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All out in the open

There was a time when getting into the India XI was a life-and-death issue for young cricketers. IPL has changed that, says Anand Vasu.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2010 21:29 IST
Anand Vasu
Anand Vasu
Hindustan Times

You probably haven’t heard of Subhash Dixit, but you should listen to his story. In 2000, he was captain of the Indian under-15 cricket team that played the World Cup. Talented kids like Irfan Pathan and Ambati Rayudu played under Subhash, a player from the cricketing backwater of Uttar Pradesh.

Wind the clock forward seven years. Dixit, still young at 22, hasn’t been able to kick on from his teenage success. He has played under-19 cricket for UP, but can’t make it to the Ranji team. Over several sittings and years he has managed to pass his 10th standard exams. Subhash’s stylish batting would hit it big, his family thought, surviving at the time on the young man’s grandfather’s pension.

On June 9, 2007, Dixit left home to go to practice at the Green Park stadium, but made a stop on the way, at Krishna Tower, a nine-storey shopping complex overlooking Kanpur’s Test ground. On the 6th floor, he took a detour from the staircase, stepped onto a ledge, and threw himself to his death.

Today, few remember Dixit, and those who do blame arbitrary, occasionally corrupt selection for his ultimate death.

Selection. Any cricketer from a small town will tell you what that word means, even if he knows only three others of the English language. Rejection, anyone who has been in a romantic relationship that ended, will tell you how this can permanently scar. Two words seemingly meaning opposite things but ironically comprising the same set of alphabets in the most popular modern medium of writing. Try typing either word in an SMS on a standard phone’s keypad with the dictionary on. Funny?

In no other profession does being picked for something assume so much importance. Able-bodied, agile-minded men give up so much of their childhood and youth to cricket that they’re often not good for much else if they don’t make it. Catching the selector’s eye becomes an all-consuming pursuit, and occasionally, a matter of life or death.

You must have heard of Murali Kartik, but not as much as you should have. For a decade now, Kartik has been the best left-arm spinner in the country and among the two best in the world. He won India a Test and an ODI against Australia, in 2004 and 2007, and was promptly dropped, on both occasions. He’s been dumped so many times it’s ceased to be funny, and despite wavering from frustrated to angry to bitter, he’s fashioned a good life in cricket, thanks in no small part to the support of his wife and family. He’s loyal to his Ranji team, the Railways, when he could have easily moved somewhere more fashionable, and is highly successful and respected in the English county circuit where he plays for Somerset.

The first part of Kartik’s career was understandably up and down, with Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in harness. But even when Kumble retired, the selectors would not find a place for him. It sounds silly, but perhaps there’s just something about his face that different groups of selectors didn’t like, for the skills certainly weren’t lacking.

You should not have heard of Harshal Patel, but probably have. He was India’s reserve seamer in the recent
under-19 World Cup, a steady bowler with no stand-out features that prompted charitable observers to describe him as a “partnership breaker.” What’s that anyway? It’s not as though there are any bowlers whose job it is to build partnerships.

Patel, who wasn’t even among the three best medium pacers in India’s under-19 team, was snapped up by the Mumbai Indians, and will be paid Rs 8 lakh to share the dug-out with Sachin Tendulkar. Unless, of course, he can somehow replace Zaheer Khan, Lasith Malinga or Dilhara Fernando, the other Mumbai Indians quick men. The team’s cricketing brains include former South Africa quick Shaun Pollock, and T.A. Sekar, who ran India’s premier fast bowling academy for decades. Neither would have seen Patel, and if they had, they certainly wouldn’t have hired him. So why, then, did the Mumbai Indians pick young Patel?

The cynics — and it’s always hard to argue with that lot – point to the surname, and suggest Patel was a snug fit with the very Gujarati owners of the team. Perhaps Nita Ambani wanted to help one of her own? It sounds offensive, almost, but that’s how perverse cricket can be, where someone gets picked simply because his name sounds right.

Of all the fundamental changes that the Indian Premier League has brought to cricket, this is the most serious — selection to your national team doesn’t mean half as much any more. Your life can be made even if you never play for your country.

It’s good, because today’s Subhash Dixit perhaps won’t resort to extreme measures. It’s bad, because a future Murali Kartik might settle for less and be lost to the Indian team. And it’s plain ugly, because there will be many more Harshal Patels who will take home a pretty packet without ever having earned it.

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