Bangalore: In 1999, before the Indian team left for the World Cup in England, it had a series of less-than-stellar results, the most glaring being losing Tests to Pakistan in Chennai and Kolkata, the second from a position of strength. It was suggested that the team had the talent and the personnel to win, but not the fierce one-pointed desire.
In his SportStar column, Harsha Bhogle wrote that the Indian team should have a 16th travelling member - Leander Paes. His reasoning was that Paes had consistently exhibited - in the Olympics, in the Davis Cup - the ability to punch far above his weight when representing the country. Bhogle wanted some of that pride and desire to permeate through the Indian team. It was a thought whose spirit many people (myself included) agreed whole-heartedly with.
Which makes the current fiasco involving the Indian tennis contingent to the 2012 Olympics seem ironic in the extreme. After trumpeting the "I have always taken the greatest pride in representing my country" line repeatedly, Paes was quick to do an abrupt about-turn when it became apparent that he wouldn't get either Mahesh Bhupathi or Rohan Bopanna as his partner (not that either of these two has emerged with any credit). Apparently, "representing the country" is of the highest importance only when a partner of one's choice is available. The pride and desire everyone once hoped the cricket team would have are now conspicuous by their selective presence.
No one doubts that all top sportsmen do take great pride in representing their countries. What is often lost in glorifying the pride aspect is that sportsmen - however elite - are human too. If there is a moral cricket can draw from the tennis mess, it's this: it is far easier to put nationalistic pride above everything else when there is relatively little to lose.
A Leander Paes in 1999, on the back of an Olympic bronze medal and at the start of a run that would result in several doubles Grand Slam titles, was at the top of his game and his partnership with Bhupathi. Today, he's not the same player and cannot afford to lightly let go of an opportunity to do well for himself and ultimately for his country.
Which brings us to the Indian Premier League - among the hottest topics of debate in the cricket world. It is easy to blame a player who puts IPL riches above representing his country. After all, he's almost living the theme of the classic 'Money for Nothing', isn't he? And when that happens, advice for what he should or shouldn't do pours in for free.
But it's worth stepping back and introspecting. Who would turn down the chance to earn in six weeks what they would otherwise make in one year in any profession? And if the cards are so stacked in favour of players turning out in the IPL, shouldn't the questions that matter be directed at those who schedule series in the middle of it, putting players in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between country and IPL?
This includes the BCCI, who shoehorned last year's IPL less than a week after India had won the World Cup, without giving the players or the fans a chance to properly savour the triumph. If the schedule is so packed, there can't really be too many questions pointed at players who chose to skip the subsequent West Indies tour last year - which incidentally began six days after the IPL final!
Particularly for Indian players, faced with a calendar that has been more or less non-stop for the past few years, the series they choose to opt out of will always be of a lower profile. They will not skip the IPL or the Champions League Twenty20 - not when there's so much to gain from participation.
This doesn't mean national pride or the desire to represent the country has suddenly gone missing. That allegation may perhaps be levelled only if, even in the presence of a well thought out schedule, players still put lucrative Twenty20 leagues ahead of playing for their countries.
The money versus country debate is not a new one. It has only gained greater prominence with the arrival of T20 leagues. Even in the article referenced at the start of this piece, Bhogle had written, "I know this is not true, but they sometimes give me the feeling that in their world of affluence, they lose touch with the aspirations of their followers." That was in 1999, before Twenty20 cricket was even a gleam in the BCCI's eye.
Pride in representing the country is a basic necessity for international sportspersons, but it's not fair to judge them when they are put in a spot where it competes with so many riches for so little effort.