Monday, February 4, 2008

IT'S THE WORLD CUP EXCUSE AGAIN!

Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to have learnt all the wrong things from Greg Chappell.

Guru Greg, when he was ‘coach’ of Team India was completely clear that with him around, there could be no other centre of power in the team, including the Captain whose role was to be little more than implementing the mind of the coach. Sourav Ganguli was simply not the kind who would allow anybody to dominate him while he was the Captain. So Ganguli was not only relieved of captaincy but also his place in the team so that Chappell could have an unfettered run with a meek individual, a good follower like Dravid as the Captain. Tendulkar was next in the firing line but the God of Indian cricket could not be discarded so easily. His motivation to keep playing was nevertheless questioned and it was only a question of time before he too would have been dumped, had Chappell stayed on.

After getting rid of Ganguli, Chappell systematically started filling up the team with youngsters who would, naturally, be loyal to him personally for the favour done. Every devious trick in the book was deployed keep Ganguli out, even as the performance of the team went one way – downhill. The most consistently used ‘excuse’ was that they were choosing youth over experience because they were building a team for the ‘future’, that they were finding the right balance for winning the World Cup! When disaster struck the team in the World Cup, as it had to, with politicking superseding playing, Chappell ran for cover. But the damage had been done. A little later, Dravid too stepped down form that perch which was never meant for him.

Amidst all this drama, Sourav Ganguli made a spectacular comeback to Team India, silencing his unforgiving detractors and, critically, helping India to improve its performances both in Test matches and One Dayers.

In the middle of the Test series of the ongoing tour of Australia, the selectors did the unthinkable again. They dropped Sourav Ganguli from the One Day team yet again, completely ignoring his outstanding performances in the year gone by. There is perhaps no precedence of a player who has just scored more than a thousand runs in a calendar year being dropped in such a humiliating manner. His dropping made the task of ignoring the claims of the in form VVS Laxman and even Rahul Dravid very easy. A bunch of promising youngsters were picked again in the hope that they could repeat the magic of the T20 World Cup which they won for India.

As reported in the press, Dilip Vengsarkar, the Chairman of the Selectors said that he was was forced to drop Sourav Ganguli at the insistence of Captain Dhoni and the other two selectors.

The One Day Triangular Series is with the best team in the world in their home ground and another very competitive team, Sri Lanka. During the Test series, it is the old guard led by skipper Kumble, Tendulkar, Ganguli and Laxman which stood up against the Australians, with Dravid coming good towards the end in his familiar position at number three. None of them figure in the One Day team. The Australians are by far the best in the world. To beat them, or even respectably compete with them, you got to have your heavy artillery out in full force. You simply can’t leave it to fancy untried weapons, however promising, and hope for the best.

Look at what happened in the first match which was abandoned due to rain. The batsmen just collapsed. The bowlers evened out things a bit before the rain did the match in, but the lack of experience against the mighty Aussies showed. And, Dhoni even chose the completely raw Tiwari over Karthik and Raina “on instinct", as he put it. Yes we all know that he had similarly got back the very experienced, now dropped, Murali Karthik in India on a similar instinct. That move had clicked; this time Tiwari seemed like a fish stuck in mud. I cannot shake the feeling that ignoring of Dinesh Karthik was one subtle way of Dhoni ensuring his supremacy and eliminating any threat to his place the side, both as wicket keeper and as a batsman.

What does Dhoni have to say about the choosing of inexperienced youngsters over the in form great players whom the Aussies respect? Do I need to repeat what Chappell had said? Dhoni too says he is building the team for the 2011 Word Cup! Like Chappell, he too wants to build his own personal team. He also clearly thinks that he is going to captain that team!

It may be a little too early, but the ‘Tendulkar effect’ is already beginning to show on Dhoni. His batting performance in the Test series was forgettable. But what was more disturbing was the fact that he was simply unable to play freely and fearlessly as he used to earlier. The pressures of captaincy and expectation have begun to take their toll. And that is a really dangerous sign for him, but he cannot see it; perhaps will not till it is too late.

We all have different mental load bearing capabilities. When the load goes beyond the tolerance level, our responses begin to suffer and our performance is adversely affected. Sachin Tendulkar is the best player India has produced. But, let us face it, he cannot bear additional load. It shows even on his face. Dig out footages of the matches towards the end of his stint as captain and you will notice the pained, strained look on this face. His biological ‘weigh bridge’ is not designed to bear the additional load of captaincy. Though he struggles hard to cope up with it, his performance as a player suffers. With guys like Ganguli and Kumble, it is quite different. The more you load them, up to a point, the better they feel and perform! Such guys are real leadership material, so precious that you should draw as much as possible from their abilities.

Time and again, we have been fooled into gazing into the future and ignoring the present. Team India has to play to win today. International matches cannot be lost on the fanciful promise of victories in the ‘future’. The World Cup is three years away! The matches that India will play till then need to be won with the best team available at the given point of time. No player should find a place in the team on the basis of a vague future promise or because he is young. Matches are not experiments in a laboratory or practices in the nets. Do the Australians ever talk of future results while picking players for current matches? They are clearly focused on winning every match they play. And they are perhaps the oldest lot of players beating the hell out of everyone.

Dhoni, to my mind, is slipping rapidly, both as a player and as a captain. He is turning out to be another Chappell who is bent on pettily picking his own team rather than India’s team. This is a character trait which has surfaced a little too soon in Dhoni’s career. Success and power have a strange way of bringing out the worst in men, particularly when they come in too much abundance and too quickly.

Dhoni's cocky confidence is already beginning to look and sound like obdurate arrogance topped by an ego which exceeds his ability by far. I will not be surprised if Dhoni loses not only the captaincy but also his place in the team sooner than one might imagine. Fortunately, Karthik and Parthiv Patel, both experienced and talented wicketkeeper-batsmen, are readily available to take his place. On thing is for sure. Whenever Dhoni is dropped, as he surely will be, he will not be missed.