Apologies to a friend for stealing the subject line of a common email thread on the subject of India and its premature exit from the Champions’ Trophy — what to do, it is so peculiarly apt.
On that thread, some of the friends brought up the question of the fairness, or lack thereof, of a tournament where a top team exits at the preliminary level because of one match gone west. Sambit Bal also suggests in his column that questions could be asked about such a format.
I’m sorry, but why? The Champions Trophy format is neither new, nor a secret — in fact, one of the best things about it is its crisp, short nature and limited field as opposed to the World Cup which, in the immortal words of one commentator, is “still probably going on in the Caribbean some place.”
Try these names on for size: Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Kenya. Those four teams are ranked full members at ICC’s ODI top table; in other words, in the eyes of the ICC they are the equal — in terms of rights, if not quality — to the eight teams that played the CT in South Africa, and they have good reason to be aggrieved that they have been kept from the tournament.
One of the few good things the ICC has done in recent times is to limit the field, and thus ensure a minimum of dud matches in a crisper, more viewer-friendly format. All participating teams knew, going in, that it was about winning two out of three in the first phase; if they had done their due diligence, they would have known, too, that there was always the possibility of rain spoiling someone’s party.
So, hey, we lost one game, and it turned out the loss was fatal — yeah, well, tough. Suck it up.
Harsha in course of a recent chat made this argument: Within India, there is an economic ecosystem vested in India’s continued success — a group that comprises the BCCI, the players and support staff, the associations, the advertisers, the broadcasters, and even news channels whose talking-head shows rely heavily on cricket and controversy, often twinned naturally or through artful surgery.
Therefore, Harsha said, there is an inordinate focus on the next game, the next tournament, as opposed to taking the long range view. It doesn’t, he pointed out, matter what happens a year from now — what matters is that we do well in the next outing, to keep the hype machine running. And so when we pick teams, we pay lip service to long term vision, to rotation and the need to rest key players, and pick the team that will, in our opinion, give us best returns in the game tomorrow.
He was referring among other things to the reversal of the youth policy and the return of Rahul Dravid to the mix [and no, this piece is not intended to lay the blame for India’s premature exit on Rahul]. And he is bang on the money — the BCCI and those equally invested in the cricket economy operate purely on short term logic unmindful, likely even unaware, that they are defeating themselves in the process.
Never mind the rain — despite MS Dhoni’s words, anyone who was watching the India-Australia game would have said that when the rains came down, the Aussies were odds on to win. Sure, we might have pulled off a brilliant chase — but ‘might’ and Rs 3 will get you a cutting chai.
Consider instead the game against Pakistan, and India’s bowling effort against Australia. Pundits, the press, and even the captain have pointed, very rightly, at the lines and lengths our bowlers used as the root cause of the malaise. By the time the bowlers got their radar working, it was way too late.
So, why? Why didn’t international players get it? IMHO, a large part of the reason lies in our preparation — a point I bored everyone with while the whateveritis cup was being played for in Sri Lanka. Why did we play that triangular in conditions that were the exact antithesis of the one we would confront in the world tournament? Because the BCCI had a deal. Its hype machine cleverly sold the cup as India’s push for world domination — but the fact is, we played the triangular because the BCCI saw money to be made, not directly in that tournament but in the reciprocal Lankan tour that was part of the deal.
On Lankan pitches, you pitch up if you want to get driven to the dry cleaners — the optimal length is a shade short. We got it right, so did Lanka. The Kiwis, who by nature and inclination bowl fuller and quicker, got it wrong, and exited early — but look where they are now, and look where Sri Lanka and India is. [Consider, also, that England and Australia recently went through seven pointless one day games — but at least they were played in conditions where the fuller length was mandatory, and thus had little or no adjustment to make in SA. On the other hand the South Africans, who know these conditions best, were rusty, coming off a long lay off — and rust manifests first in the shorter length, as Wayne Parnell can tell you; to bowl fuller you need to be in a really good rhythm].
The damage is done, and India now has the dubious record of prematurely exiting three of the last four world level tournaments, to the considerable consternation of the BCCI, the advertisers, broadcasters, media, et cetera.
Lesson learnt? Likely not — but it should be. The next world level competition is a year and a half down the line — the time between now and then is packed with a heap of pointless bilateral ODIs [Oh I know — India and Australia are playing for revenge, for the world number one title, or whatever else the hypemeisters dream up].
There’s two ways we can go from here: Treat each game and each meaningless cup as an end in itself, as Harsha pointed out is the nature of the beast, or treat the interregnum as the ideal preparation for the World Cup, which will be played on home soil.
If you take the latter view, then the result of the Australia-India series and all the other cups and saucers to follow shouldn’t matter — those games are ideally used, initially, to experiment with fresh talent and to rehabilitate those who have recently lost their way, and closer to the WC, to home in on the best squad, and to work on fine tuning their skill sets and moving them towards peak form.
The right way to go is obvious. Unfortunately, it is equally obvious that our administration will go in the exact opposite direction — so I’ll save this particular post someplace; that will save me the effort of writing it out all over again at the end of the WC.
PS: We’re looking to close the week’s edition of India Abroad today, a day ahead of deadline, to sneak a rare three-day weekend; blogging, hence, likely to be erratic at best, more likely non-existent, for the rest of the day.