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OFF ITS LOFTY PERCH

At the crossroads

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In less than five months following our incredible World Cup victory, Indian cricket has been reduced to a caricature by an England team that punched way above its weight in a high-voltage series where the stakes were pretty high. Like a blundering, out-of-luck gambler, MS Dhoni surrendered in 10 weeks all the nuggets of fame that the Indian team had so painstakingly acquired over the past few years as it criss-crossed the globe in its endeavour to be the best side on Planet Cricket.

A 4-0 whitewash in the Test series and a 3-0 verdict in the ODIs has not only knocked Team India off its lofty perch, but also seen it slip so low in world cricket's pecking order that the richest cricket board in the world is now saddled with a team less than ordinary.

In the battlefield of cricket, the severity of blows rained on the Indian team by a determined and well-prepared England has hurt its pride. Our numero uno status in Test cricket has been snatched away by England, the aura of our World Cup triumph has long vanished and the team's capitulation in the game's shorter formats has pushed the world champions down to No 5 in the ODI Order of Merit. And, the slip is showing.

With no roadmap at its disposal, Indian cricket now finds itself at the crossroads. The new set of office-bearers, who have taken fresh guard to run the BCCI over the next couple of years, must therefore not only initiate remedial measures at the earliest to help the team regain its lost confidence, but also turn the corner.

A weak Indian team is bad for world cricket, which needs Indian cricket's financial muscle to sustain itself. Advertisers who usually fall over themselves to secure the services of Indian cricketers to sell their products - from vitamin pills to laptops - are known to break into a rash when the team loses. Many brands, unwilling to be tagged with losers, are quick to drop an ad or even the cricketer(s) concerned when times are bad.

As members at BCCI's 82nd AGM in Mumbai on Monday unanimously 'elected' a new set of office-bearers, it signalled the beginning of a new era in India's cricket administration that has traditionally been plagued by factionalism.

The team assembled by BCCI's new president, N Srinivasan, does not have a new look about it. Rather, it has old faces in new roles. The good thing is that continuity has not been sacrificed in a bid to please all. For example, the president himself used to be the secretary and the new secretary - Sanjay Jagdale - used to be the joint secretary. Anurag Thakur, the new joint secretary, and Ajay Shirke, the treasurer, may be new to their posts but have been presidents of their respective state associations in Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The fact that each one of them was unanimously elected implies that the various arms of the BCCI can function without fear or favour in a collective endeavour to put Indian cricket back on the rails.

By refusing to appoint a review committee to probe the debacle in England, the BCCI has shown that it does not want to put additional pressure on the players, who after all must shoulder the bulk of the blame for Team India's most woeful show in the new millennium.

If sources in the Indian board are to be believed, the riot act has already been read out to the players - they can't hide injuries and play. The national selection panel, with the inclusion of Mohinder Amarnath, has certainly acquired more depth. It will be well-advised not to pick any player, irrespective of his star value, without a fitness certificate from the National Cricket Academy that monitors all injured players' rehabilitation.

The selection committee under Krish Srikkanth will have to discuss retirement plans with stalwarts like Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid so that their replacements can be groomed under coach Duncan Fletcher.

With all three formats of the game competing with one another on the international stage, it is imperative that selectors create three pools of cricketers - Test specialists, limited-overs bravehearts and a small group of players who are good at both forms. It will help the players if they know what is expected of them, and instead of trying to somehow fit themselves into the Indian squad, they would be better off enhancing their skills set in their preferred format of the game. The selectors may also be tempted to split the Indian captaincy with Dhoni retaining only one half of it - in the ODIs and T20s. Given his poor form in Test cricket, where his record with the bat as well as the big gloves in the last 25 games has been abysmal, Dhoni would be better off without the cares of captaincy in the game's most challenging format. After presiding over an apocalyptic tour of England, Dhoni's position as captain is most vulnerable at the moment. He will survive the axe not because of his heroic innings in the World Cup final, but for want of a viable alternative candidate for the hot seat. Had Virender Sehwag or Gautam Gambhir been fit and firing, the selectors would have handed over the reins of the team to either of the two Delhi openers who have both led the national team in the past. However, with Sehwag trying to shake off a nasty after-effect of his shoulder surgery and Gambhir struggling to recover from a concussion, there is no suitable man for the job.

For Dhoni, as well as a few other senior players, the upcoming tour of Australia will represent the 'Last Frontier', as individuals as well as a team. Unless they emerge to hold firm against Australia's onslaught Down Under, expect the 'Great Indian Empire' to crumble and the rebuilding work to start from scratch.

It would call for astute statesmanship from BCCI officials, who must also keep an eye on the IPL, which attracts controversies as easily as a flame attracts moths.

In its chequered history, BCCI members have always risen above petty politics to stand united when faced with a grave crisis. Jagmohan Dalmiya, the erstwhile president of the ICC, found this out the hard way when he tried to anoint himself as the 'patron' of the BCCI. The discredited Lalit Modi too was ousted in a bloodless coup last year. But those were crises off the field. The threat to Indian cricket is no longer from within, for danger lurks on the battlefield.

At a time when other sports bodies in the country are struggling to even hold on to their existence, BCCI members have empowered their bosses to redefine the contours of Indian cricket. They can ill-afford to drop the ball.

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