Monday, July 30, 2007

India’s answer to John and Paul...

Richard Hobson at Times Online

If the India middle order are the equivalent of the Fab Four, then their latest album was a worthy, three-star affair. There was no easy genius of Eleanor Rigby or ground-breaking shift of Sergeant Pepper. But it had enough to satisfy fans, who will feel confident of finishing in the No 1 position by the end of the second npower Test.

A stand between Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly is the same as a Lennon/McCartney collaboration. Tendulkar is Paul: melodic, clean-cut and brilliant in an orthodox fashion. He needed only to wink and give a thumbs-up on completing his half-century for the comparison to be complete.

Ganguly is John, a hero, if not of the working class. He, too, loves nothing more than to sneer at authority.

That leaves Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman to fight for the George Harrison role. Neither would appreciate being cast as Ringo Starr – though the much-maligned drummer’s finest moment of Octopus’s Garden, with its couplet “I’d like to be/Under the sea”, can now be reassessed as a prophetic insight into life after global warming.

After the criticism that followed the near-defeat at Lord’s, these chastened batsmen must have longed for yesterday. They scored 261 runs between them, 63 more than the entire England XI in the first innings. Suddenly the idea of tearing up the record deal to make space for younger artists seems to be somewhat out of key.

Greg Chappell, the former coach, tried and briefly succeeded in dropping Ganguly from his playlist, citing musical differences. That is one reason why he is a former coach. John Wright, his predecessor, had the right idea, avoiding battles that he could not win and unleashing frustration on the pages of his private diaries instead.

One newspaper yesterday carried a report about Shane Warne helping England by offering his thoughts on young players. He has been doing this for years, in an informal way, but he probably did Ganguly a favour last week by suggesting that the former captain represented the weakest link in the batting lineup.

With a pointed retort that would have impressed Lennon, Ganguly answered suggestions of weakness against the short-pitched ball by hooking Chris Tremlett for six. To underline his superiority, he then made the bowler wait before he had admired his own shot on the big-screen replay.

Things were more tricky at the other end. Tendulkar managed to score from only three of the 48 balls he faced in Ryan Sidebottom’s first spell, a ratio that he would not have been allowed earlier in his career. Batsmen, like musicians, move with the times; even Bob Dylan is in the process of being remixed as rap.

Nobody has accused Tendulkar, unlike his partner, of being awkward. Nobody has accused him of much, other than being past his best as a batsman. Even then it is couched in favourable terms because he is considered too nice for full-on criticism. Any Frog Chorus moments – a lax shot here and there – are lamented with a quiet shake of the head.

Eighteen years on from his Test debut, Tendulkar can no more bat with the freedom that enabled him to score 177 on the same Trent Bridge stage in 1996 than McCartney can write another Penny Lane. The question that should be asked is not whether these people are as good as they were, but whether they are still good enough.

The audience and marketing men clearly think that they are. According to one Ganguly website, calling itself “the home of the Bengal tiger”, he at present has 16 commercial endorsements, while a section of tributes presents a never-ending list of accolades from the great and the good of cricket, Bollywood and family.

It is a curious roll-call where Steve Waugh and Nasser Hussain mix alongside Sunil Shetty and Dona Ganguly, who says of her husband: “He is a nice person, though he is a bit quiet.” The suggestion of timidity may surprise those who credit Ganguly with giving India the aggression that enabled them to beat Waugh’s Australia.

Nevertheless, this must amount to a farewell tour. India are not due back here until 2011, and even their own board, with a capacity for filling every spare day with a concert of some sort, will go easy on their commitments from now on. The ICC World Twenty20 in September is to proceed without Tendulkar and Ganguly. Let it be.

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