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Finding Neverland by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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September 25, 2007

Finding Neverland

Following the successful World Cup campaign, the champions met up with the erstwhile claimants to that title, this time in a full blown series that promised to void the vagaries of the one day sport, negate the luck of the draws and eliminate other flashes in the plan. In effect, the series was supposed to be a true test of the mettle. The media dubbed it as the battle of the champions. The Indian side was brimming with youthful energy and the visitors, dripping with experience. There was no hiding behind home ground/crowd advantages or other twists of fate that depended solely on the turn of the toss coin. A complete series meant, the result at the end would be an accurate representation of where the teams actually stood, the success/failure at the World Cup notwithstanding. And so it followed, on one venue after another, the sizing up of each department when pitted against a formidable opposition in a fair comparison. And what emerged at the end of the series was reflective how things originally were before the World Cup - the visitors were undoubtedly still the true champions and the hosts, well, they had used up all their luck in the run for the championship. At the end of the final one day when the series read 5-0 in favor of the visitors, it became very obvious that monikers like 'World Champions' were only titular in certain cases. The year was 1983, when the whole nation was whipped into a frenzy of national fervour and cricket fever. To give credit where it is due, at least what the Indians won back then was a truly legitimate championship (much like the one that they won a couple of years later in Australia on another world stage), that called all the faculties of the game into serious question. Though the West Indies won the one day series 5-0 (along with the test series, 3-0), the Indians weren't left with as bitter a taste, as everyone (players, administrators, fans and the media) was wise enough to understand the vast chasm of strengths that stood between the two sides. Thinking heads prevailed, and the series rendered a good learning experience.

24 years after that event followed a similar drama. Talk about repeating and revisiting history. This time the champions of the 'pygmie, mini-me' World Cup once again had a chance to confront the supposedly 'real deal' and legitimize their claim of the title. And with the media, the fans, the talk show pundits and even the state governments from where the individual players hailed from, replacing the word 'India' with 'World Champions' at every given opportunity, and fanning flames from the sidelines, the bout was touted as 'battle of champions' yet again, deluding themselves with false hopes and building themselves up with boorish braggadocio. Some players even took the new found fame to heart and proclaimed to retaliate fire with fire. What was supposed to be a battle of champions ended up as the war of words. Theatrical overaction played out both in the middle and in front of the media. At the end of the series decider however, 4-1 (discounting the rain halted(saved) match) spelt out the differences in no uncertain terms, between the two teams - words cannot substitute for scores, and actions speak louder than words. Enunciating the actual differences between or the apporaches of both the teams is an exercise in futility. Just when hard lessons were being handed down in clinical and comprehensive fashion and a nation was being defibrillated back into reality, came two facile victories in quick succession to quickly distract the public (and the players) from the seriousness of the series loss, and instead pull them back into the licentious indulgence that a 4-3 consolation has brought along. 4-3 sounds much better on paper, than a more demeaning 4-1 (and if truth be told, a 5-1), making the entire contingent falsely upbeat about the next series. It sweeps away the important duty of hard introspection under the carpet, and this is exactly what the difference between the West Indies visit in '83 and the Australian series now - the lack of a much needed reality check.

Cricket probably is the only sport in the world where a foregone conclusion on a series result does not preclude the rest of the matches being played out, to cushion the blow, providing the losers a run at redemption. Obviously the pre-sold broadcast rights, the stadia's revenues and local cricket bodies' cuts put together is a too lot of revenue to forgo on a conscientious cause. But the prospects of the losing teams getting a little more time to reflect on the nature of the losses and rectify them moving forward, is good enough reason to trade for the monetary benefits. Probably an arrangement could be worked out, whereby a venue losing its opportunity because of a dead rubber gets top priority of hosting the first match of similar stature in the following series. This is certainly warranted as far as the Indian cricket is concerned, because as in the just concluded series, the final result does not clamor for as much attention and action, as when the series is stopped right after a 4-1. When the Indians came back from the South African tour trounced by a huge margin of 5-1 in the one dayers, the tide was about to turn (for harsher actions), just before a couple of mindless series were organized, against depleted Windies and Srilankan sides, which the home team won handily, to subdue all the murmurs and the voices that were about to be raised yet again. The twin series victories gave rise to a great sense of false comfort, that all is somehow well in Shangri-La (in fact, more than just well, just great), and that the South African fiasco was just a minor aberration. What followed in the subsequent World Cup campaign is public knowledge. Yet another failure, yet another hue and cry, yet another groundswell reaction. Indian cricket (sport and administration) is very reactive in nature. A win, any win, no matter the kind of competition, no matter the playing rules, and no matter the nature of the win, would see the team pumped up till the skies. And the inevitable loss, following the facing of real dominant forces in the sport, would see it crushed beyond recognition. Between the extremes, lost somewhere is a little known entity to the Indian cricket - perspective.

Every series, win or loss, should take a team forward in terms of drilling in on what went right and correcting things that didn't work out. And it needs not just an array of coaches, consultants, or computer experts. It needs a little breather time. It needs a little space to evaluate the merits/demerits of the individual performances and that of the team's, make the right adjustments and try it on in the next assignment. Which is exactly how the Australians ended up where they currently are. Even before the din settled on the Australian series, the Indians have the look forward to another long series with Pakistan, which is immediately followed by yet another grueling series Down Under. Scheduling always flies in the face of consistency, as it always cares only about contingency. If Player A (read, Dravid) looks out of sorts in a few matches, the busy scheduling mandates his name be removed from the roster and replaced with another eager beaver waiting in the wings, as there never is time to examine the nature of the deep cut, just enough time to put a band-aid and move on. A while ago a board official indicated that current day professionalism implies possessing the ability to play round the clock all through the year. It was interesting he made no mention about winning. As long as the golden rule of the board remains 'quantity trumps quality any day', as long as the crowds get carried by inconsequential victories, as long as the players are paraded from one venue to another like show ponies, not much could be gleaned from a 4-1, that masquerades as a 4-3, series loss.

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