standards in selection
their best foot forward
IN THE NEWS
After tainting cricket, match-fixing seems to have spread its tentacles to another ball game, writes M.S. Unnikrishnan
Mahesh Bhupathi’s revelation that he was contacted by a bookie to tank India’s Davis Cup match against Holland in Jaipur has rocked the All-India Tennis Association (AITA) boat like never before, as the Grand Slam player is not in the habit of telling lies.
Yet, what has startled AITA president Yashwant Sinha and secretary-general Anil Khanna is the timing and the Australian Open venue Bhupathi chose to drop the bombshell. Bhupathi may well get hoisted by his own petard as the AITA top brass wonders what was the provocation for him to make the "confession" after a long gap of 12 years.
Why didn’t he tell his non-captain Jaideep Mukherjea when the bookie rang him up on his cellphone to tank the match?
And why didn’t he inform the AITA about it, as it was not something to be trifled with, though it happened much before the cricket match-fixing scandal broke out. He had nothing to fear as India had won the tie and he himself had clinched both his singles matches.
Khanna also wonders — may be in jest — whether Bhupathi had a cellphone then as the mobile network was yet to catch on in the country, with only a privileged few having the contraption.
Though these doubts persist, the AITA has decided to probe deep into the matter as tennis and its players in India have always been perceived to be above board, and it is the duty of the federation to clear the cobwebs on the fair name of Indian tennis.
Traditionally, Indian Davis Cup players have hailed from a privileged, educated background, and it was an honour for them to represent the country, with monetary gains being least of their considerations.
Big money came to Indian tennis only in the late 1990s, and it were Leander Paes and Bhupathi who bargained for a better deal for the Davis Cuppers, and eventually clinched it.
For players like Ramanathan Krishnan, Premjit Lal, Jaideep Mukherjea, Vijay Amritraj and his two brothers Anand and Ashok, Ramesh Krishnan, Paes, Bhupathi et al, representing the country was an elevating, proud experience, and they recorded most of their memorable victories in the Davis Cup. So, it is difficult to sully the image of Indian tennis with match-fixing allegations, but Bhupathi’s charge has definitely put a question mark on the good image of the game.
"The country’s image is more important than anything else," said Khanna, who is also the president of the Asian Tennis Association and a member of the executive board of the International Federation. Perhaps, Bhupathi’s revelation may come as a god-send opportunity for the AITA to put in place the necessary checks and balances in the Indian tennis squads, hitherto taken for granted, and neglected.
Former Davis Cupper and national coach Akhtar Ali, whose son Zeeshan Ali also played in the Davis Cup, would not even imagine that something like match-fixing or tanking of matches could have ever happened in Indian tennis. "We all played the game for the love of it, and representing India was considered a great honour. No Indian player would have ever adopted unfair means in the Davis Cup to make money," he asserted.
Match-fixing, though, is nothing new in Indian sports as long before the cricket scandal erupted, such unfair means were reportedly in existence in football, at the Asian level in particular.
After the cricket controversy, there were also muted allegations of "match-fixing" in other team sports as well, but never ever was the game of tennis mentioned. It used to be a common feature in New Delhi to bet on and even "fix" matches in local football and hockey tournaments. Such allegations continue to surface in local tournaments, but to suspect tennis players of being the "fix-it type" is hard to believe.
standards in selection
IT was a classic case of bad timing. As the Indian squad celebrated the historic victory in Perth, the selectors sprang an unpleasant surprise on three team members. Quite unceremoniously, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly were left out of the team for the ODI tri-series in Australia.
Laxman might have expected not to be selected, despite his good form in the ongoing Test series, as ignoring him for one-dayers has become a norm. Dravid struggled in the first two Tests against Australia, but even a gritty 93 in Perth could not convince the "wise men" to retain him. Ganguly’s exclusion was even more surprising as he had been among the runs before he failed at WACA.
The omissions have been justified with the oft-repeated arguments, "We are preparing for the 2011 World Cup" or "We need a youthful fielding side". The big question is: If that happens to be the case, why not axe Sachin Tendulkar as well? Or is the 34-year-old little master, who by his own admission is finding the gruelling itinerary "tough", still "young"?
The "phasing out" of the seniors should not be done selectively. The BCCI’s plan to prepare a team with an eye on the future is commendable, but surely the same criterion wasn’t adopted while picking the Test captain a few months ago. The ageing Anil Kumble was chosen ahead of the young Mahendra Singh Dhoni. That was a stop-gap arrangement at best, even though it has been successful.
The 2011 World Cup is too far-off a target. The Indian team in the shorter versions of the game has some relatively imminent challenges to deal with — the upcoming tri-series, of course, the Champions Trophy later this year, and the Twenty20 World Cup in 2009.
The squad for the tri-series is obviously short on experience. Young players like Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Praveen Kumar, Piyush Chawla and S. Sreesanth have never played for Team India in Australia. It would be tough for them to acclimatise themselves to the conditions at such a short notice.
It remains to be seen whether the absence of Ganguly and Dravid would be felt. Incidentally, the Big Three did the selectors a huge favour by opting out of the Twenty20 World Cup last year (and the team didn’t miss the stalwarts one bit). Perhaps it’s time for them to simplify things again by quitting one-day international cricket (like Kumble did last year). Otherwise, they might continue to be at the mercy of the selectors, who can keep them in or out for any reason.
Harpreet Bedi idolises Cristiano Ronaldo, but unlike the twinkle-toed Manchester United winger, he announces himself by finding the target with a scorching long ranger rarely executed by footballers of his age.
The 14-year-old from Dehra Dun scored the all-important goal for St Stephen’s Football Academy, Chandigarh, in the summit clash of the Under-15 Manchester United Premier Cup (India finals) against Mahindra United in Mapusa, Goa, recently.
St Stephen’s had lost to SBHS Academy, Gurdaspur, in a penalty shootout in the semifinals, but they got to play in the final because the latter, along with three other teams, were disqualified for fielding overage players.
Quite aptly, St Stephen’s, the only original semifinalist surviving after the disqualifications, emerged the champions.
"We were fully confident that all our boys were not overage and the defaulting teams will be punished," academy’s assistant coach Sandeep Singh said. He prepared the team for the final after coach Surinder Singh had to return home.
St Stephen’s will represent India at the South-East Asia regional finals in Kuala Lumpur in June. The winners of the regional finals will play in the Manchester United Premier Cup in England.
The academy is doing a fine job of developing soccer talent at the grassroots level and several of its trainees have impressed the selectors.
Harpreet has already caught the eye of the national coaching staff and earned a call-up for the preparatory camp under AIFF’s technical director Colin Toal, ahead of the AFC U-16 Championship to be held in Uzbekistan in October.
Fittingly enough, Toal and national chief coach Bob Houghton were in the stands to watch Harpeet in action.
Harpreet, whose parents run a restaurant in the Uttarakhand capital, began playing the game for the sheer fun of it but now the Class IX student harbours ambitions of turning out for India.
"His parents brought him to Chandigarh four years ago and we held trials before inducting him," coach Surinder Singh said. "He has a good technique."
"Another trainee, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, was the Indian goalkeeper at the AFC U-16 qualifiers in Dammam, Saudi Arabia," said Surinder.
Apart from Harpreet, goalkeeper of the U-15 team Shubham Gupta and Johny Chand Singh have also been called up for the camp, he said.
The academy is part of an educational institution and has 50 students at a time till they pass Class X.
"We try to develop players so that they can be inducted in places like the Tata Football Academy, where their skills can be fine-tuned further. There, they will also get vital exposure and can aspire to play in tournaments such as the Durand Cup and the second division National League," the coach said.
There are several football academies coming up in Chandigarh and Punjab, which are testimony to the passion for the game in the region.
"However, apart from JCT, there are not any good clubs around and these too don’t have a very good academy. They make up for that with their resources and can afford to sign players from the rest of the country and abroad," Surinder said.
The academy, started in 1998, is largely made up of local players but there are some, like Harpreet, who come from other places to develop themselves as footballers. — PTI
WHEN out-of-form Irfan Pathan was sent home from South Africa in late 2006 to play in domestic cricket, it seemed cruel of the team management to single him out for such treatment. Little did he — or anybody else — know that this would be a blessing in disguise for him.
In the year or so since that "wake-up call", the Baroda cricketer has not only regained his touch but also emerged as a mentally stronger and technically better player.
He was the Man of the Match in the Twenty World Cup final against Pakistan as well as the Perth Test versus Australia (India recorded remarkable wins in both matches).
Incidentally, it was in Australia that Pathan made his Test debut as a 19-year-old in December 2003. The venue was Adelaide, where India triumphed to achieve their first Test victory Down Under in over two decades. A few months later, he played a key role in India’s unprecedented double series win (Tests and one-dayers) in Pakistan.
At that time, he seemed to be the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket since Kapil Dev. A new-ball bowler who had a knack for taking crucial wickets, and a useful batsman who was comfortable playing up the order, even as high as number three.
His meteoric rise, however, was followed by a shocking slump in form, giving rise to speculation that fame and fortune had come to him too soon. He lost rhythm as a bowler and tried in vain to stay afloat by dint of his batting. Things came to such a pass that he suffered the ignominy of being sent packing midway through the South Africa tour, which was surely the lowest point of his fledgling career.
All that is history now as Pathan has by and large cemented his place in the team in all three forms of the game. He’s back to taking wickets and scoring runs (His gutsy 46 in Perth against Brett Lee and Co showed how much he had matured as a batsman). One wonders whether things would have been different had he played in the Melbourne and Sydney Tests.
Despite his spectacular comeback, Pathan, still only 23, knows from experience that there is no room for complacency. He has to deliver regularly as a bowler. His batting is a bonus for the team, but he can’t remain in solely by making runs.
If he maintains his focus on his game and fitness, Pathan can become a great bowling all-rounder like his role model and unofficial mentor, Wasim Akram.