Deconstructing the Gospel according to Greg

First off, let me be clear on what I have set out to do in this piece. I’m not a rabid nationalist who takes affront at every word of insult or mocking which is directed towards India or Indian cricket. I don’t pay attention to people who after reading a cricket article, have to post some incendiary comment directed towards another country or team. Some people can make their point clearly and in a mature way, while others can only post their observations in a childish or petulant way; and I understand that. This world is made up of all kinds of people, after all.

That is why, when I see articles or comments harshly criticizing the Indian team, I take it with a pinch of salt. After all, given their recent performances, they deserve the kind of lampooning and criticism that has come their way. It hurts on some level when I see gleeful opposition (plus some Indian) fans and former cricketers piling on the team, but then again, it is the nature of sport. When you’re on top, the world will sing your praises, and when you’re down, you will be mocked at.

So, when I read the recent comments made by Greg Chappell regarding Indian cricket, I was surprised by the strong reactions it elicited in me. To be fair to GC, he made some valid points which are buried under an avalanche of strong opinions on Indian cricket and Indian culture. How much of it is actually true, and how much of it is his BS? That’s what I have set out to find in this piece.

 “It was obvious from the start of the tour that the Indians weren’t really interested in Test cricket,” Chappell said. “After the Australians showed that they were going to be a formidable foe, I was very disappointed with the Indians. And having worked with many of them and having been in the dressing room with them, Test cricket was too hard for most of them. They can only make a lot of money playing 20-over cricket. Fifty-over cricket they can sort of put up with.”

This is the sort of explanation expected from a casual observer; not a former coach who knows the senior players in and out. It is hard to conceive that players of the caliber of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Laxman, Dravid and Zaheer have lost interest in Test cricket, just over a year since they last held the top ranking in Tests. If they weren’t interested, why did some of the players arrive in Australia early and take part in the practice games, when they could easily have rested?  They are experienced enough to know that while T20 brings in the money, only their Test performances will establish their legacies. A Test series win down under would have been their crowning glory after the World Cup victory and it is ridiculous to assume that their poor performance could be put down to lack of interest. I don’t remember anyone accusing England of losing interest in Test cricket after their defeat to Pakistan in UAE; neither could that be said about Australia after their Ashes defeat last year. England and Australia both have robust domestic T20 tournaments, yet they manage to put up decent performances in Tests more often than not. So why should India’s domestic T20 tournament be the reason for their disastrous performance in Tests? My dear Greg, India lost in England and Australia, not because of disinterest in Test cricket, but solely because they were not good enough and were outmatched by better prepared opponents. Your observations alone explain why you were a disaster as coach.

“Test cricket for a lot of, not only India, a lot of subcontinent teams, I think it’s pretty tough. And the challenge for Test cricket is, without the sort of grounding that we [Australians] had as kids, Test cricket is too hard. It’s very demanding mentally, physically and emotionally.”

While GC would like to think that only Australia with its ‘grounding’ in Test cricket can produce tough cricketers, some of the greatest players in cricket history have come from the subcontinent. Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan, Muttiah Muralitharan, Anil Kumble etc, made their name in Test cricket foremost and I think most would agree that they handled the mental, physical and emotional demands very well to attain the levels they did in their careers. As for the present generation, excepting the Indian series, the Aussie team haven’t had a good two years in Tests; So what happened to the ‘grounding’ there? So, while GC’s estimation of Aussie superiority in Test cricket is very patriotic, it is clearly not backed up by history.

Chappell then spoke about what was wrong with the Indian culture. “The culture is very different, it’s not a team culture,” Chappell said. “They lack leaders in the team because they are not trained to be leaders. From an early age, their parents make all the decisions, their schoolteachers make their decisions, their cricket coaches make the decisions.

“The culture of India is such that, if you put your head above the parapet someone will shoot it. Knock your head off. So they learn to keep their head down and not take responsibility. The Poms (British) taught them really well to keep their head down. For if someone was deemed to be responsible, they’d get punished. So the Indians have learned to avoid responsibility. So before taking responsibility for any decisions, they prefer not to.”

It is ridiculous to assume that a culture which ensures that children are equipped to survive in a challenging environment when they grow up, is responsible for leadership problems in Indian cricket. This is the same culture which has produced global leaders in healthcare, politics, software and business. To judge an entire culture and hold their way of raising their kids, responsible for the failure of a sports team is plain absurd, ignorant and racist.  No culture is perfect and no culture is superior to any other. That’s what makes the collection of cultures across the world, unique in their own rights. Only people like Greg Chappell would assume that there is only one way of living that works in all environments and prepares you for life.

Now, I am not casting him as total buffoon, since there are three other major points that GC made that I agree with:

(1) MS Dhoni has been worn down by the burden of captaincy in all formats and it has affected his game, particularly in Tests

(2) Virender Sehwag has fitness and attitude problems compounded by captaincy ambitions which seems to have increased lately and caused an undercurrent of tension within the team

(3) Test cricket needs a strong Indian team to survive. As evidenced by the last few years, when India were at the top of their game in Tests, there was an increased interest in the long form of the game and it brought in new fans.

So, there you have it. How can a widely respected former captain be insightful and yet so ignorant at the same time? The answer lies in the context of when he made these observations: while promoting his new book ‘Fierce Focus’. As Shoaib Akhtar memorably taught us, there is no better way to sell a cricket book than to provoke Indian cricket fans with controversial statements. In that way, Guru Greg accomplished his mission; but he just might have lost a ton of respect and goodwill he had earned over the years through a long career in cricket.

My thoughts on the team for Asia Cup 2012

Team for the Asia Cup:

MS Dhoni (capt & wk), Virat Kohli (vice-capt), Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Manoj Tiwary, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Praveen Kumar, Vinay Kumar, Rahul Sharma, Yusuf Pathan, Irfan Pathan, Ashok Dinda

Here are a few thoughts:

  • It would have been nice if Srikkanth had flat out said that Sehwag and Zaheer were dropped from the team due to poor performances, instead of falling back on the tired ‘rested’ excuse. It is only going to promote a false sense of security in the team, that however bad you play, you cannot get dropped from the team; only rested. I’m just glad that Srikkanth did not say that Parthiv Patel was ‘rested’ from the team as well; otherwise my head would have exploded.
  • Umesh Yadav being rested is something I can agree with. He is one of those rare Indian bowlers with speed, and while he lacks control and discipline at the moment, he is only going to get better with time.
  • Despite it being a short tournament, I’m surprised that they have not decided to go for a back-up keeper. At the least, they could have gone with Robin Utthappa who can double as a reserve opening bat and back up keeper.
  • Sachin’s place in the ODI team is a hot topic of debate in the country right now. My opinion, for what its worth, is that let the great man decide when he wants to leave the format, but do keep a contingency plan in place. That is why I am disappointed that they have gone for only two openers in Gambhir and Tendulkar. Rahane, Mukund, Pandey and Utthappa are all ideal options.
  • Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina have had a disappointing CB series to date, but it is wise to persist with them for now. If seniors are given so much leeway, then it is only fair that the youngsters are given fair opportunities too.
  • Hopefully, Tiwary will get a game.
  • It was not too long ago that Jadeja was being praised by all and sundry for his improved performances, and that is why one poor series should not be a reason to discard him again. Still, he is going to have stiff competition in the form of Yusuf Pathan, who will relish the subcontinental pitches.
  • Ashok Dinda has had a good season, leading Saurav Ganguly to call him the best pacer in the country (though I would take that with a pinch of salt). It is up to him now to prove himself and live up to Dada’s words.
  • Pragyan Ojha’s continued omission is a big miss, as he is perhaps the best spinner in the country right now.
  • Virat Kohli’s elevation to vice captaincy is a just reward for a fighter who has been the most impressive player on a disastrous tour. I have always felt that he should be groomed ahead of Gambhir for leadership, and hopefully this will lead on to bigger things for him.
  • All in all, it is not a great team, but a good one under the circumstances and hopefully, flat pitches and familiar opponents will help them get back to winning ways.
  • A final thought on the Srikkanth controversy: I have no problem with him snapping back at the reporter. He might have given a long winded and totally unnecessary summary of India’s performance over the last year, and he did give an unsatisfactory explanation for Sehwag’s omission from the team; still, he is only human. If the reporters keep asking you the same question in different forms, and you have given the same answer over and over again, you are bound to snap at one point. It was not an ideal response but a man who has one of the most thankless jobs in the country should be cut some slack. He will do well to learn to keep his emotions in check the next time, and hopefully, the media will learn to back off when they have to and respect the subject of their interview the next time.

Dhoni’s Delhi Belly

First off, let me clarify that this post is based on hypothesis. I don’t know for sure if there is a rift in the Indian camp. Reports of Sehwag and Gambhir being unhappy with Dhoni is just rumors at this point. All that we have are reports like these. Though comments from certain players indicate that all is not well, without hard facts, it is hard to know for sure.

Having said that, this post is about whose side I would be on, assuming that the Delhi boys have a problem with the skipper.

Based on the media reports through the tournament, MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are the three major players in this story.

Gambhir got tongues wagging, when he subtly criticized Dhoni for taking the game till the last over, the same one in which Dhoni got the team over the winning line. Recently, Sehwag feigned ignorance of Dhoni’s reasoning for rotation of the senior batsmen and maintained that the skipper had given them different reasons. Some other soundbites from the same presser indicate some sort of frostiness between the two. Read it and judge for yourself.

The usually unflappable Dhoni himself has started to show signs of frustration, with the finger wagging at the umpires in the Australia game coming as a rare sight. Poor performances on the field are nothing new for him, so this could hint at some tough times off the field as well. Now, with Sehwag’s comments he might feel as if the Delhi boys are ganging upon him.

Anytime a player or a group of players rise up in mutiny against the incumbent skipper, that too during the middle of a tough tour, I’m always going to support the incumbent skipper. Whatever issues one may have, and there are a few legitimate issues to be sorted out regarding the captain’s recent decisions, public signs of dissension are never a good idea. For two experienced international cricketers, they have not been very bright about how this might be interpreted outside the team circle. Team loyalty has been thrown out the window, and this team is increasingly starting to resemble the Pakistan team of the 90s with all their infighting.

Gambhir is one of the finest batsmen in the Indian team and he has a big role to play in the coming years to guide the side when the Big Three leave the arena; but that doesn’t mean he has to let his ego get in the way of the team’s greater good. If he had a problem with Dhoni’s tactics, it should be discussed behind closed doors, not in the public forum. He might be a prickly character to the opposition, but we don’t need that to be displayed against his own team-mates. This is where he differs from Virat Kohli, another Delhi batsman with an aggressive outlook. Can you see Kohli making the same comments Gambhir did, even if he had felt the same? That is why, I would rather see Kohli being groomed as the next captain. He might have attitude problems, but you know that he will never cast aspersions on his own team-mates.

Virender Sehwag. For the last 10 years, everyone is comfortable with the explanation, “Thats the way he bats, and thats the way he talks’. Why not? His records speak for themselves, and his quips have made many a press conference and post-game more livelier. Nowadays, it can be grating. Sure, he has taken a couple of good catches this summer, but with the bat, he has been a major disappointment, mostly getting out to poor deliveries. Now, with his recent comments, he has made the dressing room environment more tense. Reports of a rift between the two have been around for a long time. If I’m not mistaken, there was a similar issue during the last Champions Trophy or something. While he and Dhoni may display overt signs of camaraderie on the field, it doesn’t matter if Sehwag can’t back it off the field. Like Gambhir, if he had any doubts with Dhoni’s explanation for the rotation policy, he should have clarified with the skipper before making any statements to the press. What this all does is create a suspicious environment around the team; something they don’t need at this point in the tournament, or for that matter, at this point as a team in transition.

Dhoni’s captaincy has been disappointing this summer and some of his decisions on the field are plain baffling; but he is the captain of the side, and the players have to respect that. This is not the time to harbor captaincy ambitions of their own, but to ensure that the team does better in the remainder of the tournament. Beyond this tour, the players, the coach and the board have to band together to work out a way the team can get better. Hopefully, whatever differences there may be between players, saner heads will prevail. A team with Dhoni, Gambhir and Sehwag all working on the same page, can be the best news for a team which is crying out for  a strong and unified leadership.


Why this Kolaveri, Dada?

It is easy to forget now; but before Dhoni, there was Ganguly. One of the most gifted and fearless batsman of the world in the late 90s, he was also a shrewd and aggressive skipper. His loyalty to the players he backed is legendary, while his refusal to be politically correct at press conferences or coin tosses, earned him as many fans as it did detractors. For a generation of Indian fans, who started following the game during his reign as captain, he was their perfect representative; Brash, arrogant and unapologetic. It is no secret that the present Indian team owes a lot of its success and change in attitude to Dada’s legacy.

That is why it was not surprising to read about his latest comments in the papers. This time though, it only makes him out to look like an embittered former player, taking digs at favorite targets (Chappell) and dragging in new ones (Dravid). The whole Chappell saga has been much talked and written about; many players agree that he was a negative influence and inadvertently planted the seeds of doubt, while destroying the confidence and trust of the team. What has been left unsaid is the influence he had on players like MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina (who remains to date as the only Indian player who acknowledges Chappell’s inputs to his game). Greg Chappell was not exactly the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, but to write him off completely is stupid. As one of the leading batsmen of his times, he has lots of technical input to offer, and lest Ganguly forgets, he was partially responsible for motivating the former Indian skipper to score a brilliant century at the Gabba in 2003. (I would also love to know, what exactly is this personal vendetta, Chappell is supposed to have had?) While how much of a difference he can actually make when it comes to ‘de-mystifying’ the Indian batsmen is in question, there should not be any doubt that, for what he lacks in man management skills, he can compensate with critical analysis of the opposition, whom he once used to coach.

As for his statement about Dravid, it looks like a cheap shot at first; but then again, there is some element of truth to it. Perhaps, he could have phrased the sentence better. Dravid didn’t go the Pietersen way and try to oust Chappell, not because he didn’t have the guts; but because he subscribed to most of what the coach was trying to implement. It was just that Chappell’s way was never going to work in India, and they found that out the hard way.

Either way, it is sad to see Ganguly transforming into the kind of person he used to loathe in his playing days – a former player with a taste for controversial outbursts.

”Dinda is India’s best pace bowler right now and should have been on that plane to Australia in the first place with rest of the squad,” Ganguly said.


Akhtar strikes, Afridi bites

Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago. 

Shoaib Akhtar is no stranger to controversy. He made an entire career out of it. When he was not busy shattering stumps and taking off on airplane celebrations, he spent his time fighting doping allegations, chucking scandals, ball tampering suggestions and even an unfortunate case of genital warts! He never shared a good equation with most of his team-mates as Mohammed Asif and Inzamam will testify. So what do you expect from him when he is finally unshackled from the restraints of being an active player and is all set to release his autobiography?? The book is titled, “Controversially yours”, for God’s sake! I would have been more shocked if there was no eyebrow-raising stories in the book.

Autobiographies need to have controversies, if they have to sell. Just ask Herschelle Gibbs. In Akhtar’s case, he has served a generous dolloping of controversy, ranging from candid admissions about ball tampering to passing incendiary comments about Tendulkar, Dravid, Akram and some of his own team-mates. Lost in the hullabaloo over the Tendulkar-Dravid comments is the fact that Akhtar has generously praised Ganguly and Dhoni for their leadership skills; but then again, how do you promote your book’s publicity based on that?

When there is a controversy involving India-Pakistan cricket, can the great Afridi be far behind? I have already written about him here, and my feelings since then have not changed much. While most other Pakistani cricketers have rubbished Akhtar’s tales, Afridi has backed him on his observations over Tendulkar, generously adding that Sachin’s legs used to ‘shiver’ when facing him. Setting aside the fact that this is hard to visualize, it is mighty impressive that Tendulkar manage to score a brilliant 98 in the 2003 World Cup and some impressive knocks in the tour of Pakistan in the following year – all this while on ‘shivering legs syndrome’!

Look, I’m not dissing either Akhtar or Afridi here. It is their right to express their opinion, whether most people agree with them or not. If they feel that Tendulkar is scared of Akhtar or that Dravid is not a match-winner, so be it. If you think otherwise, go ahead and express that as well. It is not a compulsion that everyone should shower glowing praises on Tendulkar, or have an unanimously good opinion about Dravid (though it would be hard to differ in this regard!). The fact is, when people look back twenty, thirty years from now, they will see that the records and accomplishments speak for themselves. There is no need to fly into nationalistic rage and degrade others’ achievements. It is noteworthy that the men at the center of the storm – Tendulkar and Dravid – have refused to comment on this, while others speak for and against them. Perhaps, there is a lesson to learn from them here.

What’s the fuss about?

So, Dhoni decided to call of his batsmen when the target was 86 more runs from 15 overs with 7 wickets in hand. Cue, the outrage in India and sanctimonious crap from rest of the world. Cricket sites and Twitter raged with comments from Indians decrying it as shameful and calling the team not worthy of number 1 status; while others concluded that the England series would go in favor of the hosts since the Indians decided not to bat on and try to win the game. As Andy Zaltzman pointed out, India is not the first team to play it safe when the series is in the bag; so the self righteous whingeing can stop.

Yes, the Australian team of the 90s and the West Indian teams of the 70s/80s might have chased this target down; but this team is nowhere close to those sides; so such stupid comparisons can also stop.

While I would have loved India to bat on and try to win the game, I don’t have the same experience and pitch awareness, that the likes of Dravid, Laxman, Dhoni and Fletcher possess; so I will accept their decision, even as I regret the missed opportunities of the last two days. For a team missing its best batsman and bowler, and playing some inexperienced rookies against a side which played beyond its expectations, this was a good result; and no made up controversy should take anything away from that. The England tour will be played with a different set of players and in different conditions; so that will have no relation to how the West Indies tour panned out. I can’t wait for all the talk to stop and let the actual contest be decided between bat and ball.