Great expectations

Published: February 15, 2015 12:17 AM

After Tendulkar—The New Stars of Indian Cricket & Cricket World Cup—The Indian Challenge...

These excerpts taken from the books After Tendulkar and Cricket World Cup explain how the Indian team will forge its own template post-Tendulkar, and how a premature Indian World Cup exit this year could be detrimental for the game’s finances, as well as Australia’s turnover.

After Tendulkar: The New Stars of Indian Cricket

SO WHAT kind of team are India now? What sort of transition are they in the process of making? Their transition will not be like Australia’s: taken from a low ebb by Allan Border and ushered through to world domination under Taylor, Waugh and, for a while, Ponting. They will not wither away as the West Indies did once the players from their most golden years left the scene. Unlike Arsenal, they will not have to wait a decade for a major triumph. They almost broke through in South Africa and New Zealand, they won a Test in England and produced their most convincing ODI triumph in a bilateral series in England in twenty-four years.

This India team will forge its own template.

My guess is that they will be formidable at home. They will be unpredictable travellers, as likely to put in an impeccable performance as to crumble. If the middle order fulfils its potential (as it did in the Tests in South Africa) and, ideally, if the openers set up some sort of platform (there has not been an opening partnership of fifty in Tests since June 2011), they will genuinely fancy their chances. But they will not be, as many of their predecessors have been, routinely terrorized overseas, pantomime cricketers ready to impersonate ducks in a shooting gallery no sooner have they stepped off the plane on a tough tour outside Asia.

What cannot be gainsaid is that, as Sanjay Manjrekar pointed out, at the hub of this team is the best set of young players we have. It is hard to look beyond them. This is what we have. It is either this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.

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I have been here before. I have been here with Diego Maradona, with John McEnroe, with Gundappa Viswanath. Every time a player I admire walks away from the game, he takes with him something of what the game means to me. A sense of loss, of what Ian McEwan calls ‘instant nostalgia’, of feeling bereft, a dwindling of the attachment I have for the game.

But on every occasion, I have found someone has stepped in to fill the void. Not quite in the same way. In this most unreciprocated admiration between fan and player, each case of unreciprocated admiration is different from the other. But the chief thing is that, more often than not, along comes a player who rekindles that sense of excitement, that intense attachment we feel for the game.

Lionel Messi arrived for me years after Maradona last played for Argentina. Roger Federer won the first of his many Wimbledon titles, and I was in thrall once again. Tendulkar burst on to my TV screen and into my life after I had despaired in the wake of Viswanath’s departure. And then came the other Fab Three. Along with Anil Kumble.

As one by one, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman said goodbye to cricket, and as Tendulkar neared his imminent retirement, a spark seemed to have been extinguished from my passion for following the game. The batting of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara against New Zealand in 2013 reignited that spark. The edge of keenness returned. Dhawan’s effervescence lit something in fans on his Test debut. Rohit’s annus mirabilis came as a realization, much delayed, of enormous potential. Rahane delighted by marrying his unflappable nature with the abandon of his strokeplay. As the new team set off on one sojourn after another in its first full year together, talk of regeneration whirled and eddied around them.

Watching this process of renewal is one of the most fascinating things in sport. How do these players, so inexperienced, most of them barely in their mid-twenties, seek to fill the abyss left behind by a group of men whose reputations had assumed mythic proportions by the time they left the world stage? It is an exhibition of, to borrow from Philip Larkin, ‘the strength and pain of being young’. Renewal, rebirth, restitution, regeneration. Begin afresh. The spirit of it is infectious.

In The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes quotes an American gambler as saying: ‘The most exciting thing in life is winning. The second most exciting thing is losing.’ But the gambling, the clatter of the dice, the unknowability of the outcome, the shredding of the nerves, is all. It is a bit like that while watching a new team take its first strides into the world. The hope that it will succeed. The fear that it won’t. The fear of them losing. The unhappiness of having to watch them lose. The dread, too, of being on the cusp of a victory because that situation is always accompanied by the dread of having to bear watching that triumph being snatched away.

The thrill of following a new young team entails all of that. It is unforgettable. Just as unforgettable is the feeling of proximity to a historical, unfolding sporting narrative. The feeling that, yes, I was witness to it, yes, I was there, when these boys became men.

Pages 211-213

Excerpted with permission from Aleph

Cricket World Cup: The Indian Challenge

THERE HAS been gossip in Indian cricket circles that Dhoni may get implicated in the Indian Premier League (IPL) betting scandal. This was succeeded by speculation about Dhoni’s sudden retirement from tests without completing the winter’s India-Australia series. The timing of his announcement could certainly generate split loyalties among the Indian players. Basically, any impediment to Dhoni’s participation or captaincy will be unhelpful to India, psychologically as well as regarding sustaining team spirit.

In the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 and the World Cup in 1992, the West Indies and India, respectively, looked exhausted and below par after an extended tour of Australia. An almost identical state-of-affairs confronts the Indians again, as they would have spent two and a half months Down Under, covering vast distances and engaging in enfeebling cricket just before the World Cup.

So, will the Indians show up devitalised for the big occasion? A majority of players on duty in the test XI against Australia are bound to figure in the Indian XV for the World Cup. Consequently, it will be quite a task for the support staff to eradicate mental staleness and physically fatigue. That said, the Indians have become more adept at managing an era in which they are called upon to play 9–10 months of cricket in a year.

Looking at it from a different angle, there could be a convenience in being acclimatised to at least Australian surfaces as a result of the 11 week presence in the country.

The Indian batting, spearheaded by Virat Kohli, can be expected to hold its own, while the Indian bowlers attempt a holding operation with the white Kookaburra, which has a less pronounced seam as compared to the balls in England or India and may not deviate much in the air or off the wicket.

Indeed, India’s real problem is their bowlers are too expensive; more so, where the ball doesn’t turn as much as it does in the subcontinent.

India’s steamrolling of sides on dry, flat Indian wickets—as for instance the trouncing of Sri Lanka in November 2014—does not count for much, as both Australia and New Zealand will present livelier squares and a changeable climate.

Critically, other than winning series in Australia in 2008 and New Zealand in 2009, India’s one-day saga in Australasia is lacklustre. Yet, when it came to the crunch, India acquitted themselves creditably in alien environment in securing the Champions Trophy in England in 2013. “This,” Dhoni stressed, “reflects the calibre and talent of the side and its ability to adapt and perform in any conditions.”

India’s asset is the versatility of their batsmen. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane can open or bat lower down. Suresh Raina can keep the score ticking even in a crisis; while Dhoni is able to decisively intervene up the order, if need be. Last but not the least, Kohli—with a current batting average of 52.61 in ODIs, superior to Sachin Tendulkar—is capable of winning matches on his own.

It would, of course, be a shock if India didn’t make it to the quarter finals. The higher they finish in the round-robin segment, the weaker—at least on paper—are likely to be their opponents in the last eight. For instance, if they top their Pool, they could play a lower ranked side at the first tier of the knockout stage instead of, say, Australia.

However, Eoin Morgan, appointed captain after the English selectors excluded an out-of-form Alastair Cook from the final XV, believes it would be a folly to underestimate England. “I firmly believe that with the players currently involved in the one-day set-up we have the makings of a very good one-day side, a young side that can surprise people at the World Cup,” he remarked.

England were finalists in 1992. They now have in Alex Hales and Jos Buttler two attractive strikers of the ball; and Morgan will be hoping both will give vent to their flair. The Englishmen will arrive in Australia relatively fresh and yet could benefit from a tri-series with India and Australia in the run-up to the Cup.

(Incidentally, in the event of an Australia-New Zealand semi-final, the side that finishes higher in Pool A would be granted the right to host this match.)

Given the colossal amount of money and man-hours the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) sinks into one-day cricket, anything short of a semi-final showing by the Indians would not be commensurate with such investment. Sneaking into the final would be pleasant; retention of the crown a windfall.

In an India-centric cricket economy, a premature Indian exit would be detrimental for the game’s finances as well as Australia’s turnover. It will, in fact, be a bonanza for Australian tourism if the championship evolves into an Australia-India final.

Off-the-field, Tendulkar will act as ambassador for the World Cup—the third biggest sporting event in the world after the Olympics and the Football World Cup—for a second successive time. He is the all-time highest run-getter in the World Cup with an aggregate of 2,278 runs in 45 matches and a staggering average of 56.95. Bowlers will breathe a sigh of relief to see the back of the Mumbai master.

“The upcoming World Cup will be a different experience as I will follow it from the side lines. It could probably be comparable to the ICC Cricket World Cup 1987 where I was a ball boy, enthusiastically cheering every ball,” he said.

Pages 199-202

Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury

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