Hype has it that watching cricket at the Eden Gardens is an unrivaled experience — and for once, hype is not misplaced. Further, it is a pity that politics — namely the antagonism between Jagmohan Dalmiya and the honchos who currently run Indian cricket — has kept the Gardens from getting its due share of international fixtures. International cricket deserves to be played in the best possible venues, and there is no doubt that the Gardens, when on song, is as good as it gets.
Not this time, though; not for India versus South Africa. The short series against the Proteas has come as manna from Test heaven; had the two boards not worked this out, we would have through all of 2010 contented ourselves with games against Bangladesh, now over, and Zimbabwe. Oh, and of course, Sri Lanka. At a time when India is statistically the world’s number one and, more to the point, the Test team has confidence and a degree of form going for it, what you really need are marquee games that can create excitement among the fans — and India-RSA, marketed right, can provide exactly that.
To get the buzz going, though, you need to guarantee butts in the seats — and right now the Gardens is in no position to do that. In December 2009, when India played Sri Lanka, the CAB opted out of selling tickets and reserved all available space for its members. [That game as you recall was marred by a fiasco to do with the floodlights; an inquiry was promised, but thus far what we have got is a tentative agreement on the inquiry committee, so no point holding our breath waiting]. The CAB now says it won’t sell tickets for the upcoming Test either.
The reasons may be valid: ground upgrade, renovation with an eye on the 2011 ODI World Cup, whatever. Fact remains, though, that a marquee contest between India and South Africa, with the notional standing of the world’s number one Test team at stake, will be shut out for the fans — whose energy and passion is what gives cricket at the Gardens the aura it currently enjoys.
Did we really need to shoe-horn a Test into a venue that is currently capable only of catering to a closed group of ‘members’, while leaving the fans in a cricket-crazy city standing on the outside looking in?
On a tangentially related note, the Test team is out — and it is either predictable, or predictably surprising, depending on where you stand. With Laxman reporting fit, the selectors only needed to fill the slots currently occupied by Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh [in the latter’s case, I’d think it is about time the selectors made a long term call about his fitness, or lack thereof, for Test cricket]. The committee could have gone in many directions: bringing in Cheteswar Pujara, to see if the much-talked about lad has what it takes to eventually step into the shoes Dravid will one day vacate; bringing in Rohit Sharma, to see if he is finally ready to match his talent with the discipline and commitment required at this level; bringing Suresh Raina into the ranks, swapping a left-hander who can bat, bowl and field with another young talent in the same mould…
In the event, the committee seems to have played safe. Vijay is already in the side; the selectors brought Badrinath in, and a case can be made that he has deserved the call up for his consistent performances at domestic level over the past two, three seasons, and by virtue of the fact that he has a game well suited to Tests. You don’t need to agree that this was the best possible direction for the selectors to go, but you certainly can’t make a case that the selections were flat out wrong. Mithun being brought in, just when he has the wind in his sales, was a good move [though it seems improbable that he will play, just being in the frame, and in the dressing room with the seniors, will do the lad much good]; I wish the selectors had on similar lines punted with Manish Pandey.
The Mithun pick is interesting — and timely — from another aspect. Here’s Harsha [who, incidentally, believes Badri merits the chance to debut], at the tail end of his latest column:
The greater fear though is with the bowling. Ishant Sharma took wickets but looked well short of top form in Bangladesh, Sreesanth is injured, RP Singh hasn’t demanded the world look at him, neither has Irfan Pathan with the ball and Munaf Patel, I’m told, is around somewhere. It leads to a rather scary conclusion. If Zaheer Khan breaks down, India might just be the side to queue up to bat against.
Arising from that, here’s a thought/question: Does India want to go into the first Test with its traditional six batsmen, one keeper, two seam and two spin bowlers formula, or does it want to cover for its inconsistent bowlers by being a batsman short, and lining up Zaheer, Ishant, Mithun, Bajji and Ojha? The five-bowler line up is the one I fancy; I’m fairly certain though that the team will stick to its favorite template.