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Cricket Politics And Politics Of Cricket
On The Sidelines Of Musharraf's Visit
By S Zeyaur Rahman

Mass appeal is one of the most sought after things of the modern age. It is one of those things where the demand has not been inversely affected by an overwhelming increase in the supply. In fact it is one of the most sure shot mantras of success. If one can attract a crowd and retain its interest, then one is a demi god, at least for the time being.

That explains the unprecedented power that the stars enjoy over the minds of the people. This stardom could be in any field, films, politics, sports, etc. Once you gain an entry into the collective public memory, then getting out is really difficult. And who would want to, given the premium on a celebrity status.

Cricket and cricket stars enjoy this envious position in almost all the cricket playing nations in general and in the sub continent in particular. The fan following is tremendous, both in terms of number and in terms of intensity of passions. I do not believe that any where else could a cricketer give the film stars and politicians a real run for the money except in the subcontinent.

This over popularity has been cricket's bane as well, on many occasions, but not all of us realize that. Cricket has an internal politics of its own, like any other organization, having its factions and lobbies and the resulting acrimony. But what really makes cricket a volatile issue is the external politics, or I should say non-cricketing politics, that have many a times left a deep impact on the nature of the game.

India has recently been a witness to a historic occasion. The visit by the President of Pakistan was indeed historical even if it did not prove to be of much consequence. What the leaders of the day were discussing has the potential to affect the lives of millions alive and yet to be born, alter geo-strategic balances etc. On the sidelines of the visit and the agenda one also hears fleeting references to cricket. One can imagine the kind of clout and importance that cricket is a privy to, when it is a 'part' of such historical events.

No leader worth his salt can ignore the inherent strength of the game in the subcontinent. I do not mean to say that crowds at the cricket stadium could be used for political revolution or for election campaigns. But the mass following of cricket does provide a brilliant opportunity to politicians and political parties to make a point and make a statement. This explains why cricket is so heavily politicized and our cricket relations have been fluctuating with our international diplomatic relations.

Let us examine this unique situation which has resulted in the unprecedented supremacy to cricket. Historically speaking, cricket is a colonial game and most of the erstwhile British colonies have taken to democracy. Public opinion is paramount in a democracy and when one wants to be in the center public eye, one has to use existing mediums on which the public gaze is fixed. What could be better than cricket in such a case which is followed routinely and religiously through out the year.

That could be true of any democracy and any sport anywhere in the world. What makes cricket a dominating force within the subcontinent (almost all of them are constitutional democracies, occasional coups not withstanding) is the monopoly position that it enjoys. The sports fan in Australia, England etc have a few options other than cricket as well, for eg Football, Tennis. But here all other sports are relegated into oblivion once cricket takes a center stage. Ask any Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Indian about the numero uno sport. Without batting an eyelid the reply is cricket.

That makes it clear the tremendous popularity of cricket and on second thoughts, cricket's vulnerability to the swings of political tides. Pakistan is a national obsession in India and of course our cricket relationship with Pakistan that has been the most dramatic. We had a 18 year hiatus as a result of the two wars. Ever since a cricket match has been a kind of pseudo war. For Indians it is a sacred act of patriotism and for the Pakistani an added dimension of religion gets added as well. One former captain went to the extent of suggesting that all the contesting claims between India and Pakistan should be solved as per the result of a cricket match.

It is almost close to 12 years since India last played a test match in Pakistan. Remember the heavily charged atmosphere whenever and wherever the have met for the smaller version. Sharjah today has a deeply fractured immigrant community primarily because that has been the most frequent battle ground where the emotions of more than a billion people reached a crescendo and climax, swinging between acute agony and extreme ecstasy.

It would be futile to recount the numerous occasion when cricket was used for political purposes. The number of times the itinerary was changed, the tours were cancelled and the all familiar mud slinging match started. Why do volleyball, boxing and wrestling teams of these two countries play without much trouble and why is that cricket tournaments get called off? Because cricket makes news. Why do not the Shiv Sainiks demonstrate at Kabaddi venues and tear chess boards? Because that does not make news.

Not always has cricket been used for negative purposes. There have been many constructive outcomes because of Indo-Pakistan cricket relationship. The first name that comes to my mind is the 1987 World Cup which fulfilled its motto of Cricket For Peace. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the 1987 World Cup prevented another war as relation between the two countries had normalised because of the cooperation on the cricket field. And who could forget the match, when the then military ruler, Gen Zia Ul Haque had come over to watch a match at Jaipur, which again deescalated the tensions.

As for now the Agra summit has failed. Nobody knows the turns that time is going to take right now. Similarly we have no idea what Musharraf's visit is going to have on cricket. Given the historical precedents, it could be good, it could be bad. But one thing is sure that it is not going to be without repercussions. One can expect some fire brand announcements within a short time which will give another twist to our cricket relationship with Pakistan.

 

 



























  Many a Slip Between the Cup and The Lip
West Indies Fill India's Cup Of Woes
By S Zeyaur Rahman

So near yet so far. This has been a familiar headline when one talks of Indian cricket. That is when they get near at all. The loss to the Caribbean side in the finals of the Coca Cola Cup is a case in the point. India's title drought has extended too long which is a complete contrast to its winning ways in the mid 90's. There was a time when India had the most number of titles by any country ever since one day cricket started, boosted by a record number of titles, five, in 1998 alone. November 1998 was the last time that India won a title and since then India has featured in seven finals and not won a single of them. I guess the record for the highest number of runners up cheques would be sooner in India's name.

The just concluded tournament was a golden chance to end the jinx. Just as the preceding test series was. That presents a unique parallel. India were perilously close to break the foreign test series win jinx and squandered the opportunity after being at an earshot distance of the coveted goal. Going by the present standards, where else can they win a test series out side the sub continent if not in Zimbabwe. In the triangular series, they stepped up their game and recorded comprehensive victories in all their league matches. All they had to do was to overcome a side wallowing in the backwaters of time for almost a decade now. But that proved too difficult once the West Indian side rediscovered the lost magic and unexpectedly won its first tournament in six years.

One can take heart from the fact that India played the best cricket of the tournament rather consistently. Even in the final they made match of it and fought till the very end. One does not recount India putting up such a spirited fight after the top order was packed for less than hundred chasing a big target. There are countless occasions when India crumbled like nine pins to earn a humiliating defeat, the lowest point being the 54 all out against Sri Lanka in a Sharjah final.

But there is no glory on avoiding a humiliating defeat. At the most one can get some amount of consolation that we were able to make a match of it, thanks to the infusion of young blood in the ranks. Youngsters like Badani, Sodhi, Laxman and Sehwag have given a new look to the side and will soon be capable enough to deliver even their more illustrious seniors let the team down with some indiscreet stroke play.

At the end of the series against Australia one felt that though Sachin's wicket is the biggest one, but not the deciding one. Sachin had done nothing great in that series and still India managed a decent performance. But his dismissal and the subsequent surrender yesterday, reminded one of the situation two years ago, when it was virtually impossible for India to win a single game without Sachin getting a hundred. That does not speak very well of the seniors as well as the newcomers in the present side. The loss of a key wicket is a demoralizing factor, but that does not give any team the right to be 80 for 5 in the 16th over. The match was effectively over by then, and it was surprise for the close followers of Indian cricket, that the side managed a score of 274 in a high-pressure situation.

One can also blame the erratic bowling for the loss. Indian attack had been surprisingly very tight and effective all along, the kind, which one has not seen for years. Nehra will go down as the find of the tour and except the finals, no one missed Srinath. Zaheer Khan had a decent tournament and same is the case with Agarkar. What decided the earlier matches in India's favour was the performance of the extra bowlers like Mohanty and Harvinder Singh. They did their tasks exceedingly well and left very little for the batsmen to do. That was one factor why Ganguly chose to field on winning the toss. But his bowlers were not upto the mark and for the first time India had a sizeable total to chase. There were signs of panic early in the game, with Ganguly running out of ideas to check the unexpected run flow. And when the top two wickets were gone with next to nothing, he usual surrender followed.

Seen from a different angle, the victory will do West Indies a world of good. Though they have won the final unexpectedly and somewhat undeservedly, considering their run in the league matches. But they should be given full credit for overcoming the tide with a commanding display. At least in final, they dominated the proceedings entirely. They were yards ahead of India in all the departments of the game and any genuine cricket buff would have been pleased to watch their performance, after being completely disillusioned with the former world champions in the past few years.

That does not mean that Hooper's side is on the road to greatness yet again. But they are certainly on the road to recovery, if the final display is anything to go by. It is extremely rare incident in the present Caribbean side when one has more than one batsmen taking charge, if at all there is someone to take charge. In the final one had four batsmen showing the way and paving the way for a threatening total. That augurs well for the side has to perform as a team and not rely on the stars to be the leading lights every time. Their bowling department is still inadequate and except Cuffy, none of them is genuinely respectable, a big change from their hey days, when all the four bowlers would be quality stuff.

As for India, the tour ends on a disappointing note, for they should have won where they lost. India can be accused of not stepping up the game when it really matters. So all the hard work in the preliminary stages goes down the drain and after all it is results that matter. Teams like South Africa and Australia become invincible in crunch situations and that is what distinguishes them. There is no sense in putting heart and soul in the baseline games, only to falter at the nets on a big point. That is one aspect, which the team management must look into, because losing seven finals in a row is a bit too much.

The Ashes Are Getting Hotter
Will England Complete Its Phoenix Journey
By S Zeyaur Rahman

It is very difficult to explain the kind of attention that the Ashes manages to get from the cricket community world wide. There are so many series that are well contested and have a greater chance of bringing forth brilliant performances. Say for example a South Africa Pakistan series, or a South Africa Australia series. But that is certainly not going to make the pundits sit in a reverential pose and watch the proceedings as if it were some kind of sacred duty. It is partly another manifestation of the colonial psychology, that one would better prefer to watch the Masters lose badly rather than own Brethen playing a better quality of cricket. And partly it is because of the monopoly that England has exercised over cricket as an establishment and institution. That explains the aura associated with Lord's though there are better grounds in the world today.

That does not take away the credit from the Ashes for being a premiere cricketing event for decades when there were no world cups and world championships. That does not rob the contesting teams of the glorious history and wonderful achievements by the players while competing in the Ashes. And of course that does not stop from the cricket lovers of the third world to sit and enjoy a keenly contested test match between England and Australia.

That is the whole point. Keenly contested matches. The Ashes has become terribly lopsided in Australia's favour for more than a decade one does not expect the trend to change all of a sudden. This is the first Kangaroo side to have won five Ashes in a row and might as well return with the sixth. In all the previous series England was beaten rather comprehensively, fair and square, at home, down under. The last time that England won was under David Gower and even that was far from a well-contested series. Australia was routed, subjugated without a semblance of resistance. One can safely say that for the past 15 years Ashes has been really dead and the spark had been missing badly.

Fifteen years is along time, for opinions and perceptions to change. But I am surprised that much has not changed. People still look up to Ashes as though it was a part of their faith, as a cricket believer. It would amount to infidelity if the same set of awe and reverence were to be transferred to Australia South Africa series. The point that I am trying to make is that the qualitative treatment of a subject is lacking because of hegemony of ideas influencing and introducing a bias in favor of the dominant party during the process of decision-making.

Let us treat the series on its merits. This Ashes series Indeed promise to be an interesting one, the kind that we have not had for 15 years. No doubt that the Kangaroo side is unparalleled in recent history and is the clear favorite. They are coming into the series with brilliant and consistent record behind them, the loss to India notwithstanding. The Aussies have hardly got anything left to prove their class and domination. Under Steve Waugh they are raring to take on any obstacle that may come their way and each individual is playing his part perfectly.

England is going through modern renaissance. They had the pit in the mid 90's losing to every team everywhere, which included Sri Lanka at home and abroad. The last time they enjoyed respectability was under Graham Gooch. For all his class and determination, Atherton ended up on the losing side and it was the same under Stewart. The team just lost its faith in itself and came up with one dismal performance after another.

Things began to change after Nasser Hussain took charge. Hussain did not have a magic wand with which he could transform the side into world-beaters. In fact his was an unenviable job. But under him England have rediscovered that touch which had them in the top bracket of cricket playing nations for years. The English side has become extremely motivated and the results are there for every one to see.

In the past two years, England is the only side, which has not lost a single series. In fact they have won six series on the trot, a record which even Steve Waugh's side cannot boast of. They were pretty close to getting their seventh one, when they beat Pakistan within three days. But the dramatic loss at Lords evened out things and their march was halted in the tracks.

Their performance in the triangular series gives some cause for concern. They performed miserably and could not even qualify for the final. But as we know tests and one dayers are two different entities. England can also take heart from the fact it was without the services of a number of [players, including their captain. The injury list is short and with the reinforcement coming in. I think England should be able to make a series out of it. And that would be a great service to the history of the game because then Ashes would be legitimately able to deserve the reputation that it enjoys.

Which One Is The Real Thing
Zimbabwe Gearing Up For The Real Maza
By S Zeyaur Rahman

It has become almost customary for every test series to be followed by the one dayers. One can read the economic motive in the arrangement without much difficulty. Test series are rarely a profit making venture and one needs the one dayers to recover the investments and generate funds for future programmes.

It is perhaps a precise indicator of the fast track changes that instead of the two nation five match series, all the cricket boards are pitching in for a triangular series, no matter what the teams are. With the number of cricket playing nations going up, there is not much difficulty in getting the teams. This is particularly true of teams like Bangladesh and Kenya, who are forever ready to oblige the organising boards. That gives them international experience and also a decent guarantee money which comes in handy.

The triangular series makes good business sense and that is why we have all the boards including England, West Indies and Zimbabwe, making sure that they organise one very year. For Indians that is nothing new but it would surprise many cricket lovers in the subcontinent that England and West Indies organised their first triangular series only last year.

The white flannels are packed away immediately after the Real Thing is over. A new script is ready and it is lights, camera and action for a fortnight. We do hear puritans making fuss about the deteriorating standards of the game and some times even players also join the chorus (mostly when they are through a bad patch). But rarely is the grudge genuine. And why should it be? It is lucrative for the organizers, big money for the players and fun for the spectators. Quality be damned.

So we find ourselves on the thresholds of a tri series in Zimbabwe closely on the heels of a test series made interesting and finally even because of some poor batting by Indians. May be they had started rehearsing for the one dayers a bit too early. At least the manner of dismissals of the top batsmen would suggest so.

On to the prospects of the series. One thing is for sure that it is going to be well contested. All the three teams, Zimbabwe, West Indies and India are in the bottom half of cricket ratings and none of them is in a position to dominate the proceedings entirely. India does enjoy an edge over the competitors but it is also endowed with a unique ability to tone down its game rather dramatically despite all its talent.

Zimbabwe will have the home advantage, a bigger one, for the simple reason that the crowd in the one dayers will be bigger than that came to watch the tests. Apart from that, it is a fiercely competitive side. Zimbabwe knows the limitations of its potential. But instead of dampening the spirits, this very fact acts as an inspiration for them and the players give more than 100 percent in a bid to prove point or to make an impression on the international scene.

They will be hit hard by Andy Flower's injury, who had been the mainstay of their batting for long and particularly successful against India. Not to forget the fact that he doubled up as a wicketkeeper. A wicketkeeper as a main batsman gives any team an extra edge (Gilchrist is a case in the point). Now Zimbabwe will be looking to its old warhorses Grant Flower and Campbell and of course the young blood who are maturing.

In the bowling department they have little to show apart from Heath Streak. The injury prone Olanga and Co. do not promise much and we will have to wait for the side cast to come up with inspiring performances if Zimbabwe is to keep the trophy within its frontiers.

As for the West Indies, the players and pundits are all tired of waiting for the messiah. Their bad patch has become too prolonged and the poor performances have become chronic. It is difficult to diagnose the ailment and to me it looks like a collapse of the system which relied too much on natural talent.

Brian Lara is a tragedy in making. His individual brilliance has been comprehensively over shadowed by the mediocre performances of his colleagues. Poor chap was so demoralized that he started about retirement and break at a ripe old age of 28. Now that he is pout due to injury, the Caribbean batting is in a real poor shape. It is high time that some one like Chanderpaul  comes forward and assumes the responsibility.

What has really upset the Caribbean balance is the lack of quality bowlers, which was traditionally their strength. The source seems to have dried up and it does not augur well for them. Add to the fact that this is the first time since 1984 that the side is without both Walsh and Ambrose and I am sure that we have already made our guesses regarding West Indies position at the end of the tournament.

This scenario leaves India in a comfortable position. Atleast on paper it looks to be stronger side, a kind of favourites. The team is no doubt balanced with some brilliant batsmen and a decent attack. The side is also an optimum mixture of youth and experience. All India needs to do is to perform to its potential and the title is theirs for the taking.

The recent loss at Harare should serve them as a reminder as well as a lesson for their indiscriminate stroke play. The new recruits will no doubt add to the vigor of the side and some fire works are due from the established players. Heading the lost is the captain who needs to for all cylinders. The moment he lands in Delhi with the trophy in his hands, all the gossip about his place, captaincy ( and marriage too) will be thing of the past. I am sure Ganguly would love that.

Zimbabwe Square The series
India Back To Square One
By S Zeyaur Rahman

The Harare Test has ended in a defeat for India and with it all the theories regarding a resurgent India on foreign pitches has gone down the drain. The Bulawayo victory had made national headlines and that highlighted the poverty of our performances abroad. Beating Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe was hailed as a miracle by us. It is a telling comment indeed that what is routine for other Test playing nations is historic for us.

Still at the end of the Test tour, the players will not have the same empty feeling that has accompanied them on the return journey to the subcontinent the past 15 years. They will have something to show and talk about. The Bulawayo Test was not great by any standards. We won simply because Zimbabwe played even worse. For once and all let us admit. Concede that we are a mediocre side, contended and happy with mediocrity. That automatically gives us a right to celebrate a drawn series with a second rate side.

It is customary of the press to eulogize the team after a victory and rubbish it after a defeat. May be it is a sacred duty or a reason de etre. In any case there is very little to praise about the ream on the tour so far.

The world famous batting line up did not click even once, except against a school boy side where every none acted demi god by retiring himself out. None of the famous four managed a century in the Tests and India did not cross 400 even once in four test innings. Is this what is meant by batting is our strength?

Right at the start of the tour the batting ran into trouble. On the very first day we were 71 for 5 against a local side till Rahul Dravid hit us out of the trouble. In the first Test too the top order was gone for less than hundred. Then why blame the last five or seven if they crumble for less than hundred or so.

John Wright had wanted the score to read something like 100 for 2 at lunch. But as usual we never got a proper start. Ramesh has to accept a part of the blame for that though it is senseless to chuck him out of the team. Ramesh and Das are okay as a pair and in case there is a replacement required it has to be with a genuine opener. We have seen the results of employing make shift openers for almost a decade and it is high time that we stop the practice.

Laxman has failed to grasp the fact that he was not on the dead pitches of the sub continent and did not desist from ambitious stroke play. He was in excellent touch during his 20s and 30s but the causal and laid-back approach did him in on all these occasions. The circumspection which should be a hallmark of a budding youngster was surprisingly missing.

Tendulkar cannot be expected to score a hundred every time though a century is due for some time now. He has had an average series and that is not enough. Another alarming fact is that Tendulkar used to stand tall amidst the ruins and now his wicket is also a part of their collapse.

Same is true for our Mr. Dependable. He is great partnership builder and it is around his resilience that India’s resistance or assault revolves. Sadly there was no one to complement him and he often ran short of partners. Since he did not produce a big innings, India folded up cheaply on all occasions.

The skipper is facing a terrible time in the middle and the media has already zeroed him on as the scapegoat of the series. It is funny to hear reports about Ganguly retaining his place and the discussions regarding his captaincy. Goes to show how short sighted we all can be. I do not intend to praise Ganguly for scoring 120 runs in 9 tests but I am sure that the criticism will die down the moment he gives a blazing start to India in any of the matches of the forthcoming triangular series.

The selectors have made a complete mess of the wicketkeepers slot. Because of their frequent and irrational experimentation we are without the only man capable of being behind the stumps and that is Mongia. I mean what is the need of disturbing a settled stumper and replacing him with people who are at the end of their careers.

Indian bowling has been far more disciplined and praiseworthy through out. Though age is telling on Srinath but he is still menacing in his short spells. It is a wise decision on his part to stay away from the one dayers though India will miss him nonetheless.

Nehra has been the surprise package of the tour. He has bowled wonderfully well and looked genuinely threatening. It was baffling to see him left out of the one day series. Luckily good sense has prevailed and he has been retained. I am looking forward to watch two exciting left arm bowlers open the bowling for India.

Bedi had once remarked that if Agarkar was an allrounder, he was a frontline batsman. Instead of getting back at Bedi Agarkar is bent on proving him right. The bowling part of his allrounder capabilities has not been great either and it is time that he is replaced with some new prospect like Reetinder Sodhi. Mohanty would hopefully be playing and bring in the necessary variation.

Bahutule is a victim of the circumstances and I wish that he is recalled for the Test against South Africa. Having him in tandem with Bhajji Paji might do the trick. As for Bhajji even he can’t be taking 5 wickets on all occasions. He has had a reasonably good series and now he must try and establish himself as the leading off spinner.

Over all it has been a mixed bag for India. The fact that they squandered such a golden chance of ‘winning a series abroad has disappointed one and all. Frankly speaking the team needs sometime to mature and turn into champions. For the time being we have the ingredients but the million dollar question is that when is that going deliver?

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