Windiescenario

RAJU BHARATAN

JUST when (at 157 for 4) Sourav's India looked set to go Zimbabwest, Dinesh Mongia (159 off 147 balls: 17 fours, 1 six) arrived as the Guwahati happening thing in our cricket. Even as V. V. S. Laxman (16 off 27 balls), having "run out" of steam yet again, watched sidelined, wondering if he would still be making it to the West Indies. As Yuveraj Singh (75 off 52 balls: 6 fours, 3 sixes) matched Dinesh Mongia stroke for stroke and yet found himself airlifted merely to South Africa, Laxman sensed the West Indies to be his last port of call. Sailing in the same showboat are certain other seniors in the touring team - unless they deliver here and now.

Dicky Rutnagur once labelled India as a team of "non-benders." That is the precise category to which seasoned campaigners like Sourav, Anil, Srinath, even Laxman (except in the slips) now benignly belong. Sourav himself has to cease to be a non-bender, only then could he venture to ask others to conform. The pressure to bend to the Test task in the West Indies becomes all the more pneumatic as the freshers in the team, ranging from Ajay Ratra to Dinesh Mongia to Sanjay Bangar, look the telepicture of athleticism in the field. Sachin alone (of those belonging to the John Wright Establishment) is wholesomely satisfactory in the deep.

Mind you, Sourav Ganguly against the West Indies faces nothing like the challenge that Ajit Wadekar did against Gary Sobers & co, early in 1971. As Sourav here invites direct left-handed comparison with the vintage willow of Brian Lara, Sachin fights his own private Wisden battle with that little maestro. It was but a timely TV act of grace on Brian Lara's part to have proclaimed Sachin Tendulkar to be the best batsman in the world. That way, the aura of Lara abides in Indian eyes. That TV toasting of Sachin has left Brian free to find his own batting breath in the middle. Humility is the distinguishing trait of the genuinely great, whether the performer be Lara or Tendulkar, Sobers or Bradman. The Don might have rewardingly reflected upon Sachin as his mirror image. Yet, that was after The Don had reserved his highest praise for the willowy virtuosity of Gary Sobers leading Rest of the World.

Leading from up front against Ian Chappell's Australia in the third "Test" on the New Year day of 1972, Gary Sobers came up with that Dennis Lillee-taming 254, replete with 33 fours and 3 sixes. The Vision prompted Sir Donald Bradman to write: "People who saw Gary Sobers have enjoyed one of the historic events of cricket. They were privileged to have such an experience. I have personally seen the finest players of the last 50 years and have seen nothing to equal it in this country. One has to be careful in using superlatives, but I believe Gary Sobers' innings (of 254 at Melbourne) was probably the greatest exhibition of batting seen in Australia." If Bradman, after that, hailed Brian Lara, or even the Elfin Sachin, in a similar peerless vein, I missed reading it. As King, even Sir Vivian Richards only succeeded Sir Garfield Sobers to the mantle. Yet, Brian Lara did come as a revelation in Sri Lanka, earlier this year, with the three-Test dream sequence of 178 & 40; 74 & 45; 221 & 130. A renewed comeback of it now is for Brian as Sachin hones his MRF blade on the very touchstone by which Lara stands or falls in the West Indies. When the choice is between two striking gems, you now look left, now right, for your gaze to return, riveted, to centrepitch.

Is the Siamese-twin series in the West Indies then about only Sachin and Lara? Superstardom is all about showing oneself to be a late-cut above the rest. The sting in this axiom seems to be lost on V. V. S. Laxman. His TVVS lustre dimmed, Laxman came to be baled out of Guwahati by "Padma Shriman" Chandu Borde and his bandwagon only because the selectors were, perforce, denied Virender Sehwag's explosive experience for the five Tests in the West Indies. For a South Zone stalwart like C. D. Gopinath to have stated, "I wouldn't pick Laxman on his current form," is a barometer of how under the weather VVS made us all feel. The same C. D. Gopinath, as a no pro-Wadekar selector in 1971, was not in favour of picking Dilip. Yet Dilip Sardesai turned out to be India's talisman on that 1971 tour of the West Indies. Laxman therefore, as a marginal selection like Dilip then, is clearly expected to "do a Sardesai" in the West Indies now. Reading Dilip Sardesai speak on how he came to fashion his 212, 112, 45 (run out) and 150 in the first four Tests of that milestone 1971 West Indies series should make rewarding reading for all the seniors in our current touring team, not the least Laxman. Notes Dilip Sardesai:

"We won in the West Indies because we got the runs. I got a feel of those runs the moment Visvanath dropped out and I stepped into that opening match of the tour against Jamaica. I was going like a house on fire when I was run out. I got 97. Plus I got the confidence. The first Test was played on the Sabina Park wicket. There were not many runs on the board when I went in to bat. But the runs were already there in my mind. I could see the ball red and ripe. I picked it sweet and clean to hit 212. The West Indies by then had no pace attack worth the name. But to find out the true quality of their pace, you had to stay there. Our men just refused to do so. Oh the number of wickets we gifted away in that first Test! We were 75 for 5 and up against it. But I played straight. I stayed there. And, when I stayed, I discovered there was absolutely no depth in that (1971) Windies pace attack. Our men fell looking for the devil that was not there in that Windies pace attack."

So does the 2002 Windies pace attack lack devil. Sachin, of course, will treat such a pace attack on its merits. Laxman, for his part, must treat it on its demerits. Even for the Britannia bludgeon of Sourav, this is the Windies attack to take apart. With Rahul as the hub of India's batting, one way for our stalwarts to halt the threat of the "thresholders" is to leave Dinesh Mongia (at No. 7) with so many runs to get and no more. In this amber light, I had a friendly confrontation with quickie Srinath the other day, as Javagal openly observed that there was no way anyone could halt Lakshmipathy Balaji from fast making it to the Indian team. My point was that it was Srinath's bounden duty to see that Balaji was halted in his stride. By which all I meant was that there was no call for Srinath, obligingly, to step aside and watch, as Balaji began his run to international fame. Remember how Kapil Dev kept out Srinath for as long as Haryana humanly could?

The genial gentlemanly approach of Srinath and Laxman is gloriously misplaced in the raw heat and sawdust of international cricket today. The North is having the parachute drop on the South, right now, precisely because Veeru Sehwag, Dinu Mongia and Yuveraj Singh, even Mohammed Kaif, have shown themselves to be mentally tougher and fiercely motivated. Laxman's intrinsic talent might have enabled him to just about retain his niche as a tourist. Mental toughness alone could now concretise, for VVS, his Windies touring spot. Sehwag circumstances clearly favoured Laxman. Yet, at Test level, you make your own circumstances. Like Laxman did at Eden with that all-time 281; even earlier at Sydney with that prime-time 167. Memory is already the name of the lane down which you travel to meet Venkatasai Laxman. And that is a sad indictment to offer of a world-classy batsman, merely because VVS insists on hiding his light under a bushel.

Dilip Sardesai "arrived" in the Caribbean, early 1971, in a style that made it hard even for G. R. Visvanath (as the most exciting discovery in Indian cricket then) to win back his Test spot at No. 4. South Zone, Duleep-dominant in 1971, was dead set against the choice of Dilip for the West Indies. Dilip Sardesai's answer was to conjure 642 runs from 8 innings in 5 Tests (ave. 80.25). Yet the nation had eyes only for the charisma of Sunil Gavaskar (774 runs from 8 innings in 4 Tests: ave. 154.80). Dilip instinctively divined that the spotlight, back in India, belonged to Sunil. Dilip's thoughtful gesture was to move straight away to the United States from the West Indies - so that the focus remained, undivided, on Sunil Gavaskar, as India's darling, on Ajit Wadekar's team's pathfinding return journey to India.

As with Dilip Sardesai then, "Now or never!" it is with Laxman. Viewers in India have no time, any longer, for rationalising Laxman's laidback approach as akin to the touch artistry of Visvanath! That Bangalore batting aristocrat took nothing like the years Laxman's done to underline his international identity. Visvanath, in fact, had two implacable rivals vying for instant attention on that 1971 tour of the West Indies - Sardesai when not Gavaskar. So much so that Visvanath could win back his place only with the third Test. Vishy's wristy retort to that slight was to hit a super 50 in the third Test at Georgetown. So must Laxman - at Georgetown in the first Test now - be viewed to be at his mettlesome Wisden best. Windies wickets should be suiting Laxman down to the ground. It is a tour on which VVS breaks public trust at his perennial peril. It is a tour on which all our seniors bar Sachin are going to find themselves pushed for their slots to England. Sourav, Rahul and Laxman are going to discover that their reputations can no longer bat for them. Srinath that he can no longer afford to be Mysore silk-soft in his feel of the new ball. Accountability is the new name of the game with the bountiful name. Non-benders, beware!