Some time in 2007 fifteen Indians will battle in Barbados. In Jamaica, Treenidahd, Georgetown. A quarter of a billion Indians – those who have enough to eat and access to television – will follow their fortunes. Win or lose, the team will carry the emotions of India. It has been evident for some time now that one man, rather more prone to emotion than most, will be reduced to viewing the battles rather than taking the field.
Three months ago he was a leader. Today he has been reduced to a bystander. Fair enough. A vulnerable leader can be a disaster; an unreliable comrade is a liability at the very least. But did he have to be cast aside like this? Was it fair to give him this grudging opportunity, then push him out after he gritted his teeth and fought in the ranks?
Sambit Bal sums it up rather well. The end has been in sight for some time now. This cold-eyed pragmatism may be for the best (though I’m fairly sure it was prompted by the fact that one of the decision-makers was born out of wedlock). But for the first time since this act of the drama unfolded, I felt sad for the man. The “God of the off-side” has been reduced to a journeyman with rare flashes of brilliance. This diminution of his abilities, paradoxically, raises him in my regard. He is now an honest trier, and I respect the craftsman more than the genius. How it must hurt to be shown the door when he has done his best within his waning abilities.
In the Kotla Test, our demi-god reached a milestone; our best bowler proved again that star quality is not germane to great performances; the younger ‘Prince’ showed promise that he has come of age. The ageing Prince has been known for flamboyance. Now that the magic is gone, it is not enough for him to be workmanlike. If he cannot bedazzle, he must step out of the limelight. 79 runs in two innings was not enough, no matter that he buckled down and fought well when occupancy of the crease was important. Younger players can have the luxury of one more innings to fulfill their promise. For a 32-year-old every innings is a final act, with the pack of young alphas nipping at his heels. 79 was not enough, not in two innings, not when he was in the cross-hairs every step of the way. He had to go.
He was guilty. Of complacency. Of over-playing his hand. Of talking out of turn. Especially when his bat was not talking for him. He paid the price. Fair enough. He became an object lesson that nothing can be taken for granted. Above all, he was guilty of ignoring Bradman’s dictum: “Leave when they’re still asking ‘Why’, before they start asking ‘Why not’”. But one can still be grieved at the manner of his passing.
This is the man who is ‘fallible against pace’. Yet this is the man who could stride down the pitch and swing Andy Caddick’s waist-high full-toss over the ropes. This is the man who hit ten sixes in a one-day innings (an innings where, but for a captain who kept him from the strike for 14 balls when his strike-rate was over 160, he might have made the first limited-overs double-century). The eyes must have dimmed, the reactions slowed. Has the grit, the determination, the fighting spirit faded too? If this last Test was any indication, no.
Perhaps his finest shot as captain was off the field. When India were struggling against England at home and Steve Waugh expressed doubts about the team’s abilities, this was the first Indian with the guts to say “Steve Waugh should shut up and think about Australia”. Well played, Captain of India!
The team he has been evicted from is the team he built. He has to make room in the middle-order for a man he backed over five years. Last year, a friend of mine who travels with the team told me that if Dada asks any of the young bloods to jump off the tenth floor, they wouldn’t even ask ‘why’ on the way down. This was the loyalty he inspired. This, hopefully, will be his legacy. A team united, a team with stomach, a team that (on most days) fights to the last ball. This is, after all, essentially the same team that he once led to almost the top of the world. It would be too much to expect that they will remember him in future victories, but once the dust has settled, he should be remembered as one of the men who made the victories possible.
He will keep fighting, but the odds against him seem too high. Now that he is no longer the God of the off-side, it is best for him to leave before he has to hear the words with which Cromwell dismissed the Long Parliament. Best not only for the man but for his memory. Even as I write this, a telephone poll shows that 80% believe he should still be in the team. Perhaps he is - albeit against his will - leaving when people are still asking “why”.