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Ganguly's team needs a huge dose of self-belief

By Nirmal Shekar

REMARKABLY, the more things change in the world of sport, the more they seem to remain the same. It is a world where "life is but a dream whose shapes return,'' as the Scottish poet, James Thomson, wrote in The City of the Dreadful Night. Some return to delight us, yet others to haunt us. For sport is as much a vehicle for hopes and dreams as it is a purveyor of nightmares.

In the event, hardened sportswatchers who have long since come to see the unexpected as nothing but the familiar flip side of the expected, would hardly be shocked by the mediocre performances put up by Sourav Ganguly's team in limited overs cricket over the past few weeks, beginning with the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka.

If the over-the-moon feeling that Ganguly and his men have experienced for the most part since that heady NatWest Trophy triumph in England two years ago saw some of us get carried away, then the sinking feeling that has now enveloped this talented Indian team is nothing but a reminder that the capricious wheel of sport is turning forever and ever. Remember New Zealand and the made-to-order drop-in green-tops before the World Cup?

As the most successful captain in Indian cricket, Ganguly may well believe that nothing succeeds like success. But, then, in sport a despicable side of failure is the built-in contagion factor. One leads inexorably to another.

If one — success — is a validation of every sportsman's dream, then the other — failure — is nothing more than a case of the dream turning sour, developing dark shadows. Nonetheless, they are no more than non-identical twins in a world where things happen over and over again.

Even as the wheel turns relentlessly, playing out the Nietzschean theme of eternal recurrence again and again, it often takes a rare combination of virtues to arrest its momentum. If it takes a special kind of talent to manage talent in sport — not the least in cricket — then it requires enormous strength of will, one-pointed focus, and the discipline and organisation of a great army on the march in the battlefield, to make sure that you don't end up taking two steps back after sweating it out to go one step forward.

Few would dispute the fact that Ganguly and Co., did indeed take a huge step forward over the last two seasons. With one of the most impressive array of batsmen seen in post-War cricket, considerable improvement in fielding standards that rewarded a new crop of young fast bowlers and, not the least, confident, no-nonsense leadership, Team India did suggest that it was the only one that might be able to challenge the Australian hegemony.

Fall

Yet, just a few months after the team's triumphant return from the tour of Pakistan, where it won both the ODI and Test series, that great hope is in tatters. A country that generates much of the game's revenue and where the members of the national team are not only multi-millionaires and popular FMCG models but, more importantly, are worshipped as demi-gods by youngsters, has been found incapable of making it to the last four of a limited-overs competition in an era when the world of cricket is not exactly awash in riches in terms of pure talent.

South African cricket is surely betraying signs of terminal decline. Their causes are many and their elaboration is beyond the purview of this column.

The West Indies brings off that odd victory but Brian Lara, in his wildest dreams, wouldn't hope to match Clive Lloyd's record as captain. As for Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, they are unlikely to become world-beaters in your lifetime or mine.

Apart from India, perhaps the only team that has shown throbbing signs of revival in the last two seasons is England. With the flowering of Andrew Flintoff as the game's most gifted all-rounder, Michael Vaughan leads as good an English side as any man has had the opportunity to captain in more than a decade.

What all this means is simple: after having taken courageous strides towards the summit, with an appearance in the World Cup final and a famous drawn Test series in Australia, India had a tremendous chance to take advantage of the mediocrity at the middle and lower levels and aim for the top, challenging Australia for world supremacy in both forms of the game.

Yet, after failing to make 220 plus to beat Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup and after losing three matches in a row to a Pakistan team that's been revitalised by Bob Woolmer, the famous Indian Top Seven looks about as capable of world beating feats as an Indian tennis player might be of taking a set from Roger Federer in a Grand Slam match.

Virender Sehwag is batting as if he was an all-conquering baseball player who has been suddenly forced to try his hand at opening the innings in cricket.

Laxman is not very special anymore. Sachin Tendulkar is left wondering if the tennis elbow that has kept him out recently could be a career-threatening injury. Yuvraj Singh looks good everywhere on the field except with a bat in hand and in front of the wicket.

Batting fiasco

Indeed, for the famous Indian batting line-up, everything that can go wrong actually seems to have gone wrong. In the midst of such a crisis, Ganguly continues to put up a brave front as you might have expected him to. But he and the team management will need to seriously question themselves whether they have done everything possible to arrest the slide, not the least when it comes to team selection and the experiments urgently needed to stem the rot.

This apart, it is time experts began to examine how productively our top cricketers are making using of the time available during off-season. However short this season may be, the best of athletes in any sport plan well ahead and make the most of the time off.

All-time great

Andre Agassi, one of the all-time greats in tennis, has four Australian Open titles among his collection of eight Grand Slam titles. This is a significant fact simply because the Melbourne championship, in January, comes immediately after the year-end off-season. In his 30s, after over a decade and a half in the sport, Agassi has been in the habit of practising hard and training like a teenager during his time off from the week-after-week grind.

The Australian cricketers will be familiar with such a routine. Little over a week from now, India will play host to the mightiest team in world cricket and literally, it will be a chance to shut out the Blues and turn up in sparkling Whites, take a leaf out of Australian book of winning cricket and forget all about the last few weeks.

Then again, if only poor form and plunging confidence levels can be overcome as simply as all that! It may not, but cricket, as the redoubtable Geoff Boycott constantly reminds us, is a "funny game". And much of the fun lies in making that honest attempt to get over a slump. To do this, Ganguly and men, as talented as they are, only need a huge dose of self-belief.

This apart, this Indian cricket team has to remember that it owes so much to so many — the millions who follow every step they take, the tens of millions who make cricket the enormously rich sport that it is in this country. Nowhere in world sport have so many (fans) given so much for so little in return, as in India in the last few weeks.

The only large-scale sport following comparable can be seen in Brazil where millions worship the country's footballers. But in a sport that is played by over 200 countries, the Brazilian footballers have won the World Cup a record five times.

On the other hand, in a sport that is played by less than a dozen countries with any kind of seriousness, India has that solitary 1983 World Cup triumph to celebrate.

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