ODIs - Turning of the tide

2008 Mar 17 by

Greg Chappell, currently grooming the Indian next-in-commands, might be smiling ear to ear, for it is not often, in India, that the board, the selectors, the administrators, and the players, all get it right, when it comes to serious change.

Great teams are characterized by how well they handle transitions - the seamless and painless handover of the mantle from one generation to the next, with little or no change in the status quo. Very few teams in the entire sporting world managed to handle their rebuilding efforts well, and when it comes to cricket, there are barely a couple of teams in the modern era that came close to retaining the aura and regard between successive generations.

At the peak of its form, which ranged for a good 20 years, West Indians remained an immovable property at the top. Agility, strength and stamina, the bread and butter of sportsmen, reflected in almost every cricketer that West Indies produced during the period of 1970-1990. Pace batteries upon pace batteries seemed to spring up from an undying pool of talent and their batsmen, all looked to be cut from the same cloth - fierce, unforgiving and clinical. Nothing could prove it better than their near 80% success rate in tests and 3 consecutive World Cup finals' appearances. Even after their first failed World Cup campaign, they remained pretty dominant in both versions of the game and it wasn't until the mid 90s that the sun finally started to set on their glory. The reasons for the fall from grace were manifold - lure of more lucrative sports like basketball and baseball, and consequently decline in the sponsorship money that directly impacted the domestic game, and above all, lack of proper vision of the administrators in forseeing the impending danger. So serious was the erosion of the game, that West Indian cricket has yet to recover from its ruins and regain its old form, earning the title 'team in perpetual transition' in the process.

Wise men learn on fools follies, goes a saying. Where West Indian cricket fumbled and faltered, Australian cricket wised up and flourished. In the mid 80s, following the change of the old guard, Australian cricket stood at the same crossroads as Windies before, but here, it was as though someone went through the playbook of Windies and figured out where the fault lied. And the solution wasn't money, authorities or administration (though they are are vital cogs in the wheel). The solution was men. A good bench strength. A reserve of a good 20-25 players that could be run through, rotated, tested and finally deployed in battle conditions. Of course, finding the reserves was no accident. Everyone had to rise through the an intense and grueling domestic circuit, in which the rivalry and the competitive spirit were so fierce, that it is indeed very surprising to see the same players who have clashed their swords in the domestic scene, rub their shoulders with great camaraderie on the international scene. The now much maligned phrase 'hard, but fair' sporting philosophy of the Aussies is indeed that.

Where there is a good system, there is a good game, and where there is a good game, there is good patronage, and where, patronage, there is money, and where, money, good talent would always follow. Aussies figured out a a solid closed loop process, where the system could survive and thrive, in spite of retirements, retrenchments and fortune reversals. When they say, form is temporary but class is permanent, they meant this. In the end, it wasn't just about the men too. The game was bigger than the men, and these men were made to realize this paradigm from time to time, the hard way. And so when the Board hands down the marching papers to someone who didn't quite fit into the future plans, no matter his above average performance (ex. Bevan), it is just that the Board is well aware of the West Indian caution tale and vigilant enough not to stray down that dark alley again. As a testament to their strategy, their test team won 16 tests on a trot, TWICE, and their ODI team 4 World Cups till date, three in a row. Enough said.

No other country puts its sportsman before its sport more readily than India. This is a land where sportsmen (read, cricketers) are revered like Gods and accorded the highest status in the society. Sporting culture is more Sportsman culture. Here, the term transition is never taken in the right spirit, and hence, the team never moved through generations without throwing a hiss and fit, without the hanging of dirty linen in public, and without kicking and screaming. The dropping of any player of some repute comes with the automatic trappings of conspiracies, back-stabbing, and dirty politics. Sometimes, even the right time to bundle off a player is still never the right time. He still deserves his Miranda rights, his civil rights, his right for a fair trial, and only then his final rites. Sentimentality oozes through every pore of the society and so even the dead pet dog deserves its 21 gun salute. No icon, barring Gavaskar, was shipped out of the team without at least a whiff of disappointment and disillusionment. This is a society that is only now warming up to the idea of pink slips, and the average age of its active politicians is a measily 60. The term transition, even in its revered texts, the Vedas, refers to a only peaceful promotion from one stage (ashram) to the next, with due respect accorded to the earned credit. In short, the whole idea of transition, in every walk of life, is highly romanticized, and any deviation from this script is bound to be severely criticized and castigated. If the problem with Windies was money and Aussies, men, the root problem for India, lay in its mindset.

Under such conditions, dropping a couple of veterans with tens of thousands of international runs between them and opting for pups in the bargain, is perceived as serious a crime as forced religious conversions. Had the end result of this experiment been anything but total world domination, the entire system, right from the BCCI chief to the lowly equipment handler, would have been excoriated and disemboweled in broad day light. "How could they", "What were they thinking", "Did they even know", "When has it worked before" and many such, already on the tips of the tongues of both the cynics and the critics, would had had a field day in the media - the print one and the idiot one. Superstars have always been the boon and bane of Indian cricket, more bane than boon. Individually, each reached the highest echelons in terms of performances. Together, their record read pedestrian. But here is the interesting twist. The only couple of times that India received the highest honors in the one day arena, the team was filled with just good performers, not packed with superstars. In the past 10-15 years, despite the presence of world class performers, the team came close only once to tasting the success of the forgotten past. No matter the reasons, changes and the experiments, the sum of parts could never be equal (leave alone, greater) than the individual ones. And so, now, when a captain, from the deep interiors of the country far flung from the perceived pools brimming and bubbling with talent, leads a bunch of cherubs and no-names consciously sidelining/side-stepping over conventional establishment and succeeding like no other combination before in Indian cricketing history, the signals are clear enough to chuck the conventions and get behind the revolution. For, this victory is no fluke, this achievement is not a flash, this new mindset is the order of the day and it is here to stay.

Somewhere, Greg Chappell, currently grooming the Indian next-in-commands, might be smiling ear to ear, for it is not often, in India, that the board, the selectors, the administrators, and the players, all get it right, when it comes to serious change.