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Lord of the ring: The Departed by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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March 28, 2007

Lord of the ring: The Departed

It was a must win situation for India to advance to the next leg. The bout was with the island neighbors who had been terrific through the tournament thus far posting huge scores. Their batting was peaking at just the right time and the bowling was simply following suite. India had an uphill task of going up against the odds in a do or die tie, something that they seldom came out successfully from. Lankans were put into bat on the day the ball had a certain say, at least in the first session. The dreaded opener who had tormented the Indians since long, with his impeccable timing and power hitting, was removed early and a majority of the runs from there on were from mis-timed boundaries and lucky edges. However, the Lankan batsmen dug in, refusing to be guiled by the swaying charms of the moving ball, even when wickets seem to be tumbling at regular intervals. For once, what was once considered to be a toothless pace trio, the Indian seamers hit the right length and stuck to the right lines, even though lady luck favored the batting side heavily in terms of the number of times the ball beat the bat. At the end of the session, the Lankans put up a 255 through determination and tenacity, well below par to their true potential. The score, though menacing, never looked threatening enough for the kind of formidable line up that the Indians possessed, at least on paper. From the start, the match was Indians to lose. And then things started to unravel for India like a wheel that had lost its cog. Batsman after batsman joined a disappointing parade of mediocrity, stifled by the unyeilding line backed up by some impeccable fielding by the Lankans. As their star batsman held one end as he watched in horror the manner in which his teammates buckled, it became quite apparent the writing on the wall, when he finally holed up and joined his mates back in the pavilion. The match ended the hopes of a billion (plus 11) of ever seeing the crown returning back to the region. That people were disappointed with the performances was quite an understatement. Pyres were lit, pictures were burnt and heroes were disowned. The year was 1996. That match was the semi-final at Eden Gardens.

Did history repeat itself? Was it an old curse that came haunting back from the crypt from 11 years ago? Is this team, hailed as the best year, in terms of the batting prowess, doomed to go down in ignominy without a single title, of some repute, to its credit? If it was the calculators time just a week ago, when the balance was evenly tipped towards all the key teams in the group, the drubbing that Bangladesh received at the hands of the Lankans offered a fresh lease of life to the desperate Indians to wrest the control back in their favor. They came, they saw, they collapsed. Now it is the time for razor-sharp knives - to excise or to exorcise, that is the question! Who is to be blamed for the debacle - the players, the conditions, the selectors, the media or the fans themselves? Indians have been lulled into a false sense of achievement with their twin series victories against a weak West Indian side and a depleted Sri Lanka at home, that they have either brushed aside or completely forgotten that the 2 prior series, one in West Indies and the other in South Africa, had handed down a combined 8-1 drubbing. When they said people have very short attention spans, they precisely meant this. 8-1 got swept under the red carpet that was rolled following a 3-1 victory over the Windies and a similar win against the Lankans. Suddenly the ghosts of the Christmas past had been forgotten and all was well with the world. But was it really? How was 8-1 record addressed? And before everyone knew, the Windies landed followed by the Lankans and the inconsequential home victories placated everybody - players, public and the selectors.

The batting department, which remained a (sore) point of contention particularly in the abridged version of the game, and more importantly on foreign soils, was never called into question, even as harsher treatments were meted out to the bowlers. In all fairness, however toothless the bowling department was made out to be, in the past few years, it more than made up for the spineless batting. So it behooves everyone connected to the game to ask questions about the cause, effect and the solutions to this eternal issue - why are we failing? For the first time ever, after a prominent debacle, the selectors do not find themselves at fault. The team is provided with every resource that it has asked for - the composition, the coaching staff, the facilities and other faculties. It has been given chances even after repeated failures, particularly of the big-wigs of the team. A team could not have asked for a better board and a sympathetic selectors panel, headed by an erstwhile player, who knew the pain behind being denied of his team, and dictated against his wishes. If there is one quibble that could be found with the board, it is the crammed schedule that it has organized right before the World Cup, leaving little room for the beleaguered team that had just suffered a string of defeats overseas, to cool down their heals and take stock of the (rotten) situation, with a fresh mind, fresh eyes and fresh pair of legs. Instead the team is made through one hoop after another, without allowing the time so much as to catch some breath. Such is the hunger for sponsor money, that it not just the Indian board, but every board all over, that could not remain unfazed and unaffected by the charm of the green. It is a fait accompli that has to be lived with, like it or not.

Next in the firing line is the media and the watching public. However much one can (mis)judge the power of media, it is virtually impossible for the media to take a complete zero and make him a total hero. The relationship between sport and the media, however troubled and strained, is here to stay. The sport needs the coverage and the media needs the content. And once the airwaves have been set free, in regards to what the media puts out as its projections and favorites, any result that does not meet or match the expectations is going to be vilified. Such is the nature of the beast and the sport got what it wished for, when it wanted the coverage to the remote corners of the world. The public, which has been the most loyal bloc, much before the media had set foot, deserves its right to question the performances, for, they are the true judges of the game - not the selectors, not the media and certainly not the players themselves. Their passion in unmatched, their loyalty is unwavering, and their stance, unflinching. True, that the passion does go overboard at times, but it remains to be answered, which one the sport would rather have - laid back, passive, nonchalant following for whom sport is just a diversion, or a legion of dedicated fans, who provide the real raw feedback and the right kind of objectivity that they myopic sport so badly needs. If the players need the media to cover their every move, and every endorsement that comes along their wave, if the players need a set of dedicated fans to pump them out at the right moments and point their faults without the veil of diplomacy and sweet talk, then the players indeed need to learn accepting these two new terms before signing on the dotted line and wearing the country's crest on their caps.

Which brings down to the final and the real chink in the armor - the players - particularly the batsmen - even more precisely, Sachin, Sehwag and Sourav. Save the centuries against weaklings and fifties against depleted attacks (read Windies and Lankans without Vaas and Murali), none of the above have been a consistent performer for the team in dire situations for the past 2-3 years. Conventional Wisdom calls for their heads. As they say in matters relating to the selection, the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak.

The tag 'dropped' is always seen as a sign of weakness of Scarlet Letter of shame. In a culture that revels in idol worhip the fall from grace, even once, is often mistaken for signs of growing old and flaccid. It has a stigma attached to it in sporting circles. Little can be so far from truth. Case in point, the current captain - one who had been derided as slower than tortoise, one who had been deemed unfit for the one day team, now remains as the sole beacon in moments of crises. The number of times he had been paraded in and out of the team and the way he clawed back into the team inch by inch, as a useful contributor both with the bat, and till not long ago, with the gloves, are enough indication that come back is not such a bad idea after all. In fact, it invigorates the sense of commitment, valuing each and every moment the place in the team and the time on the field - something that is found largely wanting with these seniors. With exception to the Indian selection panel, none of the other boards show mercy of be sympathetic to the cause of dead weights and white elephants. Setting aside the often complained, but never acted upon, conditions about the lack of green tops in the domestic arean, the safety bubble of the comfort zones has proven to be very detrimental to the lackadaisical mindset of these batsmen. While the rest of the positions have been fought for with great fervor, the debate, leave alone the decision, of entertaining a possible replacement for the positions of this triumvirate, has been dreaded as some blasphemy. Now that the facts are evident and the players have nowhere to hide but behind their performances, or lack thereof, it is time to take a serious look at a time sans Sachin, Sehwag and Sourav.

Or if the board wants to be really adventurous in approaching the next World Cup to be held in India, either completely overhaul the existing sluggish nature of the pitches to make it an even contest between the bat and the ball or make them completely inert and schedule only home series so that the lazy giants and paper tigers can practice run fe(a)sts on them just in time for the show time. If both the solutions sound condescending or downright offensive, the only workable solution to the current situation is to shakeup the lineup and wake up the slumbering tigers. The question was never about the potential, as they have proved time and again that they have what it takes to compete at the highest level, the problem is finding their inner zeal, the latent fire, the passion for the game that got them into the team in the first place, but somehow got buried, with the passage of time, under the burden of responsibilities, expectations and their own inner demons. It is never too late to confront these issues or else, come the next World Cup, all that needs to be done is do a "Find and Replace" of all the occurrences of "2007" with "2010", and that is a sad story.

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