On the eve of the recent Australia-India Test series, the Sydney Morning Herald published an interview with Rahul Dravid. Here’s what he said when asked about his thoughts on athletes fashioning dignified exits.
I was reading what Ian Thorpe said when he came out of retirement and somebody asked him about his legacy: ‘What are you doing to your legacy by coming back and coming eighth in a race?’ And he said, ‘I can sacrifice my legacy for the love of the sport.
That makes sense. It’s pure, he [Thorpe] still enjoys swimming and he enjoys competing. Sometimes we get too caught up in legacy; what are we going to leave? Sometimes it’s not about that, it’s about the player actually playing at that point in time. He’s not concerned about his legacy, he’s concerned about what actually made him play the game in the first place, which is that love of the game, the desire to compete and play. And that will go at some stage. That probably should be the decision.”
Four Tests later, after one of his most forgettable series when he averaged 24.25, Dravid told a TV channel: “At my stage in my career it’s always about taking it a series at a time and not looking too far ahead, so we’ll see what happens.”
Amid all this talk of imminent retirements, consider this. Imagine for a moment the extent to which cricket has dominated Dravid’s life. He’s probably been striking a cricket ball from when he can remember; his whole school life was planned around cricket practice and cricket matches and most of his waking moments were spent at the nets or at the gym or at a cricket ground or traveling for cricket matches or analyzing an innings that went before or preparing for an innings that was to follow. It’s been cricket, more cricket and then the rest of his life.
So who can blame him? Who can blame Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman for continuing to want to play the game they love at the highest level? A painter – however old he gets, however weak his eyes turn, however much his hands shake – can still continue to paint. The same can be said for a number of other professions. A sportsman remains one of those rare creatures who needs to give up what he does well, often the only thing he does well, and often the only thing he really knows.
As Dravid says, a lot of sportsmen don’t spend enormous amounts of time thinking of their legacy. They don’t walk into the cricket grounds wondering what imprint they are going to leave for future generations. They walk in to try and win a match, to time the ball well, to strike a rhythm in their bowling actions, to out-maneuver the opponent on that day.
As fans, we would love to see these cricketers go out on a high (and not overstay their visit) but we had no say in the matter when they took up the game in the first place. And we have no say now. Our opinion doesn’t count.
There was a time when Dravid thought deeply about his legacy. Between October 2005 and September 2007, he dreamt of a day when India would win cricket matches because, and not in spite of, the system in which they were operating. He spoke fondly of the vision that went into building sporting empires like Manchester United. He talked passionately of teams that lose games here and there but still fashion themselves into a successful force in the long-run. He didn’t spell it out at any point but it was apparent that he wanted to be remembered as a captain who engineered a paradigm shift, a leader who changed India’s approach to cricket.
As we know, he failed. He had some shortcomings as a captain (especially as a leader off the field) and placed an immeasurable amount of faith in Greg Chappell. After the World Cup debacle and Chappell’s exit, Dravid hoped Indian cricket would use the opportunity to rebuild from scratch. The story goes that he gave himself six months after the World Cup debacle (to gauge if the BCCI were willing to back him in his long-term mission) and, when he realized he was fighting a lone battle, he quit the captaincy. This despite leading India to a historic Test series win in England.
While I agree with Dravid that individual players need not concern themselves with their legacy – and focus solely on “what actually made him play the game in the first place” – a captain, a coach, the selectors and the BCCI have no such excuse.
Sourav Ganguly had a vision. John Wright did too. And they didn’t do too badly for a few years. Greg Chappell made us believe he had a grand vision – a lot of his plans backfired and we can fault him for many things but we cannot fault him for cruising along complacently. In fact Chappell’s biggest problem was he tried too many apparently revolutionary things too quickly (and he didn’t understand diplomacy).
Kirsten had a vision. So did Dhoni. At around this time in 2008, when India was choosing their one-day side for the tri-series in Australia, Dhoni took a big call. He knew the kind of team he wanted and chose to leave out both Ganguly and Dravid. He was to later say he felt “it was important to send the message across”.
Most of the discourse around the whitewashes in England and Australia has focussed on systemic, structural changes that need to be implemented for the long-term. In England the talk was mostly about poor preparation, lack of tour games, pathetic injury management and the absence of bench strength. In Australia (since there has not been too many apparent reasons apart from the fact that the team has comprehensively crumbled), the postmortem has got even more hardcore – reduce the number of Ranji teams, overhaul pitches across the country, eliminate the demonic IPL and so on.
(I do plan a whole post about this but as an aside: I don’t watch the IPL but that’s not because I think it’s evil. I don’t watch it because the brand of cricket doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t watch certain kinds of movies. That doesn’t mean those movies are bad. It just means they don’t fit in with my taste.
Also, the IPL might have played a part in India’s shoddy performances in England – especially when it came to players not recovering from injuries – but it has little to do with this whitewash in Australia. I don’t agree with people who say the batsmen in this team have been spoilt by the IPL. All of them (including Kohli) were grounded in first-class cricket and their techniques were shaped in the playing fields of the Ranji Trophy.
Also, the IPL sure has plenty of negatives – and I don’t have to highlight every point here – but it’s simplistic to think it’s all bad. The IPL is not all about the top stars earnings millions. It’s also about many first-class cricketers being more financially secure. It’s about fewer talented players giving up the game at the lower levels. It’s about players like Badrinath sharing the dressing-room, and getting inspired, by those like Michael Hussey, the kind of interaction that would have never happened earlier.
Finally, it’s funny to see so many people talk about the IPL killing domestic cricket. It’s as if people deeply loved and cared for the Ranji Trophy before the IPL came along. Domestic cricket was dying long, long before the IPL was conceived. It’s no doubt got more rotten in the last few years and is in need of an overhaul but that’s been the case since, err, forever.)
Of course, I would love to see change from the grassroots. I would love to see the BCCI change its constitution. I would love to see them appoint a full-time CEO. I would love to see them take cricketing decisions without needing to appease every state association, without constantly thinking about votes. I would love to see quality pitches across the country (not just pitches smattered with grass on the top surface but pitches that offer consistent bounce for four days, assisting both pace and spin). I would love to see teams not hellbent on gaining the first-innings lead in Ranji games. I would love to see a pool of young cricketers handpicked as future Test prospects and incentivized to play long-form cricket. And so on.
I would also like to see honest politicians running our country. Point being: these are all fine aspirations and no country can expect to build anything substantial without such long-term plans but I am not betting my house on any of them happening. I would prefer to borrow from Guracharan Das’ India Unbound and liken Indian cricket to its economy: “It is an elephant that has begun to lumber and move ahead. lt will never have speed, but it will always have stamina.”
What concerns me more is medium-term vision, aspects of our cricket I can hope to materialize within the next four or five years. Again, I am not saying long-term planning is not important. I am only saying we sometimes tend to talk too much on the long-term at the expense of the medium term.
Exhibit 1: Dhoni has said he may have to give up one of the formats if he has to lead India in the 2015 World Cup. A few days ago, the BCCI president, N Srinivasan, was asked about this. His response: “Unless he says it officially, I would not take that seriously.” BCCI vice-president Rajiv Shukla said something similar recently.
If we were to take Srinivasan seriously (now don’t laugh but if we were to) then it reflects poorly on Dhoni. It means he has said something as important as this to the media before even discussing the matter with the board. Shouldn’t a captain, the coach, the selectors and the top brass of the BCCI have a plan for the team’s leadership? Shouldn’t everyone be on the same page about this? Isn’t that a point from where we can start building a team to consistently win Tests around the world or to defend the World Cup in 2015?
Exhibit 2: Sachin Tendulkar, who hasn’t played a single one-day match after the World Cup, is selected for the tri-series in Australia. Do the selectors, captain and coach have a vision for India’s one-day team? Is Tendulkar part of that vision? What are our priorities in one-day cricket? To win a tri-series in the immediate term? Or to put together a combination that can win big tournaments in the medium term? More importantly isn’t it spineless (from a selectors’ point of view) to allow a player, however great, to pick and choose tours?
Exhibit 3: India go through four Tests with almost no change in personnel. Do the captain and coach think Rohit Sharma is fit for Test cricket? Is he part of their medium-term vision? Wasn’t it worth giving him at least one – yes, one – Test to try and gauge his temperament? Hasn’t Virat Kohli shown us the benefits of persisting with a young cricketer? Where do Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar fit into the Test team’s medium-term future? Do the selectors plan to sit back and wait (an agonizing wait) for the players to decide on their own exits? Or would they show some initiative, like Trevor Hohns-led panels did in Australia for many years?
A lot of things in Indian cricket need fixing (no pun intended). We need both a long-term and a medium-term vision. But we can start with an honest meeting that includes N Srinivasan, Dhoni and the chairman of selectors.
Here’s what I would like addressed.
A decision on Dhoni. What are his plans on his future? What are their thoughts on splitting the captaincy for limited overs and Tests? Of course there is an option to fire Dhoni and bring in the new captain into the meeting but that, in my opinion, would be extreme. Dhoni has served us well and we’re still a potent force at home and in one-day cricket (which is nothing to be ashamed of).
Once there’s some clarity on Dhoni and our captaincy, I would like a in-depth analysis of Duncan Fletcher and his coaching staff. What has he brought to the team? Are the coaching staff coasting along? Is there a general sense of stagnation? Do we need another coach? If they are going to persist with Fletcher and his crew, it would be strange if they’re not on probation.
Next what are the selectors’ plans for the one-day and Test teams? Or are they going to twiddle their thumbs until October when Srikkanth’s term ends? What’s the deal with Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman? Have they ever had a plan to phase them out? Do they have one now?
Sure, these are hard decisions. But these are precisely the decisions on which legacies are built and broken. If Dhoni plans to be remembered as a captain who not only took India to great heights but also presided over a phase of transition and built on the gains over the last ten years, the time is now. If Fletcher wants to show the team-building skills that helped England go from the depths of 1999 to the heights of 2005, the time is now. If Srinivasan wants to capitalize on the BCCI’s economic might and run Indian cricket like he would a successful company, the time is now.
One of my biggest problems with the IPL has got nothing to do with the matches per se. It’s got to do with this overpowering market fundamentalism that now dominates the way cricket is run in this country. Apparently market forces will decide everything. Talk about how young players’ priorities are drastically changing towards T20 and you’re likely to hear responses like, ‘But the fans like it’. Talk about the intrusive ads that assail our TV watching experience and you’ll hear people say, ‘What can we do when there is so much demand?’ Regularization is passe (and don’t even get me started on what happened when bankers and economists took a similar route).
For a more than a decade now, marketing men and player agents have had a bigger say in Indian cricket than either the board or the players. No selector has been free of pressures from player agents. Corporates and cricket are so entwined that most important decisions in Indian cricket are driven by the market. Players are chosen for their brand value; players can’t retire because their brand value is too high.
What Indian cricket desperately needs at this stage (and I guess the same can be said of Indian politics) is a spine. We need leadership. We need a group of people who are willing to take hard calls and be accountable for it. What we also need is for people, for a brief while, to put aside ad dollars, sponsorship rights and hero worship, to and take some decisions that they want to be remembered for.
What we can do without is Rajiv Shukla saying, when asked why there were no corrective measures after the England whitewash, “… corrective measures were taken. That’s why we could beat them 5-0 on our soil. We beat West Indies also but the problem is that everybody forgets about the series we win and remember the series we lose.” Dear Mr Shukla. It will help if you stop living in denial. Thanks.
There’s a far deeper issue Indian cricket is facing. Stadiums are empty and cricket is losing TV viewers to other sports. While I am happy that people have stopped burning effigies, I think it’s one of the many signals that tell us how people have stopped caring. My friends don’t feel so hurt about India’s defeats anymore and pain has given way to dark comedy. And a surfeit of options has ensured that fans don’t have to mull on defeats for too long. On Friday, I was flattened by the whitewash. By this morning, I was hooked to the mind-blowing Australian Open final. It could have been a Champions League match. Or an F1 race. Or a movie streamed on Netflix.
To even begin to address any of these issues, we need some ballsy leadership. We need people at the top in Indian cricket to start by asking themselves: What do we aspire for? What do we most want to achieve? What do we want to be remembered for?
They may fail. But they must begin by trying. Ian Thorpe was willing to sacrifice his legacy for the love of the sport. N Srinivasan, Dhoni, Fletcher and Srikkanth – apart from the several others who really matter at the top – must shape a legacy that is built on this country’s love for this beautiful sport.
PS: This was written more with sorrow than with anger.
PPS: This blog won’t be what it is without the enriching discussions that happen in the comments section. Considering the subject of this post, I would love to hear your thoughts on the way forward.