One for the team: Logic behind Kohli’s sacking as ODI skipper

Sounds like a man who thinks the captain is not named by selectors but by the skipper himself. Such thoughts are always wrong in sports

Photo courtesy: Internet

During our college days in Bengal, there were some journalists whose articles we used to devour like a newly-wed man devouring luchi (Bengali version of puri) and mutton at in-laws’ place. Behind-the-scenes story of the Indian cricket team’s dressing room was their USP. Sourav Ganguly was the hero in those stories. Naturally, when captaincy was snatched away from him in 2005, Ganguly became a tragic hero — a man more sinned against than sinning.

While Greg Chappell was the villain, the “et tu Brute” dialogue was directed at Rahul Dravid. They made their debut together, Ganguly gave him the big gloves to keep him in the ODI side, didn’t he? How could he betray Dada and become Greg’s ally! This was the discourse we were fed, and we believed it.

It took many of us years to realise that the point to ponder in the Chappell-Ganguly saga was not personal rivalry but team cause. Ganguly was 33 in 2005 and his batting form was dipping. After winning the Natwest Trophy final in 2002, his team kept losing crunch matches, the most important one being the 2003 World Cup final. A fresh man at the helm could give the team a new direction.

The real conflict was between two cultures — one of hero worship, the other of putting the team before individuals. Chappell’s attempt to establish the latter in Indian cricket ended in failure with India’s shocking group-stage exit from the 2007 ICC World Cup. Those in the know say there were other reasons as well for that unmitigated disaster. Whatever it is, the man cannot be grudged today as the cricketers he had placed at two ends of that tug-of-war, have come together to do what he meant to.

No matter what we were made to believe back in the day, it is now clear that Ganguly does not think of himself as Julius Caesar and Dravid as Brutus. It is possible that he did when it all happened, but looking back with age on his side, he obviously realised team cause had to take precedence. And Dravid had the safest hands to hold that cause. Otherwise, he as the BCCI president, would not have put his old mate in charge of Team India’s supply line first, the team itself next.

There are people who would oppose this way of looking at Virat Kohli’s ODI captaincy being snatched away, saying Ganguly was a struggling batter back then, Kohli is not. But the parallels are too many to ignore. Kohli is also 33 and though he still averages a monumental 59.07 in ODIs, there has been a dip. His last ODI century came on August 14, 2019 in Port of Spain. After that match, he has averaged 43.26 in 15 matches till now. It is still good enough for most batters and that is why his place in the team is not in question, unlike Ganguly. But his repeated failure to drive the team towards trophies mirrors Ganguly’s difficulties in the last days of his captaincy. Unless one thinks winning trophies is not important, this warrants a change in leadership.

Much is being made of Kohli’s winning percentage as captain, ignoring the fact that bilateral ODI series have lost much of their significance. In the age of T20Is, even the numbers of ODIs are going down. More and more bilateral tours are being planned with more T20Is than ODIs. Even the bilateral T20Is are less important than franchise cricket. Nowadays, all teams look at bilateral white-ball series as a build-up to the world event. There is a World T20 every two years and a 50-over World Cup every four. In short, a team is playing four white-ball world events in five years. In fact, in the eight years between 2024 and 2031, this number will go up to eight, including the Champions Trophy. How do bilateral wins matter then?

One may pertinently ask, why sack him now? After all, the last ODI India played under Kohli was in March. What new failure has come his way in the meantime? The answer lies not in the recent past but in the near future. Kohli has given up on the T20I captaincy and Ravi Shastri has left, which allows a new management to shape a new vision for the 2022 World T20. After that, there will be less than a year left for the 50-over World Cup. It would be too late to change the captain, the need of which has been explained already. In case that does not satisfy you, there is the board president’s explanation of course: there cannot be two captains for two white-ball formats.

That brings us to the question, why did Kohli relinquish T20I captaincy? If Ganguly is to be believed, the board wanted him to stay, and nobody knew before the World T20 what a disaster it was going to be. Kohli’s own explanation, in his Instagram post, was “I feel I need to give myself space to be fully ready to lead the Indian team in Test and ODI cricket.”

That sounds like a man who thinks the captain is not named by selectors but by the skipper himself. Such thoughts are always wrong in sports. Steve Waugh realised it a year before the 2003 World Cup, despite leading Australia to the trophy in the previous edition of the tournament. Australia were looking at the future of the team, not the greatness of their captain.

Future! How can 34-year-old Rohit Sharma be the future? This rebuttal is more interesting than correct, because it helps us question the progress India’s ODI side has made under Kohli-Shastri combine. When Australia removed Waugh, the man to replace him was 29-year-old Ricky Ponting but we do not have an option other than Rohit. Because except him and Jasprit Bumrah, there is not one cricketer in the ODI side who is experienced enough for the job, and Bumrah has never even been the vice-captain. Shikhar Dhawan is out with lack of form, Hardik Pandya does not know how fit he is. Nobody else has been given a long uninterrupted run in the playing XI.

KL Rahul’s talent was never in question, and he made his debut in 2016. In spite of that he is only 38 ODIs old. Under Kohli, everyone from Ambati Rayudu to Vijay Shankar has played at No. 4 and failed, but Rahul has mostly warmed the bench. In the end, he had to don the big gloves for his chance. Shreyas Iyer was picked, dumped and has now been picked again. Better not talk about what happened to Manish Pandey after that match-winning century Down Under, or why past-his-prime Dinesh Karthik played the 2019 World Cup. Ravichandran Ashwin was never in the scheme of things under Kohli. Even Ravindra Jadeja was out of favour for some time as Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav were touted as the next big thing. First Yadav fell out of favour for a handful of bad shows, then the inexplicable axe fell on Chahal. So which team has captain Kohli built in so many years? What was the vision? Clearly, the team was going nowhere.

To come back to the parallels, Ganguly’s captaincy had also gone to a player his age. That did not produce desirable results in ODIs, but success is never guaranteed. Besides, Team India did not have a rich supply line back then. One hopes at least that is not a myth waiting to be busted. If it does turn out to be a myth, there will be ample scope to criticise the BCCI. Putting team cause over reputation cannot be faulted today.

Originally published here

36 all out: Depressing present, ominous future

One can question neither the PM, nor the cricket captain or coach. They are always right

Photo courtesy: Internet

“Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship,” said BR Ambedkar. As we reel under the weight of India’s ignominious Adelaide defeat, it is worth exploring what bhakti leads to in team sport.

One could say comparing sports to politics is unfair as sports are more like the performing arts, thriving on the pleasure of the spectators, and that pleasure often comes from the performance of an individual. True. But the art form team sport most resembles is drama — live and performed by a team of individuals, not editable like films if you make a mistake. And a play cannot be successful unless even the best actor in the team follows the plan. Even a Shakespearean tragedy can make a theatre full of people laugh if an actor as legendary as Sir Laurence Olivier decides to act the way he likes, disregarding co-actors, or the lighting, or the dialogues. It is the same for team sport (unless you are Diego Maradona, in which case everyone else is a prop), only difference being here nobody knows what happens in the end. Any such enterprise involving so many human beings inevitably involves a lot of politics. Theatre groups have come apart because of internal politics, so have sporting teams. But we are talking about much more. When the enterprise has grown into a billion-dollar industry like Indian cricket, it cannot but be influenced by macro-politics, too, because it is part of macroeconomics.

Ramachandra Guha has already spoken out on how the Board of Control for Cricket in India is actually being run by the country’s ruling dispensation. Cricketers, journalists, analysts, even discerning fans understood much of it anyway because there is hardly any attempt to hide it. Hence, we are now aware of the hold national politics has on the administration of cricket. What we are perhaps not realizing is the impact of our politics on people directly involved with the action on the field.

To quote Sanjay Manjrekar, “It’s important to not look at 36 in isolation but at 165, 191, 242, 124, 244, and then at it. These are team totals in their last three Tests (two in New Zealand) when the ball moved. This is all India could muster, and they lost all three. So, 36 as a low score may be an aberration, but of late India have been incompetent as a batting unit when the ball has swung or seamed.” The string becomes longer if you count India’s totals on their last tour of England in 2018, where the team lost the series 1-4. It reads: 274, 162, 107, 130, 329, 352/7 declared, 273, 184, 292, 345. Just three 300-plus totals in ten innings. If we go back to the 2017-18 series in South Africa, where India could only win the dead rubber, the totals are: 209, 135, 307, 151, 187, 247. One 300-plus total in six innings. All this is technical information, but one needs to ask “why”. Why no improvement in the ability to play the moving ball despite this string of low totals? The answer is arrogant denial — typical of Team India’s management as well as the country’s management.

One can only rectify a mistake after admitting it. But Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli never admitted there was a problem. The huge wins in between against the West Indies, Sri Lanka, South Africa et al in calmer conditions, and the historic victory on their last tour Down Under helped in brushing the flaws under the carpet. After losing the five-Test series 1-4 in England, Shastri, instead of owning up to failure on two consecutive big foreign tours, remarked, “If you look at the last three years, we have won nine matches overseas and three series… I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run in such a short time, and you have had some great players playing in those series.” He was conveniently forgetting India’s series wins in England and the West Indies in 2007; the 2008-09 win in New Zealand, apart from the heroic performances in England and Australia in 2002, 2003-04, 2007-08. He was also papering over the fact that his team’s overseas wins include teams which are hardly competitive today. It reminds one of the government’s convenient tweaking of methodology for calculating GDP to make the emaciated economy look robust. A journalist asked Kohli whether that tag suits his side. He hit back “What do you think?” When the journalist said he was not sure, the visibly angry captain said, “That’s your opinion.” The nonchalance in calling inconvenient truth just an opinion stunned many but not all, because we were already living in a country where economic distress due to demonetization was just an opinion as the ruling party had won elections even after that.

Kohli’s support for demonetization was overt, not covert. It is natural for him then to think truth is owned by the powerful, rest is an ignorable opinion. That approach may win elections but does not win matches. However, denying facts is acceptable as it is the age of post truth. So much so that after a disaster like 36-9, a captain can say “You can make a lot of team plans but in such important (pressure) situations the individuals have to keep the correct mindset…” Mindset is alright but not a word about repeated collective technical failure!

Who cares? Most will forget this Saturday, even this series, as soon as some T20 matches are won. Those who don’t, should remember what Kohli told somebody in 2018, when he said he likes English and Australian batsmen more than Indians. “I don’t think you should live in India then… you should go and live somewhere else no. Why are you living in our country and loving other countries?”

Fair enough. It has long been said that the captaincy of the Indian cricket team is the toughest job in India after the Prime Minister’s job. Don’t we ask people finding faults with our PM to go to Pakistan? If that kind of hero worship is fine in politics, it should be fine in cricket. One can question neither the PM, nor the cricket captain and/or coach. They are always right. Even when the team delivers the worst batting performance in our Test history.

This is where bhakti in cricket has brought us. To be fair to Kohli and Shastri, we have always been a country of hero-worshipers. We would not have called Sachin Tendulkar the god of cricket otherwise, but at least he had the sense to understand the game is still bigger than him. It would be a tragedy if the much-loved Indian cricket team were to suffer one shameful defeat after another because of the brazenness cricketers are picking up from contemporary Indian politics. In the last few years, Team India cricketers have shown more interest in getting disliked commentators removed than removing chinks in their own armour.

It would be an even bigger tragedy if Kohli, destined for cricketing greatness, loses the plot inebriated with power. By the time he hangs up his boots, representing the new India will cease to mean anything as it shall be old. Politicians have machinery and machinations to create history. Kohli only has his bat.

Originally published on enewsroom

দেশপ্রেম না ছাই

বাস্তবটা হল আপনি যতবড় ক্রিকেটপ্রেমীই হোন, বি সি সি আই একটি স্বশাসিত সংস্থা। আপনি তার ঘন্টা করতে পারেন। আর ক্রিকেটাররা সেই সংস্থার বেতনভুক কর্মচারী। তারা বি সি সি আই এর কাছে দায়বদ্ধ। আপনার জাত্যভিমানের বন্দুক আপনি তাদের ঘাড়ে রাখেন কোন অধিকারে?

ভারতের হয়ে খেলতে নামা ১১ জন ক্রিকেটারকে কেন আপনার জাত্যভিমান রক্ষার দায়িত্ব নিতে হয় বলুন তো? আপনি কে? ওদের কাউকে আপনি দলে নির্বাচিত করেছেন? সে যোগ্যতা আছে? ক্রিকেটাররা তো জনগণের ভোটে নির্বাচিত নন। যারা জনগণের ভোটে নির্বাচিত তাদের কাছে দায়িত্ববোধ দাবী করলে, প্রত্যেকটা কাজের জবাবদিহি চাইলে তো বলবেন দেশবিরোধী কাজ হচ্ছে। তাহলে যাদের মাইনেকড়ি আপনি দেন না, যাদের যোগ্যতার বিকাশে আপনার কোন প্রত্যক্ষ ভূমিকা নেই, যারা জাতীয় দলে নির্বাচিত হয়েছে নিজেদের যোগ্যতায় (যদি ঘুরপথেও হয়ে থাকে তাতেও তো আপনার কোন ভূমিকা নেই) তারা কেন দেখতে যাবে ম্যাচ জিতে আপনার কোন অহঙ্কার বজায় থাকল কিনা বা হেরে গিয়ে আপনার সম্মানে আঘাত লাগল কিনা?
আপনি বলবেন “আমি দেখি, পয়সা খরচা করি, সেইজন্যই ক্রিকেটে এত টাকা। তাই ওরা ধনী।” তা দ্যাখেন কেন? কেউ আপনাকে বাধ্য করেছে দেখতে? মোদীজি মাইনে পান আপনার আমার আয়করের টাকা থেকে। আইন অনুযায়ী আমি সেটা দিতে বাধ্য, তার বিনিময়ে মোদীজির সরকার আমাকে বিভিন্ন পরিষেবা দিতে বাধ্য, আমার কাছে জবাবদিহি করতে বাধ্য। কিন্তু আইন আপনাকে ক্রিকেট দেখতে বাধ্য করে না। আপনার ভাল না লাগলে আপনি ক্রিকেট দেখবেন না। পয়সা খরচ করবেন না। চুকে গেল। এভাবে যদি অনেকেই না দেখেন তাহলে বি সি সি আই, মানে কোহলি যে কোম্পানির কর্মচারী, তাদের রোজগার নিঃসন্দেহে কমবে। বিজ্ঞাপনদাতাদের কাছে কোহলির দামও কমবে। ফলে তার আয় কমবে। কিন্তু কতটা আয় হলে তার মাইনে বাড়বে বা কমবে কিম্বা কমবে কিনা সেসব কিস্যু আপনার হাতে নেই। কারণ তাকে টাকা দেয় কতকগুলো কোম্পানি। কোহলির দায় অতএব তাদের কাছে, আপনার কাছে নয়।আপনি আসলে ভাবেন বি সি সি আই আপনার সম্পত্তি তাই ক্রিকেটাররাও আপনার সম্পত্তি। এরকম ভাবেন কারণ আপনাকে ভাবানো হয়। চতুর হোটেলমালিক যেমন হোটেলে পা রাখামাত্রই বলেন “নিজের মতন করে থাকবেন, স্যার। আপনাদেরই তো হোটেল।” কিন্তু বাস্তবটা হল আপনি যতবড় ক্রিকেটপ্রেমীই হোন, বি সি সি আই একটি স্বশাসিত সংস্থা। আপনি তার ঘন্টা করতে পারেন। আর ক্রিকেটাররা সেই সংস্থার বেতনভুক কর্মচারী। তারা বি সি সি আই এর কাছে দায়বদ্ধ। আপনার জাত্যভিমানের বন্দুক আপনি তাদের ঘাড়ে রাখেন কোন অধিকারে?
জাত্যভিমান না ছাই। আসলে তো জাতিবিদ্বেষ। ভাগ্যিস রবীন্দ্র জাদেজার নাম রবিউজ্জামান নয়। তাহলেই তো নিজের দেশের ক্রিকেটারকেও বাপ চোদ্দপুরুষ উদ্ধার করে মীরজাফরের আত্মীয় বানিয়ে ফেলতেন। এমন ভাব করতেন যেন ঐ রান আউটটা না হলেই ভারত হৈ হৈ করে জিতে যেত। তা কোটি কোটি ভারতবাসীর অবদমিত ক্যানিবালিজম চরিতার্থ করার দায় বারবার ক্রিকেটারদের কেন নিতে হবে? শুধু ক্রিকেটারদেরই বা কেন?

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