a losing team? Even lonelier is the captain of the champion team who, overnight-and-day, sheds his sheen - as the seesaw downslide of Steve Waugh so vividly exemplifies. Only the other year, Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly were calling each other names. Today both have lost international caste as captains. In Zimbabwe did the Sourav countdown begin. Now, as the home series vs Zimbabwe is under Nagpur way, you probe reflectively the twisted Indian mindset by which we victoriously create heroes only vicariously to destroy them. Virender Sehwag, beware! Looking a plain-paper xerox of Sachin carries its own crease-occupational hazard. Sachin, for his Bradmannerly part, discovered that measuring up all at once (as striker and skipper alike) to The Don in his own Australia was no piece of Kangaroo cake. As for Sourav, since ascending that "Aussie high-rise" in India, he has been through the throes. On tissue paper, Sourav won 1-0 the Test rubber against Nasser Hussain's England and held the scale even, 3-3, in the ODI series.

Nasser Hussain and his men represented (in my 50-year professional viewing experience) the weakest-ever England team to tour India. Even weaker than was the 1972-73 England team led by Tony Lewis. Tony played the violin with skill in the National Philharmonic Orchestra at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival. Only to play second fiddle as England captain. "Fiddlesticks!" I say if you argue that Nasser Hussain and his men were opponents worthy of our steel-band. Nasser & Co had only one thing going for them in India - their tremendous athleticism in the field. The flair they brought to excelling in this vital segment of the game painfully underlined India's single greatest shortfall in the World Cup to come. The runs we gifted away in the field were the runs that cost us the two determinant ODIs - games third eye-witnessing England's going on to square the 3-1 circle. Yet Sourav's 74 off 95 balls (3 sixes, 5 fours) at the Kotla and his 80 off 99 balls (4 sixes, 4 fours) at the Wankhede were so well struck as to rate as capital knocks both. Both knocks, sadly, came only after match-winner Sachin (18 & 12) had failed.

Failed in a game where you cannot be laughing all the way to the run-bank all the time. So what if Sachin power was manifest only two-thirds of the ODI way here? How could that possibly lead to the absurd conclusion that Sachin generally fails to go on to win matches for India? If Sourav crosses 50 only the two times Sachin fails, surely there are others in the team picked to give the finishing touches? The harsh truth is that we fail as a team even while individuals deliver. Thus Sachin is paying the personal penalty, today, for underscoring (once too often on the small screen) that his own runs matter so much and no more - if the team fails to win. Don Bradman never needed so recurringly to underline his runs as raised in the team's cause. The team's interests stood automatically served as Bradman met everything with the "mincemeat" of the bat. So, from hereon, Sachin, just look to enlarging your own score for the team to benefit unfailingly in the grand sum.

Equally misplaced did I find the suggestion that Sachin, as India's stand-out scorer against Nasser's England, should be taking over as captain. Pray, how many times are we going to swap thoroughbreds while crossing the stream? Why is the deadly serious issue of captaincy viewed so mindlessly by the media in India? If Sourav now proceeds to get runs in the two Tests and five ODIs vs Zimbabwe, is the media going to reason that such scores against such opposition mean little in the "white" heat of genuine international competition today? Forgetting that, in the game with the sporting name, even runs made against minnowy Zimbabwe could help rebuild confidence lost in the middle.

Touch lost in the middle is to be regained only centrestage. Sourav, for instance, could begin middling the ball against Zimbabwe in a style calculated to sustain that touch against sterner opposition. That is the beauty of this game in which a beast of a ball looks that only while you have lost your mooring momentarily. That is why nothing amuses me more that the pet theory that a quality batsman does not know where his off-stump is pitched! He knows and he doesn't know. The very way he forgets he suddenly remembers. And, miraculously, every shot falls into place again. It is in this light I stay with the inherent class of Laxman. View VVS (once he attains stable equilibrium) as cast in the captaincy mould - in tune with the spirit of the age.

But that is a scene we survey, afresh, after the 2003 World Cup. As of now, let us not return to the charade of the 80s by which it was now Kapil, now Sunil, in charge of the light brigade. Which other cricketing nation would have sacked Kapil Dev as captain in the dream year in which he became skipper and made every Indian feel as tall as the World Cup he held up there at Lord's? That was during the Saturday Night Without End - June 25 1983. Come December 29, 1983 and Kapil Dev (by that fateful Chepauk Thursday evening) had ceased to be India's captain. Publicly did Kapil Dev thus lose the plum post he had secretly secured during that very year of 1983 - as he clandestinely crossed the Wagah border (by road) on the January 26 Republic rest-day of the fifth Test vs Imran Khan's Pakistan, played at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium.

As India came to be traumatisingly whipped 3-0 in that grudge series, "deposed" skipper Sunil Gavaskar (in his Sunday Mid-Day column that very weekend) pre-emptively offered Kapil Dev his cordial felicitations! If Sunil so lost the Indian captaincy by end-January 1983 for surrendering a key series (0-3) with that fifth Gaddafi Stadium Test, so did Kapil, by end-December 1983, make way for Gavaskar as captain. This as the upshot of India's being whipped 3-0 by Clive Lloyd's West Indies in the six-Test series at home. That was Black Blaster Clive Lloyd's way of showing Kapil Dev's India its true place in the league of cricketing nations.

Kapil Dev could perhaps have been forgiven for India's being so remorselessly laid low, in the Tests, by the thunderbolts of Malcolm Marshall. What Indian viewers could not forget was the 5-0 blackwash that Clive Lloyd and his mean men, side by side, carried out in the one-day series -- as tit for "tat" World Cup. Did the West Indies feel fulfilled that it had so tellingly settled its one-day World Cup score with India? Yes and no. That 5-0 ODI series sweep was ruthless revenge no doubt. Yet, even after such a conclusive stranglehold on the ODI rubber in India, Lloyd's West Indies discovered that the June 25, 1983 Lord's World Cup defeat (at the Viv Richards-holding hands of Kapil Dev) rankled!

Some latitude could have been shown by we Indians for the fact that Kapil Dev, here, was leading our newly resurgent cricketing nation against the full might of the West Indies in a one-day event extending to the best of five. But TV had begun to determine the shape of swings to come by then. Kapil Dev's sin was that he had been viewed, nationwide, as being humbled, 5-0, in the one-day pay-off by the very West Indies he had pulled down from its lofty Lord's 1975-79 World Cup pedestal. It was a cataclysmic happening that saw Sunil Gavaskar being anointed India's captain all over again - for the Test series in Pakistan. A series beginning where else if not in the Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore! Sunil (during the late-1983 Test series vs the West Indies in India) had made a prestige point of being permitted to bat at No. 4. The then Board President, N.K.P. Salve, had brokered a peace of sorts, between rough diamond Kapil Dev and polished gem Sunil Gavaskar, by which India's ace opener won a "demotion" to two-down - for the sixth and final Test at Chepauk during the last week of December 1983.

That was the very Chepauk Test in which Sunil came up with his 236 not out marathon. A record that endured until Venkatsai Laxman eclipsed it with his momentous 281 act in the March 2001 Eden Test vs Steve Waugh's Australia. What is interesting is that Sunil, having at last been eased down to No. 4, had to come in to bat with Kapil's India 0 for 2 (in response to the West Indies' 313). Aunshuman Gaekwad and Dilip Vengsarkar both consumed by the tall-and-rangy Roger Harper (in the slips) for blobs that had Malcolm Marshall doing the daredevil's dance. Thus as virtual opener had Sunil to craft his 236 not out at Chepauk. After that, when Sunil Gavaskar re-emerged as India's captain over the bowed Haryana head of Kapil Dev for the 1984 tour of Pakistan, I recall asking Sunny at the Wankhede Stadium press conference: "I suppose you will open again for India, now that you are back as captain?"

"Yes!" said Sunil, not "batting" an eyelid while grinning like a Cheshire cat. Kapil Dev took some cutting down to size after the World Cup summit. But then Sunil (as G.R. Visvanath will tell you) had the memory of a Mysore elephant. The Wagah border still remained a disputed area in Sunil's mind's eye. Indeed, those were times when Sunil could glibly hand back the Indian captaincy to Kapil in the very hour in which he won the World Championship of Cricket for India on the memorable Sunday of March 10, 1985 - before a captive Channel 9 viewership in this country.

The savoir-faire with which Sunil thus made way for Kapil again (in 1983) is a tele-moment etched in all India's viewing psyche. Just re-live that moment in which you saw Sunil panama-cap it all by abdicating, as India's captain, in the very instant in which Gavaskar had the feeling of being on top of the world! Ascending that Audi with his prodigy, Champion of Champions Ravi Shastri, in the driver's seat. There was thus no end of drama then on the telescreen. But, now in 2002, should we not be viewing the emotive issue of who leads India more maturely? Yet cricket and maturity - never the twain can meet in India! Look at the mad scramble for ringside TVIP seats that was the series against Nasser Hussain's England. Things are a bit quieter now only because it is teeny-weeny Zimbabwe we are playing. Wait for the tour of the West Indies to come in April and watch if the captaincy hat is not thrown, anew, into the ring for debate and dissent. Indian cricket can no more change its "spots" than can Doordarshan - cutting in on our viewing mind and space.