There was a bunch of post-millennials watching a World Cup cricket match in a Goan restaurant last month. Rohit Sharma had just scored yet another hundred and there was shouting and merriment all around. Amidst the ruckus, one youngster declared, “Hitman (Rohit Sharma’s nickname) is India’s greatest opener of all time.” “Hey,” I interjected, "What about Sehwag? And what about the legend named Gavaskar? He scored most of his runs against some of the best fast bowlers ever without wearing a helmet.” “Oh,” he replied. “He didn’t wear a helmet, did he? Did we tell him not to wear one?”
I bit my tongue and went back to sipping my beer. Baby-boomers like me, I had forgotten, were terribly out of sync with the modern world.
It’s the millennial and post-millennial age band that now watches cricket. For them cricket and IPL (Indian Premier League) are synonymous. Gavaskar, Michael Holding and the other commentators, as far as they are concerned, could have come out of the stone ages. It is this generation, more than anyone else, who believed before the World Cup of 2019 that Virat Kohli’s ‘men in blue’ were the real ‘invincibles’ — Bradman’s team of 1948 or Clive Lloyd’s men of the '70s or the Aussies led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting be damned.
In fact, a couple of months before the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, everything that Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri touched would turn to gold; well, almost! Therefore, it was a foregone conclusion that India would be World Cup champions in England and even television commercials were centred on that theme. “Is bar fans bhi jeetenge,” declared Kohli in an ad.
Half a billion voices fell silent that Wednesday night, on 10 July, when the Kiwis beat India by 18 runs, at Old Trafford, Manchester, to enter the final of World Cup 2019. With the generation change among cricket fans – or fanatics, if you may prefer to call them that – players’ homes are no longer stoned. Cricketers are now trolled on social media and not even their near and dear ones are spared. The latter, most often, hurts more than stones that are cast in anger.
Cricket fans in India are an emotional lot and have been so for many generations. In 1974, for example, after that disastrous tour of England, Ajit Wadekar, who had won for India those away series in the West Indies and England in 1971, was forced to retire. He had at least a couple of years of good international cricket left in him but the Indian cricket board would have none of it. The authorities knew that the stories of groupism within the team coming out of that trip, combined with disgraceful performances, wouldn’t go down well with Indian fans. It was therefore a couple of benefit matches for Wadekar and he was asked to go.
If I had believed that Indian cricket had matured over the years, I was wrong. After India crashed out of the World Cup recently and the exciting final between England and New Zealand was done and dusted, it was revealed that the men in blue were a divided lot during the prestigious event in England and Wales. Allegedly, all was not well in the team with skipper Kohli and his deputy, Rohit Sharma not seeing eye to eye on many issues.
It would probably not be out of place here to note that Kohli’s business interests have been looked after for a long time by Cornerstone Sport, a company owned by Rohit Sharma’s wife, Ritika’s cousin, Bunty Sajdeh. Ritika has, in fact, worked there as manager. The brilliant opener is, on the other hand, now contracted with IMG-Reliance, where Ritika’s brother is a manager. Has the rift between two of India’s brightest stars been caused by business interests or are the reasons cricketing? One may never know but this little fissure is surely going to hurt Indian cricket in the long run.
As rumours of the rift were cooling down, word came out that a senior player had his wife on the tour for the entire seven-week period, in contravention of BCCI’s orders. People started guessing: Was it MS Dhoni or was it Rohit Sharma? Team manager, Sunil Subramaniam shall surely have to answer some awkward questions very soon to the Committee of Administrators (CoA) and the media.
It has also come to light that selections to the playing 11 during the World Cup were allegedly made by the coach and skipper, unilaterally. Some players, it was said, despite repeated failures, were picked to play while others who were waiting in the wings were just ignored. There were suspicions raised about the replacements that were sent for injured players too. Ambati Rayudu, who was a stand-bye, and was not asked to replace either Shikhar Dhawan or Vijay Shankar, decided to leave cricket in a huff even as the World Cup tournament was reaching its climax. The question is, were business interests at play in team selections too?
Dhoni is by far the best wicket-keeper in the land at present though he is on the wrong side of 30. As Shastri and Kohli have often said, he brings value to the table also as a shrewd tactician and mentor. There is little doubt however that he is slowing down and as a batsman, he was at times found wanting during the World Cup matches. His fans – and his detractors – were therefore eagerly waiting for him to say adieu to the sport after the semifinal loss. That didn’t happen.
He has now taken time off to train with the Territorial Army, most probably in Kashmir, and hasn’t taken a call on his cricket career yet. ‘Mahi’ is said to do things differently but it is only hoped that he will walk out honourably and not wait for the selectors or BCCI to push him out.
When the World Cup was on, it was believed that Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah would be rested during India’s tour of the Caribbean Islands (and USA). After India’s semifinal exit, however, there were requests from some quarters – perhaps vested interests – to make Rohit Sharma India’s ODI skipper. We do not know if that was the reason Kohli made himself available for the tour of the West Indies.
When things are bad for an institution or a team, skeletons start tumbling out of the closet. If India had won the World Cup of 2019, these secrets would probably not have come out into the open, even if they had to fester. Moreover, if Virat Kohli’s team had brought the coveted cup home, the contracts of Shastri and his team of coaches, trainers etc. would have been happily extended by BCCI. That won’t happen now.
Fresh applications have been called for by BCCI to decide on India’s new head coach and support staff. The present coaching team’s contract has, in the meanwhile, been extended till the end of the West Indies tour. With some big names showing interest in coaching Team India, it is therefore very likely that Shastri won’t be India’s head coach beyond the Caribbean tour; unless, of course, this too is a sham.
The young India is obsessed with success. Somebody, therefore, shall have to pay for India’s semifinal exit from World Cup 2019; some heads need to topple so that others’ are saved. I fear, the coaches and a few hapless players will pay the price.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler, coach and administrator, he doesn’t believe in calling a spade a shovel.