(I wrote this piece a week before the India-Sri Lanka series started)
Team sports traditionally have had a little bit of place for everyone. There will remain individuals who rise above the team; there will be the over achieving “superstar”, there will be the niche specialist, and then there will always be “bridesmaids”, players who are a part of all the action, always there, but rarely center stage.
Indian cricket, with all its hysterical following, hasn’t been the exception either. In every team there have always been individuals who were essential for the team’s smooth functioning, but who always remained in the shadow. Pataudi and Jaisimha were stars, and even Farookh Engineer had his following, as Bapu Nadkarni trudged in to bowl quietly (returning with remarkable figures like 35-28-7-1). When Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Venkat and Prasanna mesmerized batsmen with their guile, Eknath Solkar quietly continued to take stunning catches, standing three feet away from the feet of those very batsmen.
1983 almost became the year of the bridesmaid. True, the Indian team had Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, but it really belonged to those who crave for that one moment under the spotlight. Balwinder Sandhu, Roger Binny and Madan Lal trotted in to bowl faster than they ran, while Mohinder Amarnath stunned batsmen by running in faster than he bowled, and all of them picked up bagfuls of wickets. Yashpal Sharma and Sandeep Patil enjoyed every moment of their few days of fame. And then, months after the cup was lifted, they drifted back in to their lives of honest obscurity (even Mohinder Amarnath did, even though he was a fine batsman).
Then something started happening. Perhaps it was the more prominent role media started playing in Indian cricket. The bridesmaid started becoming rare, and (dare I say it), less essential. The teams of the ‘80’s seemed to only be comprised of individual stars. Shastri, Kapil, Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Sidhu, Prabhakar, Azar, even More, they all seemed to grow in to larger than life personalities, and the team became centered around them. Clearly, a team with too many centers wasn’t going to perform too well, so though their personal records swelled, while the team drifted in to obscurity. There were some patches of bridesmaid excellence though, with Srikkanth (who is remembered more for his erratic batting, but was an excellent team-player), Maninder Singh, or Chetan Sharma (who unfortunately is remembered only for gifting Miandad with a “six-ball” in that last over at Sharjah). Somehow, they held the team together.
In Azar’s time, the transformation in to a team of under-achieving superstars was complete. Every player had a king-sized ego, or a king-sized personality. It was perhaps the sorriest time in Indian cricket. There was one bright spot though. One player remained the faithful bridesmaid though, performing beyond expectations. Robin Singh, that amiable Trinidadian who made Chennai his permanent home, was called in to the Indian team when he was in his early thirties, and gave it every little bit of effort he had. Time and again, he would walk out when India were batting terribly, with six wickets down, and start a rescue act with Ajay Jadeja (who’s fame perhaps got into his head). Every time the ball was tossed to him, he’d run in to bowl his military medium pace uncomplainingly. When younger players like Kumble, Srinath or Ganguly would make a mess of the simplest fielding efforts, and leave the field with spotless uniforms, there would be Robin Singh, with frayed elbows as early as the fifth over of the game, throwing his aged body to stop every ball from passing. While his colleagues would make millions endorsing everything from credit cards and soft drinks to cars and motorcycles, all he ever got to endorse was “Bigfun” chewing gum. But his indomitable spirit would remind us that cricket always had room for the big-hearted, who played for the team.
The Indian team of the 21st century though is the team of the super-star, who sometimes does perform in a team unit. That was a transformation Ganguly (of 4 years ago) brought about. Superstars performed to potential, but played for a team, and that produced results. But the strain of keeping a team of superstars together has begun to show. Now every one of the eleven players is a bonafide superstar. Players like Kaif or Yuvraj Singh (who average just barely in the thirties) have played over one hundred ODI’s each, with barely a test record, and would have been bridesmaids fifteen years ago. But they are not. The media goes in to a frenzy even when they play. Kaif, after a few promising innings was compared to that incomparable finisher, Michael Bevan (with nearly seven-thousand runs at an average of over fifty). Yuvraj endorses just about any thing that can be endorsed. Harbajan Singh continues to flatter only to deceive. Ajit Agarkar might make it in to the bridesmaid category, but he started off towards superstardom (rushing to fifty quick wickets in ODIs), but squandered that start by continuing to perform erratically. Parthiv Patel, in his few moments of mediocrity, hogged his share of interview columns.
People forget that bridesmaids are essential for a smooth wedding. They hold it together, gluing the little bits. They act as bridges. They divert some of the attention. They take care of little things. They keep smiling, and lift spirits.
Perhaps the Indian team could do with more bridesmaids today. Yet perhaps all is not lost. Rahul Dravid has been the quintessential bridesmaid, though he might well be the best test batsman India has ever produced. He’s finally become a bride…….perhaps he can recreate a team ethic and make the wedding proceedings work smoothly.