No criticism please, this is Indian Cricket
Last week, the Indian men’s cricket team won the Test series against a pathetic West Indies in the Caribbean and this week, coach Ravi Shastri said, “this team has an opportunity to do great things. We have a legacy like the West Indies did in the eighties and Australia did at the turn of the century. This team, too, has an opportunity to leave that kind of legacy, and they are already doing it.”
That’s an overstatement, for in his time as coach India’s only substantial achievement has been the Test series win against a weakened Australia. In just more than a month since India’s World Cup semi-final loss, the lingering questions on what happened in the tournament, look closed with the West Indies win. Dhoni’s future, for instance, is one.
Shastri’s words speak volumes about India’s cricket culture: There is little pushback or check on individuals in power. In this situation, what’s the role of the cricket commentariat? Are they critical or not? Are they pro-cricket or are they pro-India? Indian cricket is an unpretty reflection of subcontinental culture: blind hero worship; genuflection to authority; concentration of power; vehicle of ‘patriotism’. Criticism about Dhoni’s position has come from outside the cricketing mainstream. It’s almost become the question one should not ask. And that’s because we either venerate or denigrate. Consider one moment.
In the World Cup, India lost the game against England, which came after a poor show against Afghanistan. Dhoni was poor in both games. Mohammad Shami, who took a hat-trick earlier, was taken apart by England, though he took wickets. Like Indian bowlers of yore, he did well in the first spell and got smashed at the end. Jasprit Bumrah was brilliant.
During the innings break, Hindi and English commentators complimented England’s batting, Bumrah’s bowling, and no-one said anything on Shami. Sachin Tendulkar joined Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman and they agreed England had posted a “challenging total” and India had “batting depth”.
As India’s batting wore on, Dhoni exhibited his now settled slowness under pressure. But the larger question was over the reluctance in questioning such methods. Towards the end of the game, on-air commentator Nasser Hussain probed and prodded co-commentator Sourav Ganguly for an explanation. Finally, Ganguly conceded that India’s tactics were “strange”. Why?
For former Indian legends to criticise Dhoni might mean pointing fingers towards themselves. Some India stars got some rope in the evening of their careers. How can they raise a finger against an ex-peer?
In the past, John Wright’s and Greg Chappell’s stints as coach of the Indian cricket team were insightful cultural encounters. Both individuals spoke their minds, though there was a huge difference from the friendly Wright to the brusque Chappell. In his book, Wright recalls the moment he had to give young Virender Sehwag a dressing down for throwing his wicket away. In many ways, it bettered Sehwag’s game.
Many Indians loathe Greg Chappell. But Chappell’s leaked letter on his fracas with Ganguly in 2005 is another instance of a war on temperament. Truth is, when Ganguly was dropped, he returned a much better player. The criticism worked for him. At the start of his career, Bishen Singh Bedi had called him out for his attitude. Again, that spurred him. Ian Chappell didn’t have nice things to say about Tendulkar after India’s poor show in the World Cup of 2007. Tendulkar’s response was a sterling show in England and Australia later.
Defending his brother, Ian Chappell wrote in 2005: “Greg can be a very patient man, much more diplomatic than either his father or his elder brother. However, if you don’t want to hear the truth, then don’t ask him for a frank opinion. Greg grew up in a household where frank opinions were served up at the breakfast table more often than cereal and fruit juice.”
Taking the risk of speaking one’s mind and making constructive suggestions is essential for any society. Like him or not, the Indian commentator Sanjay Manjrekar, at least in his writings, often offends the cricket establishment. His quip about Ravindra Jadeja being a “bits and pieces” player fuelled public ire. But perhaps, that played no small role in Jadeja playing out of his skin in the World Cup semi-final. To express and be accepting of dissent is crucial for any individual’s evolution. In that sense, our cricket commentariat is of a piece with the rest of society: it’s too scared and too respectful because it is too compromised.