By then, the mercurial Kolkatan had already captured the junior Wimbledon title when just 17, and climbed to the No. 1 spot among juniors. He had also established himself as the talisman of the Davis Cup team, defeating men ranked way above him with stirring displays of guts and glory, driven by a passion for the flag that strangely evaded him when he played on the ATP Tour.
But when he put away journeyman Brazilian Fernando Meligeni in the bronze-medal playoff, Paes’s place in the annals of Indian sport was well and truly sealed. He need not have hit another tennis ball in anger, and it wouldn’t have mattered. We were all transfixed, taken in by his boundless energy and his infectious enthusiasm. The heart swelled with pride, the hands ached beautifully from all the clapping. For a nation so totally starved then of individual glory on the largest global sporting stage, his bronze was the equivalent of a hundred gold medals. For a while, Paes managed to knock even Sachin Tendulkar off the front pages.
More than 20 years on, even as the world’s largest, most celebrated and most keenly followed Twenty20 league is in the early stages of its tenth edition, Paes has somehow managed to keep the spotlight trained firmly on him, managed to keep himself on the front pages. Not because of any extraordinary accomplishment on the court. Not because, at 43, he is putting away men biologically young enough to be his offspring. But, because, for the first time in 27 years, when he has been available to play for India, he has been left out of the Davis Cup squad.
Basic facts first. India continue their campaign to return to the World Group when they face Uzbekistan in Bangalore from Friday (April 7). The Indians have a new captain – Mahesh Bhupathi, the other half of the fabled Indian Express that took the doubles world by storm in the late 1990s. From the best of buddies, Bhupathi and Paes drifted apart, both on the court and off it. There have been token attempts at patch-ups, and while they aren’t the bosom pals they once were, they have found a way to maintain a slightly more than professional relationship.
Bhupathi made it clear immediately after he took charge that his focus would be on singles rather than doubles, that his four-man squad would have three singles specialists in a bid for the three points rather than two double specialists who can, at best, provide one point. The toss-up for the lone doubles specialist was between Paes, ranked No. 53 in the world, and Rohan Bopanna, 37 and occupying the 24th place in the ATP rankings.
A couple of months back, overlooking Bopanna’s higher ranking, India picked Paes for the tie against New Zealand in Pune, pairing him with Vishnu Vardhan ostensibly in a bid to help him become the sole occupant of the most doubles wins in Davis Cup history. It was the only rubber India lost on their way to a 4-1 victory; Paes’s bid to get past Italian Nicola Pietrangeli’s 42 victories had to be put on hold.
After Bhupathi named Bopanna on Thursday as his pick for the doubles, Paes launched into an extraordinary tirade unbecoming of his stature, his experience and his standing. For all his tom-tomming about country and flag, Paes hardly covered himself in glory by lashing out, “At one time, it is based on rankings, the other time it is not based on ranking, it is based on likes and personal preferences.” If it was based only on rankings, of course, Paes would not have played against New Zealand. And it was on ‘likes and personal preferences’, as he puts it, he need not even have been picked in the six-man larger squad.
Paes also revealed that a single phone call from Bhupathi saying he would not figure in the team– when he was playing in a Challenger event in Mexico last week– would have sufficed. What he didn’t add is that Bhupathi did text him a couple of weeks back asking if Paes would be ok with being a part of the six but not the four, should it come to that. Paes’s comment about young singles player Prajnesh Gunneswaran not having ‘played four sets yet, I wish him the best’ were less than edifying too. By also opting to ditch the team midway through – he is scheduled to fly out of Bangalore on Saturday morning– instead of sharing his wisdom, his expertise and his knowledge, and cheering and encouraging from the bench, he has totally exploded the ‘team-man’ and ‘country before self’ persona.
On the same day that Paes was spewing venom in Bangalore, the man whose name is synonymous with captaincy was going about his business in routine fashion even though he was just another player. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, of course, can never be just another player, but from general, he had been demoted to a foot soldier by the owner of his franchise. Rising Pune Supergiant will perhaps rise to be the supergiant they aspire to be, but irrespective of, Sanjiv Goenka is unlikely to have endeared himself to Indian cricket fans.
Dhoni was sacked, ousted, dumped, axed as captain of the franchise. He wasn’t requested to step down, he didn’t voluntarily relinquish the leadership role like he did with the national limited-overs teams at the start of the year. The man who has steered India to three global titles and to the No. 1 Test ranking, who took his original – and beloved – franchise to twin titles in the IPL and the Champions League. The man who seamlessly took to the Test captaincy eight-and-a-half years back even though under his command were such champions and former skippers as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, and who oversaw a difficult transition period when all the legends, VVS Laxman included, bid adieu to international cricket. Dumped by the owner of a private team – and that’s what it is, let’s be honest – without so much as a thank you.
Any outrage from Dhoni? No sir. Any chest-thumping and rooftop-screaming? You bet not. Any prima donna behaviour and antic-throwing, helped along by a pliant media corps? Not his style, no way. Dhoni has quietly gone about his business, no fuss, no drama, no ceremony. Now, that’s his style. That’s always been his style, hasn’t it?
The tasteless manner in which the franchise handled the change in captaincy while installing Steven Smith at the helm must certainly have upset Dhoni, but he wasn’t going to let it impact his cricket. He was still proactive in his team’s opening game against Mumbai Indians on Thursday night, still a strong force behind the stumps though he uncharacteristically put down a slightly difficult chance low to his right. He was quick to jokingly make the ‘T’ sign after Kieron Pollard was ruled not out by S Ravi even though Imran Tahir seemed to have nailed him palpably in front. He moved the fielders around minutely – as ‘keepers do, no matter whether they are captains are not – without stepping on Smith’s toes or infringing on his space. Dhoni hasn’t eulogised himself as the quintessential team man, but when you really are, you don’t do it yourself, do you?
Dhoni didn’t make the match about himself, like he hasn’t all his career. But even in absentia, Paes has made this Davis Cup tie entirely about himself. For some reason, that makes me infinitely sad, more than anything else.
Source: Wisden India