Over the last few weeks the debate on the “seniors vs replacements” debate has intensified to almost shrill tones. I have, myself, written on this for sometime now. Most major newspapers, websites and blogs have contributed to this debate. Players themselves have weighed in to the argument.
On this blog, I had a reasonably long and somewhat circuitous argument with Chandan on the whys and why-nots.
The debate has often centred on the quality of replacements. A question that has been posed often is: “Is Badrinath better than Ganguly?”. Of course he is not. Not now, anyway! “Then why replace Ganguly” is an immediate retort!
Every player has the right to think that they have one more season in them; one more tour; one more match; one more innings. Not many people like to leave the world stage. The adrenaline rush of walking down the steps of the Eden Gardens or the SCG to the screams, shouts and plaudits of the gathered throng can only be addictive; something that most players would want again (and again). It must be hard to leave. The body might send a message, but the mind will want that ego boost — a craving for more. This is not just with cricket. Actors have stayed on when the stage lights have all but dimmed. Singers have stayed on well after the sound engineer departed the studio! Sports people are no different. Cricketers are certainly no different.
The problem is that indispensability often breeds over-dependence and chokes progress.
We have to start with the following axioms (a) no one is indispensable. b) there cannot be any negotiables in selection policy — no long-kiss-goodbyes and golden-handshakes, (c) selection in times like this requires strategy and vision, and commitment to that strategy with clarity and courage.
I was asked in the comments section of a previous thread to thump Cricket Australia’s and the ECB’s (English Cricket Board) selection-vision document on the table. That must be one of the most strange requests I have had lately! Firstly, of what relevance is the ECB in this argument around cricketing excellence? Secondly, my guess is that, apart from the CEO and the Board of Directors of Cricket Australia, not many people would have access to the vision and strategy of Australia’s selection committee. But do we know that one exists? Absolutely, if one reads player biographies and other material from which one can infer the existence of a clear and defined strategy. Moreover, evidence of the existence of such data is evident from newspaper and media reports. One can point to the building of pace bench-strength in light of the imminent departure of the likes of Glen McGrath, Andy Bichel and Jason Gillespie. While one points to the barrenness of the spin stocks, that is more due to the lack of available options than a lack of effort. Cricket Australia has invested a fair bit in talent identification and nurturing in this department. These efforts have largely failed up until now!
In stark contrast, we have a governance board in India whose Secretary recently claimed that it was not possible to carry out retirement discussions with “seniors” lest there is an argument! This certainly does not inspire me with confidence on the existence of a vision and strategy, leave alone the presence of courage to act on the vision/strategy!
Can we say the same about Cricket Australia? No. I have confidence that CA moves forward in a considered and strategic manner.
Not many teams survive the loss of players like Justin Langer, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Darren Lehmann, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Glen McGrath, Stuart McGill, Brad Hogg, Jason Gillespie, Andy Bichel and Michael Kasprowicz to injury, loss of form and forced-retirement over a reasonably short period of time. Australia has. And to pin Australia’s success merely on the depth of the domestic competition would be naive. Of course, some of these players were lost to retirements or loss of form. However, some of these players were retired-out of the game. If we go back, we can also point to Michael Slater, David Boon and Mark Taylor who were given tough love when it came to them being phased out of the game. There is clear evidence of tough love in the selection process. Such tough love is required when dealing with player egos. All one needs to do is read biographies of the likes of Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Darren Lehmann to know the manner in which Australian selectors have ensured that sustainability of their excellence proposition is the key plank that they work on. It is not enough to win the next match! That has to be a given! They work on where they ought to be when the next series victory needs to be seized.
Like Wayne Gretsky, they concentrate on where the puck ought to be; not just on where the puck is! In India, we have selectors that are unable to think cogently about the future because they do not wish to have arguments!
Cricketers, are not immune to ego when it comes to their position in a team. Steve Waugh was convinced that he had more seasons in him. The Chairman of selectors at the time, Trevor Hohns, thought otherwise and had a tough conversation with Steve Waugh. A date was set for transitioning both the player as well as the leadership. The selectors acted with courage.
Was there an adequate “replacement” for Steve Waugh, the player and Steve Waugh, the captain? After all, that is the question that is asked almost always in India! “Do we have adequate replacements for Ganguly, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Kumble?”, is a question that is often asked.
Like Prem Panicker comments on his blog, I am not really sure what that question actually means! The only person that can replace Ganguly is Ganguly! We will never have another Sourav Ganguly to replace Sourav Ganguly. We can never have a Steve Waugh to replace Steve Waugh. But unless Ricky Ponting was given a good team to work with and make his own, the leader in Ricky Ponting will not have been born! If Steve Waugh had stayed on for a year or two longer — and he could have, for after all, he had a very healthy average in the last year of his career — Ricky Ponting would have inherited a team sans Warne, McGrath, Waugh, Langer, Martyn and Gilchrist! Who knows what his initial steps will have been under that situation? Under the scenario in which Steve Waugh left behind a strong team as his legacy, Ponting was afforded the luxury of making a few mistakes along the way — and he did — only to have a strong support that cleansed these errors away.
Likewise, it is best to phase in new talent in India in a gradual manner. We can’t have a situation where a fresh set of five players are thrown into the lions’ den to fill the gap created by a mass exodus of Ganguly, Laxman, Dravid, Tendulkar and Kumble.
Often, when I am asked “Is there a replacement for Ganguly”, I am stumped. What, precisely, does that question mean? There can never be a like-for-like replacement. However, I would like a player like Badrinath (say) to find his feet by playing in a team that includes Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman for at least 8-10 matches before someone like Rohit Sharma and (a set) Badrinath can play in a team that includes Dravid and Tendulkar. Over time, it is likely that Badrinath, Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh will form the next Fab Four.
Why do I say that Ganguly must be the first to leave? It is just that, of the Fab Five, he seemed to me to be the most likely to have age caught up on him. Like Rohit Brijnath says, so eloquently, “But if these men once exuded a certainty, now it is less so. Confidence comes, then it dries. Tendulkar has no control over his body’s misbehaviour, Rahul Dravid no idea why technique abandoned him for a while without even a farewell note, Ganguly no certain explanation why timing briefly eluded him. Mind and body are in a slow divorce. These men have fought and defeated everything: selectors, derision, pitches, Australians, but age is beyond beating. Of course there are five-wicket hauls left in them, and strong centuries, and even great series, but they will arrive at a slower frequency. So why not go, leave to an applauding nation; why sit, in cricketing middle age, alone at home, as Ganguly must have, waiting for a phone call?”
Adam Gilchrist knew, in that instant that it took from when he dropped the catch in Adelaide to when the ball hit the ground, that it was time for him to leave the scene. It took him 1 second to realise that his time was up. And just as he turned his back and gave himself out, in that World Cup match against Sri Lanka — when he walked back to the pavillion — Gilchrist was convinced that his body was giving way. He decided that it was time to leave… on his terms. His mind was made. He talked about it in the papers the following morning. That was a courageous decision. Not many sports people know that their time has come. As Rohit Brijnath says, ”…they play because they love it, because they ache for competition, because they don’t do anything else as well, because they can still play, as Laxman might tell you… Competition is an addiction that keeps them here, that brings them back, an addiction so deep that even the perfect ending is somehow imperfect. In a way, this makes sense: how can finishing what you love most ever be satisfactory?”
So, it has to be about the selectors who make up their minds with some clarity, and then, make up the minds of our senior cricketers.
No one wants these five gentlemen to go. I certainly do not want them to go. But go, they have to! They are mortals and I would hate for these five fabulous gentlemen to go the way Kapil Dev did. We all heaved a collective sigh of relief when Kapil Dev left the scene. These five cricketers have been the best ambassadors for Indian cricket that I have known. Each one of them has been a gem. There aren’t many controversies surrounding Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble and Ganguly. Yes, Ganguly has been an in-your-face cricketer and has incurred the wrath of some journalists. He has copped a few fines for slow bowling and the like. But he has worn his heart on his sleeve. He has been the one of the best leaders of men in Indian cricket. He can claim responsibility for transforming Indian cricket from a team with potential to a team that can beat the best… regularly. He and his band of gentlemen colleagues, are not just “Five Good Men”. They have been terrific role-models at a time when Indian cricket has grown from potential to strength. They have presided over a period that has been, quite undeniably, the most exciting phase of Indian cricket — with TV rights, monetary benefits, dominance on the world governing table, not to mention a strong and sustained growth in the strength of the team itself. Under their caring and watchful eye, India has won overseas Test matches and ODIs. India has started to translate its enormous potential into results on the ground. And this has been achieved by five extremely gentle, generous, well-mannered, humble, role models. History may not forgive their occasional indiscretions and tantrums. However, if they continue to overstay their tenure at the crease, history will be less kind — as it perhaps had been to Kapil Dev. We should not wish them to leave.
The responsibility for managing this exit should rest with the selectors. There can be no “deals”. There can be no voluntary retirement system in place. There should be a dignified and well-managed process for their exit. It cannot be up to the players! Anil Kumble will want to play till his arm falls off! Even last week, Anil Kumble said that he cannot put a time-frame on his retirement.
The selectors should develop the strategic roadmap and then have five independent conversations. They owe it to the Five gems. They also owe it to Indian cricket. For this to happen, as Harsha Bhogle says, “The non-negotiable here is the selector’s decision. You cannot sign a deal with a player for four games, for example, and keep him in the side if he doesn’t score a run in the first three and drop him if he makes a double hundred in the fourth. Ideally that conversation should happen before a player’s value has eroded but when the end is in sight. It should be a little nudge that says a push is round the corner. It then allows the player to either announce his retirement or take up the challenge and accept the push if the performance is not forthcoming. But for that to happen the selection committee has to be independent and their judgement non-negotiable. It is not impossible for it happens every day in places where merit is respected.”
India is lucky to have had these five dignified servants serve Indian cricket with excellence and courage. I certainly have been fortunate to have seen much of their cricket and have benefited from their frequent invasions of my living room. Indian cricket owes these Five Good Men a dignified, scripted and well-managed exit.