The Independence Cup being hosted by India can surely claim to be unique in one respect; at the time it got underway the hosts were nowhere to be seen! They were at the other end of the world, honouring a commitment made by the Indian board to the cricket authorities in Bermuda. Why Bermuda, one may well ask. The board secretary, Jagmohan Dalmiya, would surely have the answer to that one! He is, by his own admission, in the process of helping to spread the game to different parts of the world and one can only laud the man for having such noble objectives. And if he chose to send the team to Bermuda, one must surely applaud his initiative. Vanuatu and the Honduras may beckon in future.
In the process, if the Indian team has to land in Bombay in the wee hours of Monday (and remember there is a big time difference between India and Bermuda), fly to Bangalore right away and be forced to have a light practice session before collapsing exhausted in bed, then these are just some of the little problems which are associated with such noble gestures. I mean, you have got to be prepared to sacrifice a bit for the sake of the game, what? Javagal Srinath has already been sacrificed and others may well follow suit. Such unselfishness as displayed by the Indian board is indeed rare to find.
If any confirmation was needed that this is a step in the right direction, manager Madan Lal was there to provide it. In true professional style, Madan attributed the lack of time for the team to recover to "professional schedules". And according to him, this is one of those things which one has to learn to handle. Great stuff, Madan. He couldn't say anything else could he, not when his job is on the line all the time. That he never faced such testing schedules during his playing days is irrelevant.
Apart from the physical strain of having played cricket continuously for longer than most can remember, the team is also under considerable mental strain. It has been more or less confirmed that Azharuddin was dropped due to Tendulkar's insistence; there was a reason which could be cited, namely Azhar's poor showing in the West Indies. But somehow things have leaked out and some say there was even an effort by the selectors to get Tendulkar to step down. The captain, who appears to know the type of politics that selectors play, played his zonal cards right and continues in the job. What kind of dressing room atmosphere can one expect in a situation like this?
Apart from the team problems, there is the weather. India, in May, is not the most pleasant of places to be. The heat is intense in the north and equally so in the south. Gwalior must have been torture. Bangalore will be bad too. The same goes for Madras. The only reason why the tournament is being staged at this time is that there is no other time slot which is free. The board chose a political occasion to ensure that no-one would badmouth the tournament; such an individual would be seen as unpatriotic for isn't the tournament being held to mark the 50th year of Indian independence?
There are any number of ex-cricketers who are associated with the game, a good number of them in the visual media. Yet, nobody has the guts to come out openly and say that this kind of schedule can kill the sport and, quite often, the player too. How many athletes can keep running 100 metres below 10 seconds if they have to do it in competition every day? The Indian team is not only playing most of the time, it is travelling vast distances, crossing time zones and is still expected to perform well. The hype that is constantly dished out by the visual media is enough to convince the public that this is a champion team.
Expectations thus remain high. And this will be the case when a jet-lagged, dog-tired team goes out in Bangalore to take on New Zealand in their first tie of the Independence Cup. One has to pity the team to some extent; they have no choice as they are contracted to the board. But there is also the other side of the coin -- are the cricketers going to continue to be forced to keep to such ridiculous schedules without ever protesting? Will the money they earn compensate for much shorter careers and poor performances? There is some soul-searching to be done on both sides and it should be done before we have too many more Indian cricketers joining the ranks of Srinath.