Winning isn't everything

Make no mistake, Indian cricket needed this tour of South Africa. A team of young and inexperienced batsmen yet to prove themselves needed this journey to hell - playing the best team in the world in their backyard is as close as you'll get to sporting purgatory.

Updated: September 02, 2013 20:20 IST
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If you're a sports history buff, this is an important week. September 2 is the birth centenary of Bill Shankly, the manager who took Liverpool Football Club from second-division mediocrity to European football's top table. September 3 will mark 43 years since the death of Vince Lombardi, the American Football coach who took the Green Bay Packers, a franchise from a city with a population less than one-tenth that of a New York City borough, to five NFL Championships in seven years, including victory in the first two Super Bowls.

Both men, born within months of each other in 1913, epitomised sport at its finest, with an emphasis on building from the ground up and commitment to old-style values. Decades on, fans of their teams and others revere them, such was their transparent passion for the sports that gave them everything. They may have been larger-than-life figures with a penchant for outlandish quotes, but the dynasties they built weren't concerned only with winning. They also recognised the valuable role that sport can play in making sense of the world around it. "Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work," said Lombardi.

In a week when we honour the memory of two such men, it's deeply disturbing to read of the uncertain fate of India's tour of South Africa. The itinerary that Cricket South Africa (CSA) had originally drafted included three Tests, seven ODIs and two Twenty20 games, and was supposed to start in mid-November and finish on January 19. With a series against West Indies now penciled in for November - they were supposed to tour India in the winter of 2014 - and the tour of New Zealand starting on January 19, it's evident that any tour of South Africa, if it takes place at all, will be an abbreviated one. (Related blog - The inexplicable ways of BCCI)

With little transparency on the reasons why this has happened - Omerta may be a Sicilian construct, but it has been perfected by the BCCI - we can only analyse the impact it will have on the cricket calendar and the teams involved. And no matter how much spin you give it, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that this latest step has everything to do with CSA appointing Haroon Lorgat as its chief executive.

By downgrading the South Africa tour, Indian cricket has only breathed life into that old expression about cutting off the nose to spite the face. Make no mistake, Indian cricket needed this tour. A team of young and inexperienced batsmen yet to prove themselves needed this journey to hell - playing the best team in the world in their backyard is as close as you'll get to sporting purgatory.

Great teams are not the consequences of victories. They are invariably put together from the ashes of defeat and struggle. Every West Indies legend you talk to will mention the humiliating 5-1 defeat in Australia in 1975-76 as the springboard for future greatness. Sir Matt Busby won a European Cup with Manchester United (1968) a decade after he had lost eight of the Busby Babes in the icy wastes at Munich Airport.

You don't even need to look that far afield. Just speak to Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman about the batterings in South Africa in 1996-97, when India were bowled out for 100 and 66 in Durban, or the 3-0 whitewash in Australia in 1999-2000. Ask them how much they learned from those experiences, and how much they contributed to making them the players they became. When they lost, they didn't lose the lesson.

This is not to say that India are certain to lose if they tour South Africa. In sport, we can't take anything for granted. But there's little doubt that the team will be tested as it has not been since the reverses in England and Australia in 2011-12. Any runs you score against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander can be taken almost as a guarantee of quality. The same goes for wickets against a batting line-up featuring Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. If you succeed there, a team can be built around you.

Cricket South Africa will doubtless lose some money. It will be seen as a slap in the face for Lorgat, a man who made the mistake of not ingratiating himself with the BCCI during his time as the ICC's chief executive. But in the long run, it's the players and fans on both sides that lose out, deprived of a proper series between two teams that have contested some captivating ones in recent times.

All over the world, despite protestations to the contrary, Test cricket is treated like the unwanted stepchild. Except when India, England and Australia play each other, you won't find a series that lasts longer than three Tests. South Africa's last home series against Australia featured just two, the same as there were when they toured India in 2010.

Teams still produce enthralling cricket on the field. Unfortunately, much of it is overshadowed by power games and ego trips off it. No one looks at the bigger picture, obsessed as they are with the here and now, and the unending unedifying quest for the dollar. In this administrators' rat race, qualities like honesty, decency and mutual respect have gone for a toss.

In an interview a few years before he died, Shankly spoke of Busby, manager of the 'other' team. "Matt Busby is without the doubt the greatest manager that ever lived," he said. "I am not saying I think he is the greatest manager, I am saying he is the greatest manager. Facts can prove that.

"I happened to be stationed in Manchester when the Blitz [German bombers] came to the city. I saw Old Trafford a few days after the Blitz, and when I looked at it, I thought 'That's the end. There will never be another football team here again'.

"It's the most amazing thing that this club, and this ground, has risen from this. It is a tribute to Matt Busby."

Sporting rivalries should always be coloured with that kind of respect and regard. Games of my-mum's-prettier-than-yours and who-can-piss-higher-up-the-wall are for immature schoolboys. Or playground bullies that never grow up.

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