The captain's cross

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

Following India's disastrous tour of Australia, captain Sachin Tendulkar relinquishes the hot seat. A look at the rights and wrongs of the cricket star's abrupt step.


THE timing of the announcement caught everyone by surprise. While Indian captain Sachin Tendulkar had enough reasons to feel disappointed following the Indian tour of Australia, few people predicted his decision to relinquish captaincy at the conclusion of the Test series against South Africa, now in progress.

And for several reasons the timing was not right. It put seeds of doubt in one's mind. Was it because Tendulkar had received a hint that former captain Mohammed Azharuddin was going to be picked for the Mumbai Test? In the event, the stroke-maker from Hy derabad opted out of the first Test owing to a thumb injury.

In this context, Tendulkar's press conferences soon after the Indian team returned from Australia assume significance. He was defiant, stressed the need to give the younger players a longer run, called for sporting pitches at home, and dismissed reports about his batting having suffered because of the additional responsibility of captaincy.

This was not the tone of a man going to give up the top job in Indian cricket. Certainly, there was no hint of the 'moral responsibility' factor, which dominated his resignation address.

What happened, then?

Although there can never ever be any clinching evidence that Tendulkar opted out because of Azharuddin's return, there are enough pointers to that direction. The non-selection of Azharuddin is believed to have been a condition Tendulkar put forward to th e selectors when he reluctantly accepted the captaincy the second time around. If that was indeed the case, then it certainly is sad. It was under Azharuddin's leadership that Tendulkar blossomed as a great batsman, and surely personal differences can be set aside in the interests of the national team. Tendulkar, despite his awesome cricketing ability, has shown that he is not above parochial considerations.

THE Australian tour only exposed the long-term shortcomings in the Indian side - the inability of the specialist batsmen, with the exception of Tendulkar, to handle the extra bounce and the lateral movement; the lack of sting in the bowling, with strike bowler Anil Kumble losing much of his effectiveness on foreign territory; and mediocre fielding in an era of super athleticism. It is no credit to the younger members of the side that Robin Singh, in his mid-thirties, proved the most committed fielder.

The Indian batting was ruthlessly swept aside by the clinical Glenn McGrath and the fiery Brett Lee, who form a lethal combination. But a bigger disappointment was the lack of character shown by the Indians in the Test series. They were mentally overwhel med by the aggressive Australians; they seemed to lack the strength that stems only from confidence.

It seemed as if some of them were keen not to get injured so that they were not ruled out of the triangular one-day competition that followed. The technical excellence and guts exhibited by men like Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and Mohinder Amarnat h in the battles Down Under in the 1970s and 1980s, when they wore less protective gear, were in stark contrast to the performance of the current lot, who surrendered meekly.

Tendulkar alone cannot be blamed for the debacle. He fought hard with the bat - he made a lion-hearted century in the Melbourne Test - and was unlucky to receive a couple of bad umpiring decisions. To make matters worse, Rahul Dravid, from whom much was expected, seemed consumed by self-doubts for most part of the series. The normally solid Sourav Ganguly was unable to produce a big innings in the Tests. V.V.S. Laxman, despite his blistering century in Sydney, was too inconsistent for an opening batsman .

For the likes of Devang Gandhi and Vijay Bharadwaj - from whom there were high expectations - and Hrishikesh Kanitkar, it was a rude awakening. But then, they have played most of their cricket on the featherbeds at home and it was too much to expect them to make the transition all of a sudden. The fault lies in an outdated system that refuses to change.

India's preparation for such a major campaign as the Australia tour was inadequate. A week before the tour, the Indians were playing New Zealand in an inconsequential one-day series on flat pitches, when they should actually have been practising on speci ally prepared bouncy tracks in a conditioning camp in order to get accustomed to the kind of wickets that awaited them Down Under.

Recently a national selector spoke about the need to lift the ceiling on the number of bouncers per over in the domestic circuit, but that would not change things unless there is a radical shift in the nature of the wickets. Until then the Indians will c ontinue to live in an illusory world, where they would triumph on the 'minefields' at home, only to get whipped in countries such as Australia and South Africa.

On a sporting pitch, India's attack lacks the cutting edge, the presence of a genuinely quick bowler in Javagal Srinath notwithstanding. Venkatesh Prasad, who has had his share of fitness problems, has lost quite a bit of his pace. The injury-prone Ajit Agarkar is at best a support seamer. A young and willing paceman like T. Kumaran, someone who can be effective with the old ball, another area where Indian bowlers were found wanting in Australia, was not handled properly by the think-tank, which, apart from Tendulkar, included the superstar coach, Kapil Dev.

To be fair to Tendulkar, with the limited resources under his command, he has had to lead India on some very difficult campaigns abroad - the tour of South Africa and the Caribbean in 1997, and the recent trip to Australia.

A hard taskmaster, Tendulkar has been accused of pushing his bowlers too hard, resulting in some of them suffering injuries. But the other side of the story is that anyone who is picked for India has to be willing to go through the ordeal, and Tendulkar cannot be faulted on this score. If Srinath appears the most penetrative bowler, the captain would surely be tempted to give him that extra over in crunch situations, especially if the others do not look like getting a wicket.

Tendulkar, who made a bright start as captain by defeating Australia in the one-off Test at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi in 1996 and then winning the home series against South Africa 2-1, is yet another victim of the 'overseas syndrome', which has prove d to be the Waterloo of many Indian skippers, including Azharuddin, who is otherwise India's most successful captain.

In fact, India's record overseas after Ajit Wadekar's men registered those epoch-making series' victories in the Caribbean and in England (both in 1971) has been generally abysmal. In this period it has managed just two series wins abroad - 2-0 in Englan d (1986) and 1-0 in Sri Lanka (1993). There were several morale-shattering defeats.

THIS again takes one to the big question: does India really have the quality to win in unfamiliar conditions? The answer is no. Sanjay Manjrekar made a pertinent point in a recent interview when he said that actually there was very little genuine talent in the country despite the media hype. There have been brilliant individual players, but cricket is a team game.

Take the Australian team. It has so many options. If Mark and Steve Waugh fail, Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer deliver. If McGrath has an off day, Lee does the job, not to speak of the giant among bowlers, Shane Warne. India does not have such depth.

It is this lack of depth that let India down on the two occasions when it had a chance to register a victory on foreign soil. In the Johannesburg Test of 1997, the Indian spinners could not finish things off on a turning wicket, and South Africa managed to hold out on the final day with Darryl Cullinan and Allan Donald consuming valuable time in a ninth wicket stand.

Months later, in the West Indies, India let slip another golden opportunity when it capitulated for 81 runs at a time it needed just 119 runs for a series-cinching victory, in the Bridgetown Test. One cannot imagine Steve Waugh's Australians missing out on such opportunities. Mental strength is obviously the key here.

NOW that Tendulkar is not interested in the captaincy, vice-captain Sourav Ganguly is the logical successor. He commands a permanent place in the side (in both Tests and one-dayers), is level-headed, has made crucial contributions with the bat, and led t he country astutely in Toronto last year when both Tendulkar and Ajay Jadeja were out of action owing to injuries.

Whenever the selectors used Jadeja as captain for limited-over internationals, he did not do a bad job. But the chirpy cricketer has been a failure at the Test level. It is wiser to have Ganguly as the leader in both varieties of the game, for the sake o f continuity.

In Toronto against the West Indians, Ganguly gave the distinct impression that he enjoyed the job, and although it would be too early to jump to conclusions about his leadership qualities, he is well worth a try.

The road ahead is not easy and the soft-spoken Bengali, who was rather hastily labelled arrogant when he began his international career in the early 1990s, will have to be at his tactical best. Ganguly takes immense pride in his performances; he must be disappointed with his Test scores in Australia despite his two hundreds in the Carlton and United one-day series. He will have plenty of chances to make amends.

However, a switch in the leadership alone is not going to make any longstanding difference if the system remains the same. The need of the hour is to ignore the easy options fuelled by commercial interests. India has to look ahead.

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