On the Front Foot: Mumbai Test in doubt after death of spiritual leader


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The Independent Online

A pall hangs over the Second Test in Mumbai. The general feeling is that it will proceed as planned, but there can be no certainty.

It depends on the reaction after the death last night of the controversial politician Bal Thackeray. He had been on a life-support machine for several days and his family had said he was responding to treatment. Thousands of followers have been outside his house for most of the week, large parts of the city were virtually shut down for two days and are likely to be again, police are on high alert.

Thackeray was the founder and spiritual leader of Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, which since their formation have campaigned for the rights of the natives of Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital. Over the years, Shiv Sena have often been accused of violence towards opponents, xenophobia and anti-Muslim sympathies.

Thackeray called for the formation of Hindu suicide squads and praised Adolf Hitler. He built a devoted following and there are huge fears of unrest throughout Mumbai as part of the outpouring of grief at his death.

The main hope that the Test will proceed is based on his love for cricket. In the days when he was still a humble newspaper cartoonist rather than a charismatic political leader, he would travel to work on the train with such Test players as Ramakant Desai and Bapu Nadkarni. His love of the game and empathy with cricketers (of whatever background) was formed then.

More recently, he and Shiv Sena, having been in power in Mumbai, were involved in the redevelopment of the Wankhede Stadium where the Test is due to be played. But the position is extremely volatile.

Now Thackeray is dead, the least that can be expected is maximum, top-level security.

Small is best for Tests

If Test cricket is to survive as a proper spectacle in India, it may have to start thinking small. Crowds in Ahmedabad for the First Test have not been as poor as was feared, but the "house full" notices remained undisturbed in whichever cellar they are stored.

The next three Tests are due to be played in Mumbai, Kolkata and Nagpur, two of them the biggest cities in India. But they are not expected to pull in the crowds.

Last year the new head of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League told this reporter that the way forward for Test matches was to stage them in smaller cities. "We are thinking that we should organise more Test matches in B towns, because in the populated metropolises people are always in a hurry, they're busier, they want Twenty20, they want the one-dayer," said Rajeev Shukla. "But in B grade cities in India where they hardly get any international cricket but still have large populations, if a Test match is organised people will want to watch it."

This was echoed by India's captain, MS Dhoni, last week. Commenting on attendances being linked to the state of the economy, he said: "We have seen in the smaller cities that we have got more crowds compared to the bigger cities."

Yet England are playing in Mumbai and Kolkata, while next March Australia appear in Delhi, Chennai, and Chandigarh, big cities all. Part of the problem may be that visiting teams are declining to go to B cities. But at least India appear to be keeping their promise to play more Test matches. They might try starting to promote them.

Swann turns it on

Graeme Swann became England's leading Test off-spin bowler in Ahmedabad when he overtook Jim Laker's 53-year record of 193 wickets. With 197 wickets in total at present, Swann is 60th on the overall Test list but fifth in the all-time list of off-break bowlers behind, in reverse order, Saqlain Mushtaq, Lance Gibbs, Harbhajan Singh and, of course, nominally, Muttiah Muralitharan.

This perhaps shows what an unfashionable skill off-spin has usually been through the years. Swann deserves real credit but the truth is England have always been better at left-arm spin (away from the right-hand bat, you see).

Derek Underwood, of that parish, with 297 wickets, is now in Swann's sights.