Little acts of sedition

There are two people I regularly read to stay updated on books and the larger theme of writing: Nilanjana Roy [blog / Twitter] and Sanjay Sipahimalani [blog / Twitter].

Nila is, for the time being, otherwise occupied and in no position to write for us, but today Sanjay debuted in the Yahoo Opinions space, with this lovely take on the novel as “a challenge to the status quo, an act of sedition that maps a revolution”.

Among other things, this essay perfectly articulates a vague thought I’ve often had, but never could quite render coherent:

When you get stuck as a writer it’s because you haven’t quite worked out how the passage you’re working on relates to the transformation that is your novel’s subject. When you get stuck as a reader, it’s because of the same reason.

Read in full. And while there, check out the other columnists who debuted while I was off on my travels: Anand Ramachandran, who sets out to save Indian culture; Nitin Pai, who channels Amitabh Bachchan as he seeks to demystify international relations; Mohit Satyanand on the need for a scapegoat, a column that seems even more apt today as TV stations take polls on whether captains of losing teams should get their heads chopped off…

In fact, with Sanjay’s debut column of today, all our ten columnists have finally come on board; next stop, an Opinions home page, RSS feeds for the whole body, and other improvements you guys have been asking for.

Past forward

While rooting through my archives for information, I stumbled on this laugh-out-loud story involving, among others, Pataudi, Shastri and Gavaskar. Here — let me make your day with some ‘recommendations’.

Cui Bono

A leading national daily once asked a Pakistani fast bowler to perform some brand endorsement functions. The player refused, claiming that he did not have the time. Two days later, the paper in question — you know who you are — front-paged a story that selectors and the establishment in Pakistan were concerned about the bowling action of the player in question, and there were some doubts whether he would be picked for an upcoming tournament.

Another day, another story: India had just finished one more of its disastrous campaigns at the world level [those holding the IPL entirely to blame for the latest disaster might, while we are on the topic, like to consider that outside of the win in the inaugural edition of the World T20 Cup, our recent record in global competitions has been less than stellar, to put it mildly]. Then coach Greg Chappell was back in India, preparing his post-tournament report. At the time, a national daily, three days running, front-paged stories citing “confidential sources” and claiming that the coach’s report was incendiary in nature; that it came down heavily on various players [all of them named]; that three or four players in particular were slated to face the coach’s wrath, and so on.

The reports also claimed (a) that senior players Tendulkar, Ganguly, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Zaheer and Yuvraj had formed a coterie against then captain Rahul Dravid; that they lacked commitment and refused to follow instructions of the coach and captain; that they put their personal interest over the team’s interest; that it was the coterie, for instance, that forced Dravid to opt to bat first if he won the toss against Bangladesh, and so on and on.

There was only one problem with the story — it wasn’t true. And I knew this at first hand. The day he returned to Bombay, Chappell had called on phone, and asked if I would go over to the Taj to meet with him. At that meeting, he said he was putting together a presentation for the board, showed me the first draft, and asked if I had any thoughts. What struck me at the time was the forward-looking nature of the presentation — where I had expected a post-mortem of the World Cup disaster, I found instead a meticulous roadmap of all that could be done to improve Indian cricket from the ground up.

Without going into tedious detail, its centerpiece was the point that exposing players to the latest coaching methods once they had reached the national level was counter productive. The player was physically shaped, Chappell argued, during his formative years in school/college/club cricket, he was pretty much set in his ways, both physically and in terms of skill sets, by the time he reached the state level. And once he got to the national side and was exposed to a different brand of coaching altogether, it was proving to be counter-productive in the extreme. Thus, the presentation argued, the BCCI needed to set up a grassroots-up coaching structure. School, collegiate and club coaches would work under the direction of a state coach; the state coaches would form a body interacting closely with the national coach, and the goal at all times would be to ensure that players were moved systematically through the development process, so that they peaked at the national level rather than reaching that stage and being forced to unlearn everything they had learned till date.

The presentation, when it was made, surprised, even delighted, the board. The paper in question reported it on the sports pages, without ever once mentioning the doomsday drumbeat on its own front pages in the days leading up to the event. It did not at any point in time even consider that its inspired kite-flying on the tail wind of “confidential sources” could have damaged relations among players; it offered no apology for misleading the readers; it did not even explain how its “sources close to the coach” could have gotten it so completely wrong.

I was reminded of these and other similar incidents when I read this morning in the Times of India that the BCCI was “considering” sacking MS Dhoni, and replacing him with Virender Sehwag for the ODI and T20 sides.

Who is doing this “considering”? Here are a few facts: (1) The board officials have neither met, nor telephonically or otherwise discussed, India’s latest world cup campaign. Their line is that they are currently busy with the Lalit Modi hearing due on the 16th, and that discussions of the team performance can wait till the team returns, and the captain and coach file their reports. (2) The national selectors have not at this point in time discussed the Caribbean campaign, and are slated to do so only once the two reports have been routed to them via the BCCI [the normal process is for the reports to be submitted to the board secretary, who forwards them to the selectors together with any comments the board officials may choose to make]. (3) The issue of the captaincy will not be decided upon now, but will be on the agenda of the selectors when they next meet to pick the national side for India’s next major engagement.

So again — who is this mysterious entity that is “considering” the captaincy issue? More broadly, what is the genesis of such stories?

A good question to ask yourself is, cui bono? Who benefits?

The facile answer is, Virender Sehwag — the man being nominated by various confidential sources as the next captain. But that is superficial — the real answer lies at the subcutaneous level: a combination of sponsors and player agents.

For sponsors, a player’s brand value rises exponentially as he rises in the team hierarchy [and vice versa — an ‘ex-captain’ tag on a player is worse than if he had never been captain at all]. And the more a player’s value rises, the more agents stand to earn through pimping his services for various brands.

What is really startling is the knock-on effect such stories have. One media outlet front pages it or surfaces it on its TV channel, and everyone else picks it up and amplifies it, not because their “confidential sources” are confirming the story, but because not having the story on their own channels/pages makes them seem disconnected, dated, out of the loop. [Do a search for ‘Sehwag, captain’ and you’ll see what I mean].

Unfortunately, such inspired planting of stories causes great collateral damage — but again, that is not the paper’s concern. The point is to build up a tailwind for the thought, to transform a motivated wish into a national outcry through the mysterious alchemy of the front page, and if damage is a by-product, then so be it.

PS: Here’s Harsha Bhogle on India’s performance in the Caribbean:

The new ball, in the hands of India’s bowlers, made no statement. It wasn’t the first serve, as it should have been. It was merely a formality that had to be achieved for a game to start, just a pawn that was pushed forward with little intent. The new ball on flat pitches and on grounds with short boundaries is like a toy for a pampered child to toss around, but here it had fangs. India’s openers were shown them, the opposition weren’t. It is a serious issue. New-ball bowlers have to be cultivated and nurtured so that they grow into handsome trees; they cannot, at the first sight of a storm, wither away.

India’s fielding stood out. Like a radio might, or like my old phone does. It was like a retro movie. When it comes to fielding or athleticism, India make an occasional concession to modernity, flirt with the latest and slip back towards the old and the comfortable. When Australia took the field, I thought more than once that their hockey players had arrived. They were smooth, they glided around and made what might otherwise have been a three a two. Great catches arrived with the frequency of a politician’s quotes. It was beautiful to watch but I do not think our young cricketers are watching. They demand the latest sometimes but they do not demonstrate it.

Once India’s finest, Yuvraj stood at mid-on, the abode of the tired fast bowler and the slow-moving spinner. At long-on and fine leg, the limbs had to be cranked to start. It was painful because of what should have been. He is a cricketer who is richly blessed, and a period of humble introspection might just be the right prescription. The turn he took a kilometre ago was the wrong one.

PPS: Pleasantly surprised by both the number and quality of comments on yesterday’s post. Unfortunately, am preoccupied with various personal and professional issues and apt to be off the net till at least some time late tomorrow evening. Will get back then and respond, where required. Meanwhile, stock up with salt — lots of it. I suspect that in the coming days you’ll need it.

PPPS: Now that I think about it –the above piece is *not* to be interpreted as a defense of Dhoni, please, or an argument for his continuance. A review — a serious, comprehensive one — is required and hopefully, will happen. My intent is merely to suggest that rumor-mongering does no good. To the concerned media outlets, the players who are named, or even to us the readers.