Choker BaahuBalisIt's time for me to come up a verbose and rambling Indian-cricket post-series post. As always, it is to help organise my own thoughts, so please humour me and interject when you see inconsistencies
First it was rusty, now it is chokers. To see the influence of the media in everyday life, you just have to pay attention to these words. Suddenly everyone starts to use them. They're on our lips and in the newsprint. So I thought it would be instructive to try and understand what the word "choker" really meant.
My OED does not define the word in a sporting context, so let me try and explain what it means to me. I have always held the word "choking" to express the condition wherein a team or a player who is in a good position to win a match inexplicably loses it, mainly because a state of mental panic and loss of equilibrium. This does not cover those cases wherein he/the team is *outplayed*. I may be indulging in some semantic pedantry here, but I don't see how else choking can be outlined. I have the following examples for this definition:
* Jana Novotna contriving to lose to Steffi Graf in the Wimbledon Final (I have forgotten the year - Anand or Harish, please fill in for me - was it 1993?)
* South Africa's famous Tied match in the '99 World Cup semis with Australia
* Some of the England football matches in major championships
* India's 2nd innings vs Pakistan in the 1999 Chennai Test
You may have experienced signs of "choking" personally as well, I certainly have - blowing it in tests and interviews inspite of knowing the answers.
By this token, was Sunday's defeat by Sri Lanka a result of "choking"? I for one don't think so. India were clearly outplayed in several aspects. More on that later. If you pay attention to media coverage (which ends up influencing the way we think and opine on this matter), it is very India-centric. It is "India who choked" or "India who were outstanding" or "India must be wary Vaas and Murali" or "India played loose cricket" all the time. On very few occasions do commentators and opinion makers focus on the other teams (except maybe when Australia are involved) and how what those teams do impact the way the Indians play. Perhaps that wasn't quite clear. What I'm trying to say is that the thrust of the coverage provides the active voice to the Indians and the passive voice to the opposition. I am not suggesting that this is limited only to the Indian media (or India-associated media, for foreign commentators have learned many easy ways to ingratiate themselves with Indian viewers) - if you follow the Sky coverage of the English team, the dronings of Bob Willis & Co. are equally similar. (The Aussies as well, though of late, Mark Taylor & Ian Healy seem to be taking a more pluralistic stance than Lawry and Greig - IMHO.)
This kind of focus is understandable, given the hungry nature of the audience. But this coverage builds the underlying assumption that each time the Indian team is superior to the opposition and they themselves decide whether they win or lose. So when we win, we did so because we were inherently better and had to win to prove our potential. But when we lose, we must have choked or played really below our potential - the opposition couldn't have won it on their own, we must have gifted it to them somehow. This feeling has crept in our minds and is here to stay. This is so very reminiscent of the English football fans at times - "It is the world that wrongs us all the time".
Not to say that we don't have a good team for again facts would disprove any attempts to radically swing to the other extreme. However, thinking of the team as the #2 in the world is also not borne out by facts. I personally had thought that we ought to have been #3 or #4 in ODIs, at any rate higher than #5, but I think #5 is a good indication of where we are at the moment.
Let me pause here to note that I think the ODI ratings would be more meaningful if as an exercise, we were to have separate ratings for different conditions as they make such a big difference. The following is a crude exercise based only on limited intuition rather than fact and considers only the 8 nations of Aus, NZ, Eng, SL, Ind, Pak SA and WI being relevant. Also, this is on current form.
On Subcontinental wickets:
1. Aus, SL, Pak, Ind (Pak & Ind perhaps a rung lower given current form)
2. SA, NZ
3. WI, Eng
In swinging conditions (i.e. Eng or NZ):
1. Aus, Eng, NZ
2. Ind, Pak, WI, SA
In bouncier/truer wickets (i.e. Aus or SA):
1. Aus, Ind, NZ, SA
2. Pak, SA, WI, SL
Looking at the above, the overall ranking would see:
2. NZ, SA
3. Eng, Ind, Pak, SL (mostly given their subcontinental form)
(There isn't much to separate the 5 teams from the bottom).
Put in proper perspective, SL were always going to be fancied to win at home on those tracks. But people are so surprised and angry that India lost to them. This I attribute to a media fuelled hype in this tournament.
I think this is team is as professional an outfit as we have ever seen. I'm sure like true pros, they will go back and analyse their current shortcomings instead of ascribing their losses to unreasonable and immature causes. Ganguly's postmatch comments clearly show that they are being reasonable about this. To us spectators I offer this: do we display this wild immaturity when we err in our professional lives? One should have thought that years of sports-watching would have taught us to discern somewhat. But we can't even resist simple media manipulation. For instance, today's TOI has a column blasting half the Indian team in words that are pure rants. I have long ceased to expect analysis there amidst all the sponsored columns, but this one was too bad. Bad because the same pages have laudatory homages most other times. I guess it is time we became more professional as spectators as well.
I personally have a tendency (like BVHK) to point out that once again SRT couldn't be given a chance to help win a match. It does seem like extended ill-luck, but then the counter argument will be that if he is dubbed a great player, he must invent his own luck. We must, in analysing these results, try and be more objective and look at it as the team's inability in supporting the player doing the job, be it SRT with the bat or IKP with the ball. Tomorrow it will be someone else being let down. Yes, the fact of number of losses in the finals is present and cannot be wished away. I wanted to learn more about this, but think it prudent not to do so without lookin more closely at the facts.
Specifically w.r.t Asia Cup 2004
I still think the Lankans were favourites throughout and just won by playing better than the other teams. Only having conceded that can we begin to look at our team. I will be happy if this result provokes a rethink on the 7 batsman structure. This plan needs to be more flexible than has been demonstrated so far. IMHO, we don't need to have 7 batsman as we can always claim that if 6 can't, how will 7? This tactic has worked only a couple of times, but since one of them was the Natwest final, we still are influenced by it. Remember that IKP is batting well of late, and I think a regular 'keeper (be it Ratra/Patel) can bat well with the tail, though he may not be a hitter. We also need to show greater reserves for the batsmen.
I didn't understand why Nehra was being sidelined for an out-of-form Zaheer (whose last over antics must not divert from this fact). Perhaps we have to live with the possibility that we will never have all our 5 pacers firing at the same time, and need to make the most of the resources. I don't know if we really have a problem with our bowling, unless of course the media goes overboard with their talents. Discipline with wides and no-balls, and a return to our average fielding form should be enough to bring some control to the leather hunts.
We still have a good team, and methinks, let not our prejudices, unrealistic overoptimism and emotional responses cloud that. We still aren't good enough to play percentage cricket with flair, or to stop resorting to "heroics". We will continue to bob about the higher-middle sections of the rankings. The season has only just begun - Holland, England, Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh and perhaps even Pakistan again beckon.