The last time the refrain "captain, the ship is sinking" was heard at a cricket ground was 11 years ago as Viv Richards's West Indies team completed a second blackwash of England. That cry wouldn't be inappropriate at the ground when India take on Sri Lanka in the final one-dayer of their 45-day tour. The result is immaterial; even a crushing victory for India would only be of consolation to individuals. The humiliation was complete long ago. And the bells are slowly beginning to toll for Sachin Tendulkar.
Don't get me wrong; Tendulkar will continue to play for India for a long time and may even captain the team again. But it is quite clear to any observer that he cannot wield the reigns of this Indian team much longer. The selectors had given it a thought after the disaster in the West Indies, following on from the South African calamity, and though one man cannot be held responsible, the captain has to take responsibility. In the net analysis, the selection panel would have to be blamed for entrusting the job to him before he was ready for it. But right now, he is in the spotlight. He will have to step down if he wants to avoid the humiliation of being replaced very soon.
It was not until very recently that Tendulkar started blaming other members of the team for their collective showing. The fact that he is starting to do this is sufficient indication that the pressure is getting to him and he feels that his neck is on the chopping block. Dravid was blamed once for slow scoring during the Asia Cup; after the one-day series was lost to Sri Lanka, it is the bowlers who are taking the flak. There is a hint of desperation in his placing part of the blame for the team's performance on the absence of a phsyical trainer, something he has repeatedly requested. When a man starts to whinge in this way, you know that his number is up. And Sachin has been around long enough in Indian cricket to know. Else he has no shortage of godfathers to tell him the truth.
The way Richie Richardson reacted during the World Cup semi-final comes to mind. The match was as good as won when Chanderpaul fell but after that there were a series of erratic changes in the batting order; a pinch-hitter came in when none was needed, regular batsmen were shoved down the order, and in the end it all fell apart. Richardson had, before the match, announced that he would be giving up the captaincy after the tournament; that is the only dissimilarity. The only reason he was desperately trying to go out on a high note was to prove that, in pushing him out, the entire team had erred.
Tendulkar appears to be reacting in a similar way judging by his chopping and changing the batting order; Jadeja, who made a century in the first one-dayer against Lanka, was sent in at his regular place, six, for the second tie. The man is known to be an excellent pinch-hitter when in touch. Nobody will forget the way he took Waqar Younus apart in Bangalore during the World Cup quarter-final. Instead, Robin Singh came in and did half of what Jadeja could have done. It was a lack of thinking; two left-handers (Singh and Ganguly) at the crease made Sri Lanka's task easier.
Another point about Richardson's last days as skipper bears recall. It was only just before he made the announcement about resigning that his mentor, the man who was instrumental in ensuring that he got the captaincy, Vivian Richards, criticised him and openly said in a newpaper column that Brian Lara would be a better captain. Tendulkar's mentor, Gavaskar, hasn't gone so far as to suggest a replacement but recently he has started to criticise his protege's captaincy. Sachin's intelligence has also been called into question by phrases like this about the second one-dayer: "Cricket at the international level... is a game of minds and the stronger one invariably goes on to win."
It is sad that things have come to this, more so because Tendulkar is a man of no ordinary talents when it comes to cricket. He is just too young for the captaincy. The selectors know how much of a draw he is in marketing terms and this was one of the factors which they took into account when promoting him. It does not always stand to reason that the best batsman in the team is a good captain; Gavaskar was no great skipper either. There should have been a stand-in for a few years and then Sachin should have been given the job, the same way that the West Indies have done with Walsh and Lara.
The selectors will be desperate to reverse this losing trend. The whole process is driven by sponsors and no company likes to have its logo resting on the lapels of a loser for long. If this losing trend continues, then the money will slowly start drying up. Then the circus will have to halt and the organsiers will have to take a good long look at all the performers; if this happens, Jagmohan Dalmiya's golden goose would be well and truly and cooked and well before Christmas too.
Factional and regional politics will always be part of the process of selecting an Indian team. If evidence was needed, then one only has to look at the way the whole of Calcutta reacted to the rout which India suffered in the second one-dayer; they were celebrating, merely because Saurav Ganguly had got his maiden one-day hundred. That the team had been mauled didn't bother them. The same is true at every level in the country. It is only a captain who can lead from the front -- and this can only be said of one Indian captain, Tiger Pataudi -- who will hold the team together and get them to perform to their strengths at least half of the time. Tendulkar was lucky in that he had two winning starts against Australia and South Africa but those were at home. Abroad, he has been exposed. It is time he faced the truth and, in the interests of the country, offered to step down. Indian cricket has made him what he is; it is time he repaid some of the debt.