The meandering Azza saga that has, over the past year or so, plummeted from the sublime to the ridiculous, is perhaps finally into its last, tragic act. When the five-man selection committee of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bcci) meets sometime during July-August to reconstruct the squad for a packed schedule of Test matches and one-day ties leading up to the new millennium, Mohammed Azharuddin-probably India’s luckiest captain ever-could find himself out in the cold. This time for good. That, on the evidence of the recent past, could do no harm to the health of Indian cricket.
In fact, it could just be the injection of oxygen that the game desperately needs in India. So, after the drubbing the team got from Pakistan early this year, the failed World Cup campaign and the clear decline in Azhar’s form with the bat, the ranks of the ‘sack Azza’ brigade swelled quickly.
No matter what bcci boss Raj Singh Dungarpur says, former bcci chief P.M. Rungta, ex-Test cricketers G.S. Ramchand, Pankaj Roy and Eknath Solkar and cricket writer K.N. Prabhu, among others, have concluded that Azhar’s on the way out. “Azhar’s bad captaincy and poor batting cost India dear during the World Cup,” says Roy. “This is the end of the road for him,” pronounces Prabhu. But are the selectors listening?
If they are, they would surely know that the need of the hour is to return to the drawing board, gather the pieces that remain intact and etch out anew the face of Indian cricket, that it’s time to dump Dungarpur’s depleted team of the ’90s-only Azhar and Tendulkar survive from the original band-and rustle up the squad of the new millennium. Azhar has played his innings, a glorious one at that, and it’s time for him to make way for a new breed of cricketers: young, raring to go, in tune with the times.
The silken grace of Azhar’s batsmanship will be missed, but all good things must end one day. Indian cricket fans would prefer him to sign off when the heady memories of his wonderful on-field exploits are still dominant, rather than when the image of a once-masterly strokeplayer scratching around in the middle in search of the finesse and timing that have, as they inevitably must, deserted him, takes over.
“His confidence is at a low ebb. He has to go,” says Solkar. But will all the ills plaguing Indian cricket evaporate with Azhar’s ouster? Certainly not. Some confusion seems to be building up over who should succeed him: Tendulkar or Jadeja? Jadeja did give a perfect account of himself when he stepped into Azhar’s shoes during the Pepsi tri-series in Sharjah in April, but his appointment can only be a stopgap arrangement. For one, his place in the Test side still isn’t secure. And two, it’s to Tendulkar that the captaincy rightfully belongs: he is the country’s best player, his cricketing acumen is second to none and, so, he would command the respect and allegiance of his colleagues. As Solkar says, “Jadeja should be made the captain only if Sachin is not willing to shoulder the responsibility as yet.”
To the former Kiwi captain Martin Crowe, Sachin is the natural choice: “India will be better off making him the captain.He has the brain of a Bradman. I can’t understand why he can’t run Indian cricket the way Imran Khan ran Pakistani cricket in the ’80s.” Says Pakistani journalist Qamar Ahmed: “I think Azhar has had his innings and he should gracefully quit. The new team should be built around Tendulkar.”
“What India needs,” asserts former all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, “is a leader who can carry the team with him, not a yes-man. A captain who can speak up and have a say in the selection process.” Does anybody fit that description better than Tendulkar? Granted that his first stint as captain-from August ’96 to December ’97-was marked more by heart-breaking failures than resounding successes. During that period, a rather cavalier Azhar did little of note, often gifting his wicket in exasperating circumstances. In contrast, when Azhar was reinstated for the Independence Cup in Dhaka in January ’98, Tendulkar unselfishly threw his lot behind him, playing a stellar role in many Indian triumphs during Azhar’s second stint as skipper.
It’s not without reason that Tendulkar is known to be reluctant to lead a team that has Azhar in its ranks. But since the latter is a spent force, it would make sense to place Tendulkar at the helm of an Azhar-less team and give him a free hand. There’s reason to believe that Tendulkar wants the job badly, but he wants it on his own terms. Knowing him, his second stint will be a different tale. Says espn commentator Harsha Bhogle: “I think the board should have a chat with Sachin. Does he want to be captain? Would he like to have Azhar continue as a player?” The selectors, says Bhogle, should name the captain keeping the Australia tour in mind, not just the home series with New Zealand. “Whoever is the skipper against New Zealand will win and that shouldn’t be the basis for selection for Australia,” he explains.
But Tendulkar alone cannot guide India out of the morass. Fortunately, the nucleus of the Indian team-Ganguly, Dravid, Jadeja, Kumble-is well entrenched. What’s needed is a rebuilding exercise that revolves around a pool of young, promising cricketers who’ve been performing consistently on the domestic circuit. Around the likes of Mohammed Kaif, Reetinder Sodhi, Gyanendra Pandey, Vijay Bharadwaj, M.S.K. Prasad and Amay Khurasia, who was in the World Cup squad but didn’t get a look-in. Says Dilip Vengsarkar: “The attitude of some players is disturbing. I think the time is ripe to induct four or five young players hungry for success. We could look at players like Mohammed Kaif and Sodhi.”
One-day cricket is for younger people and men like Azhar, Robin and Mongia have to make way. Mongia’s batting and glovework in the World Cup was pathetically below par. It proved he doesn’t quite belong to the league of modern, one-day ‘keepers. He barely hit the ball off the square and behind the stumps he went for nothing that wasn’t travelling straight at him, when other glovemen were flinging themselves around to come up with amazing catches. “A good wicket-keeper who also contributes with the bat can often be the difference between victory and defeat,” says K.N. Prabhu.
So, the search for genuine all-rounders must begin now, feels E.A.S. Prasanna. “That’s the weakest aspect of our cricket. We must find players who can bowl and slog like Klusener, Kapil and Salim Durrani. Not players like Srinath who hits a six once in a while. If the board wants, I can find such all-rounders for the team.”
In the absence of a reliable barometer to judge youngsters-our domestic cricket has been in the doldrums for years as the stars are always on national duty-the selectors have to follow their instincts. “For that to happen,” says Vengsarkar, “the selectors will have to be a totally independent body.” A member of the present selection panel, Madan Lal, seems to agree: “For cricket in India to shape up in the new millennium, accountability as a principle has to be applicable to everybody, including the selectors. None of this ‘sorry, it was bad luck’ kind of thing should be allowed to go on.”
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what’s going on in the aftermath of India’s Cup failure. In the new millennium, a new team won’t suffice. Also needed: a completely new mindset. And a captain who doesn’t blame all but himself in a crisis.
With Manu Joseph, B.R. Srikanth and K.S. Narayanan