When sportsmen talk about what they have achieved rather than what they look forward to, it feels as if they are viewing their careers from the wrong end of the telescope.
By Suresh Menon
Had Emerson been a cricketer he wouldn't have said “the more he talked about his honesty, the faster we counted our spoons.” Instead, he might have said something like, “The more he talked about his batting average, the more convinced we became that something was wrong.”
That is why when Gautam Gambhir says that he and Virender Sehwag average 53 runs as an opening partnership, you feel sorry rather than impressed. When sportsmen talk about what they have achieved rather than what they look forward to, it feels as if they are viewing their careers from the wrong end of the telescope. Gambhir has just turned 31 and has years of cricket left in him, but living in the past will not guarantee him a future.
The Sehwag-Gambhir opening pair is one of the five best (in terms of runs made together) in the game; and the average Gambhir speaks of is the highest in that list – above Greenidge-Haynes and Hayden-Langer. Still, the recent record hasn't been inspiring. In Australia last season, their best in eight innings was 26, so when Gambhir says that his detractors should “look at the stats”, there is a feeling that the batsman doth protest too much.
Of the two strains worth exploring here, let us look at the purely cricketing one first. Indians have traditionally been tigers at home even if they have come across as lambs abroad in the past year or so. Opening the batting in India is nothing like doing the job abroad, and Gambhir will find that the extra bounce or late movement will not trouble him as much. His style of wafting at the ball away from the body which got him into trouble both in England and Australia might actually turn out profitable on the slower Indian tracks, where he would be in better control.
Sehwag is superbly indifferent to the state of the wicket, but he – born in the same month as Gambhir but three years earlier – might not be able to get away as consistently as he did when he was younger. Or then again, he might. The ordinary rules of engagement do not apply to Sehwag.
Still, for the moment, there is no real threat to the 53-averaging opening pair. Unless injury or indiscipline do them part, Sehwag and Gambhir should be walking out to play the English medium pacers in Ahmedabad in the first Test. This has not to do with sentiment as common sense.
In cricket, there is a subtle but important difference in the way the experienced and the newcomers are handled. While the experienced must be given a chance to succeed, the youngsters have to be given a decent run and a chance to fail. India start with a clean slate, with a new set of selectors. The team too would be keen to start with a clean slate, and with both Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman missing from the middle order, it makes sense to preserve with Sehwag-Gambhir at the top.
In fact, the idea of splitting them may not have entered the equation at all but for Gambhir's plea on his own behalf. And that brings me to the second strain.
There is something pathetic about sportsmen being in such close touch with the statistics of their performances. The best never bothered. In his playing days, Garry Sobers wouldn't have been able to tell you how many matches he had played or centuries he had scored. Likewise the late Tiger Pataudi. Sunil Gavaskar went so far as to say that he never looked at the score-board while he was batting. It was a cute line, but difficult to believe because that would have been unprofessional, and Gavaskar was the most professional of Indian stars.
Perhaps in the age of the Internet and websites supplying statistics from every conceivable angle, it is difficult to remain indifferent to statistics. Friends at these websites tell me they often receive requests from players to use better photographs or highlight specific achievements. Perhaps that is being professional too.
Maybe this is being old-fashioned. Perhaps players need to keep track of their records. On the other hand, part of the charm of meeting a Gundappa Vishwanath or an M L Jaisimha in the old days was their indifference to statistics. It was their job to attempt the perfect square cut or pull, and they were willing to leave the figures and the significance of their efforts to men with thick glasses and a pencil behind the ear.