I had once planned to write a book about Sachin Tendulkar. Well, not so much about Tendulkar as around him, and write about what it meant to be his fan (Tendulkar was the first sporting hero I had who was younger than I was), what it might mean to be Sachin Tendulkar. It wouldn’t be, I told myself (in moments when my already-bloated ego needed more vigorous massage), a biography. I wouldn’t even need to speak to Tendulkar to do it. My model would be Tim Adams’s On Being John McEnroe, a slim, incisive, compelling book (long essay, really), one of my favourite sport books.
I never wrote the book. I did write one, but that was about cricket and India and being an India fan. (No, I didn’t need to speak to cricketers to do it. It was not so much about cricket as around the game… well, you get the picture.) I did write about Tendulkar in it. I have been a huge admirer of his for 17 years. And if, over the last three years, there has been, if not a cooling of the passion, at least a blunting of the sharpness of the admiration (Tendulkar’s batting isn’t what it was, even I have noticed; the usual questions about how many big games he has won for us has popped up and so on), I have told myself that it is merely to do with the approach of my middle age and the cynicism attendant on it.
Then, two things happened on Wednesday. I read the Times of India interview in which Tendulkar said that a) he was hurt if the coach had questioned his attitude; and b) reiterated that he had given 17 years and his heart and soul for India and the game. In the evening, I listened to Tendulkar on record in a CNN-IBN interview saying that a) “[the interview] was blown up to something else”; b) “I haven’t had any rift with anybody. I don’t know where these rumours start”; and c) “When the team is doing well, everything is fine. It is just when the team doesn’t do well that these things come up.” (To that last one, I asked myself: “Yes, sure, why would the team be crucified if it had just won the World Cup?”) Which is to say, that he had been misquoted. (Did I hear you say, “I’ve heard that one before”? Come, come, how can you say that about, well, never mind.)
In between my reading the newspaper interview and listening to the TV interview, (there was no video) something else had happened: Greg Chappell had quit. It set me thinking. I am, you see, an uncharitable sports fan who reads too much into his hero’s actions after the team has been thumped and loves kicking good men when they are down.
These are random thoughts I thought — in no particular order.
1. The interview was published on April 4.
2. The working committee meeting in which Chappell was supposed to put forward his report about the disastrous World Cup campaign (and, according to media speculation, suggest certain dark things about certain senior Indian players) was scheduled for April 6.
3. After India’s loss to Sri Lanka in the World Cup, the HT ran a survey across five Indian cities. Fifty-five per cent of the respondents said Tendulkar should retire. On a CNN-IBN spot poll when the interview was being aired, 61 per cent of the respondents said Tendulkar had been right to hit out at Chappell. (I have a healthy disrespect for surveys. Perhaps these two should reinforce that disrespect. Or do they somewhat mirror the public mood? Who can tell?)
4. I read in today’s HT that Tendulkar is likely to become captain of India later this month.
The more I thought about all this, the more confusing it became. (My fault: I am not terribly good at thinking.) But something emerged from the mess: the current situation and the string of events leading up to it exemplify India’s cricketing culture.
It all must have seemed so alien to Chappell. I do not report on cricket in my day job. So I have absolutely no way of knowing if Chappell was brusque or taciturn; if his man management was good enough; if he got his way with things; if he baulked from taking responsibility. But I do know that given where he came from, it must have seemed like an enormous culture change.
Cricket has its own allure in Australia. But there is one inflexible principle and teams, fans and administrators all buy into: if a player doesn’t play well, he no longer deserves to be in the side. The selectors are unafraid to drop anyone who isn’t performing. If Ponting’s performance over the last 18 months had been Tendulkar’s or Sehwag’s, I am willing to bet that he would have been dumped.
There are enough precedents. Australia left out Steve Waugh, who had led the team to victory in the 1999 World Cup, out of the 2003 side. They would surely have dropped him from the Test side had he not chosen to call it quits after India’s 2003-04 tour of Australia. Mark Taylor was shown the door; Matthew Hayden was left on the bench; Glenn McGrath was told to shape up or else. And we are talking of titans of the modern game here. Could there be some connection between that policy and Australia being the best cricket team in the world?
It must have seemed odd to Chappell that players could underperform and still retain their places; that who you were could be seen to be more important than how you played in the last six months; that the cult of the individual can overpower the needs of a team; and that this self-mythologising can grow and grow, feeding on itself. (Did it?)
Chappell was probably trying to graft the culture he came from on to the culture into which he arrived. (Was he?) It simply didn’t work. (No, it didn’t, that’s certain.) But why would we want an Australian coach when we wouldn’t want him to bring with him the best of the cricketing culture that was prevalent in his country, one that had succeeded in forging a team of world-beaters? Someone must answer that.
Failure in sport is a collective thing but a coach must take responsibility. Chappell has, in a way, by saying that he doesn’t want his contract to be renewed. But he didn’t appoint himself to this job. Will the men who actually got him stand up, say they made a bad hire (if that’s the assumption we’re working with) and admit to the fact that it was their fault?
I suspect they won’t. I suspect we shall have a new coach, perhaps a new captain, play a few good games, play several bad ones and the frenzy and the lack of accountability and the lack of a proper culture will persist till... oh, the next coach, the next captain, the World Cup after the next one.
But then, what do I know? Silly me.