June 24, 2010

A quirky batting mortal!

There are purists and there are those who believe that cricket is ultimately about how effective you are when it comes to scoring runs and grabbing wickets – the main business of the sport. Legendary Australian skipper Steve Waugh not only belonged to the latter category, even as his brother Mark was elegance personified who considered ugly runs as blots on his ego, but also spoke as much in a chapter in his autobiography where he says what matters is “not how but how many” which finds its renditions pervasively across the work: the best players make some use of bad days too and can grind out ugly but crucial runs when the going is difficult. One modern day player fits that bill more than most.

Fragile almost frangible in constitution with a stance - colloquially mocked at with the expression "extruding/jutting back" - that may confer the term “open-chested” for batsmen too, a technique that is not  savage but simply non-existent and an extravagant shuffle that will interest every LBW-monger, the batsman in question can give Jimmy Adams a run for his money when it comes to the absolutely unspectacular nature of stroke play, beat Graeme Smith for lack of the minutest relic of artistry to be seen in batting and may, if you are indulgent and/or sarcastic enough, captain a side comprising the most ungainly-looking cricketers. Yet despite his supposed shortcomings, which naturally predate(d) his international career, the prolific run-machine from Guyana has come a long way in West Indies cricket from being an unconventionally talented boy to one who has become the mainstay of West Indies batting in a decade during which West Indies’ win-lose ratio has plummeted to below one for the first time in forty years, Brian Lara’s brilliance ebbed and flowed like his capricious moods before his ultimate retirement and cricket administration in the West Indies has gone from inexplicably poor to utterly incompetent and the pipeline of talent – batting and bowling alike – into international cricket has virtually run dry. I refer to Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

While the recently drawn test match between the Proteas and the West Indies in St. Kitts joined the ceaselessly boring succession of drawn test matches – in Windies in particular and on pitches absolutely unresponsive to bowlers elsewhere in the world in general – Chanderpaul’s twenty-second century, a marathon 166 (unbelievably slow in its last yards that it might have put a snail to sleep!) served to prove two things: Chanderpaul’s ability to score big runs and his status as the country’s second best batsman of the Lara era and their best since sun set on the Trinidadian left-hander’s epoch-making career. A comparison with two of his better contemporaries sets him apart quite clearly at least in the game’s oldest and most treasured format: both skipper Chris Gayle and Sarwan average in the early forties as opposed to Chanderpaul who averages forty-eight and half.

Even a historical perspective speaks volumes about Chanderpaul’s longevity as a cricketer and his performances which have led to his sustaining his place in the team in the first place: he has now played the same number of test matches Sunil Gavaskar played (125), has just two hundreds less than the great Sir Vivian Richards – and averages just 1.5 runs below him –which is more than the number of hundreds scored by Sourav Ganguly, Michael Atherton, Desmond Haynes, Gordon Greenidge and Alec Stewart, has had precious few extended blips in form and been more or less consistent against all teams. For a player regarded as stodgy, Chanderpaul’s one-day record too – with a highest score of 150, average of close to forty-two and strike rate of under seventy-two – is enviable and his last ball six of Chaminda Vaas to finish a match few years ago, though freakish, speaks a lot about the Guyanese left-hander’s ability to adapt to the short form and remain composed under pressure.

Even if pure statistics do not give a compelling picture considering that Chandepaul has played in an increasingly batsmen-friendly era, it would be purblind to forget the fact that he has still had to contend with the likes of a trio of great spinners and a battery of fine fast bowlers from Glenn McGrath – and fellow Aussies – in his prime to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in the last part of their careers to others. That he has himself not had to face Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh (apart from in domestic cricket) is therefore as academic a point as a lot of one-day games these days. Further, the contributions from guys like Chanderpaul should be assessed in comparison with that of their peers and in the context of their country’s cricket during their time at large. Going by those yardsticks, the sheer limpet-like resilience Chanderpaul has displayed over the years has ensured that while he is out there a war of attrition was still on and that Windies could still salvage something out of a bad match.

Chanderpaul made his debut as a nineteen year old in 1994 and at thirty-five may have a couple of seasons in him. But when he calls time, he would probably look at his career with a grain of salt like Brian Lara might have. Even if Chanderpaul becomes only the second West Indian to cross the coveted 9000 run landmark in tests, which he should unless he retires by the end of the series against South Africa, in the process transcending Sir Viv Richard’s and Sir Garfield Sobers’ run aggregates, that he has not seen more West Indies victories during his time would probably weigh him down. Keeping yourself motivated when reasons beyond transience and the playing field deter a team’s progress can be the most demoralising challenge posed by modern team sport. But Chanderpaul, I believe, has done that to the best of his ability. Consequently, there shall be no detracting from his success which embodies the triumph of mind over matter and will over everything else.

Towards the end of an era of West Indian dominance and batting flamboyance, a workmanlike run-collector has kept Caribean batting line-ups from imploding catastrophically. In the process, he has put his name below the likes of Lara, Richards, Sobers and Greenidge. Many who start playing test cricket would take it gladly if you told them that by the time they hang up their boots they would be right behind some of the greats to have graced the game from their country. Chanderpaul’s contributions, may, however, be reckoned as just as invaluable as some of his predecessors’, given that his stellar acts have come more often than not from a sinking shop. And not many would confute the thesis that a soldier who survives and takes his men through dire straits is as deserving of greatness as any other.  

June 16, 2010

The farce that is one-day cricket!

A few weeks ago Geoffrey Boycott was as straight-batted as ever in claiming that nobody, save Asians perhaps, is interested in the Asia Cup. But seeing the crowd, or the abundant lack of it, at Dambulla for the One-day International between India and Bangladesh today, one wonders even if the contingent of Asian fans is interested. Perceptively, the point that the hosts were not playing could be invoked as a case in point but the general state of one-day cricket is one which needs serious reassessment if it needs to survive as an independent format. But before I go on further, looking at insipid pitches, the abject batsman-friendliness  of the affair and the inconsequential nature of a lot of games, even tournaments (like the recent one in Zimbabwe; and I do not say this because India lost!), I would say I would be happy with Tests and T20s as the only formats of the game. More of that though for later.

Before we look at the slump of the one-day game, we need to comprehend the simple fact that nations like England and New Zealand have never been highly keen on the once shortest format of the game. While countries like Australia and South Africa have stood at the middle of the divide, playing a good deal of test and one-day cricket, it is the teams from sub-continent which used to, and continue to play, a surfeit of one-day games whose numbers are often inflated by the number of bi-pronged series played in India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan (till the Lahore blasts) and even Bangladesh. And all too often absurd scheduling in the name or pretext of giving all cricketing venues their share of matches resulted in series which had two tests and five to seven one-dayers. Cricket-crazy crowds used to throng to many of these games given that some venues especially in a mammoth country like India get matches only once in a couple of seasons despite the jam-packed nature of the calendar. Frankly, much as fans are stakeholders (in an emotional sense and as ticket-buyers), scheduling of cricket must be sensitive to the views of those who play it rather than the watching public or the coffers of a cricket board.

What has happened now though is with the advent of T20 Cricket the balance has tilted, rightly or wrongly but in one-fell-swoop seemingly, towards the three-hour format from the one-day one. While I have not watched any one-day series held in India in recent memory, I am pretty sure that reception for these games, especially if they constitute just academic purpose – after one team has already won the series midway through it – is likely to dwindle slowly but surely even in a place like India. Around the world, like in Sri Lanka currently and in Zimbabwe in the series recently which very few knew was happening, the warning bells for the format popularised in Australia, by Benson and Hedges and later coloured clothes are already tolling.

To blame the rise of T20 alone for one-day cricket’s starting to recede in popular imagination is to miss the point. While twenty-20 has taken world cricket by storm over the last four seasons, the seeds for the descent of one-day cricket, I believe, were sown a while ago in the decade. The advent of T20 has if anything only exaggerated the impact given that the crowds now have an option – every series now has at least a couple of T20 games over a weekend – to choose where they formerly did not. Let us review just a little bit to make the point clear.

One of the reasons for the decline in popularity could be the senseless scheduling of one-day cricket matches. If bi-pronged series in the subcontinents led to a cloying, almost choking, overdose, then ICC did not help the cause one little bit by bringing in tourneys like the Champions Trophy. Until the 1996 World Cup, if memory serves me right, there was only one international tournament where all recognised one-day teams came together to match talent, namely the World Cup. After 1998 all that has changed. We now have a Champions Trophy every two years, a World Cup every four years – have the T20 World Cup splice this ‘impressive’ array of international tournaments showcasing ICC’s organisational ability, you have about an international one-day tournament every year. Take that for a committed sporting body trying to promote the game throughout the year every year! And if by accident a year has no such tournaments, there are enough tri-angular, quadrangular and pentagular tournaments, whether or not they form part of ICC’s FTP (Future Tours Programme, which I believe nobody, save the ICC, ever talks about!), to make up for the ‘seeming’ void. Let us not even get started about the Indian Premiere League! While veterans like Dravid and Tendulkar have said that travelling so much is part of the modern game, I am sure given a choice most cricketers worth their salt will call for a serious (read "sensitised and sensible") reassessment of such inept scheduling of limited over games which have, among other things, the harmful potential of cutting short wonderful careers on account of injury and/or jadedness. Shane Bond’s premature retirement may be a case in point. Breet Lee's bowing out from test cricket could also be added to the list. Had it been an earlier age both these fast men could have, and would have, gone for at least three to four more seasons. 

The slow but inevitable loss of ground that one-day cricket is suffering could be imputed, as mentioned earlier in passing, also to the one-sidedness of the game, stacked heavily in favour of the batting team. As an example let us look at the scores displayed on newspapers: in the last four years 400-plus totals have not only been set, which in itself torments a bowler with his sense of relativised mortality vis-à-vis batsmen, but have been matched – once, and almost matched another time. There was a time when high-scoring thrillers used to be fun because they were the exception rather than the norm; teams chasing over 300-needed to bat out of their skins to win games but now no score is ever a challenging one. While augmenting run rates -  in chases as well as first innings – could be traced to the T20 mentality which enables batsmen to believe that anything at all is gettable, the very mentality is prodigally bolstered by atrociously batsman-friendly, or bowler-killing, conditions, specifically pitches (which again are seldom left to the discretion of the curator alone!) , reducing even class bowlers to a containing job. Anyone who believes that this is the way forward for the game has got to be joking and/or a batsman, a batsman’s parent or an aspiring batsman. If this trend continues, not only will one-day cricket suffer adversely but we will soon see genuine bowlers playing only test cricket, which is unfortunate. I may be a little too radical in stating my clairvoyance but I do not see why it should not happen given the way the game is headed.

Preposterous, almost asphyxiating, scheduling, inconsequential matches, the batsman-centric nature of the game and abysmal cricket pitches coupled with the rise of T20 are only some of the main factors that have contributed to one-day cricket’s slowly going out of sync as a format  but these are critical factors the ICC needs to look into if it needs to – if it thinks it needs to – rescue the format from dying a natural death.  As ever, change cannot, or is not likely to, be proposed on the international scene but efforts are being made in domestic competitions. For instance, Tendulkar suggested some time ago that one-day matches could be broken into four innings – two apiece for each team – and at least the ECB has listened. I read somewhere recently that even the Australian Cricket Board is thinking in the direction. These are surely positives; the ideas may or may not work but it is in the interest of one-day cricket and cricket in general that novel ideas, especially when they come from people who have great standing in the contemporary game, are tested before they are discarded if they do not work. Ricky Ponting too has aired his views on one-day games whose results do not have any value. There must be a way to work around the drudgery and the impasse, and if there is not, new ones should be found and quickly.

 With the one-day World Cup in the subcontinent scheduled for 2011, the ICC will be busy supervising allotted venues, reviewing security, assessing finances and be busy with a thousand other things but a roadmap of what comes, or needs to come, after that for the format has to be put in place or at least thought about. Haroon Lorgat, the President of the ICC, is a nice professional man from South Africa who has given the the Council a stable stewardship at the top but his optimism that the one-day game is still on safe waters seems rather misplaced and contrary to present-day empirical fact. If the optimism needs to translate into daylight, the ICC should not think twice about proposing some serious revamping plans for the one-day game which include, if nothing else, broad guidelines on everything from playing conditions to Power Play issues to the number of individual series a board can accommodate outside of the ICC charter. The ICC can set the trend itself by slashing the so-called mini world cup (a.k.a the Champions Trophy) and think about just one global tournament apiece for T20 and One-day cricket which is still too much but at least gives the impression of things heading in some direction. After all FIFA does not hold a World Cup every third New Moon and an example can be taken from that!

Whether ICC has the strength to take a stand even if it means defying authoritarian and notorious boards like the BCCI only time will tell. But if the game’s international governing body wants to save the one-day game, which as I said at the start is frankly not worth saving, I am not too sure if it even has the choice of dallying let alone not deciding. I do not know how many know; there used to be a tournament called Australiasia cup and it is close to a couple of decades since it went out of the calendar. Tourneys like the Asia Cup and such inexplicably mind-numbing one-day series need to follow suit in order to uproot the weeds to leave the soil for one-day cricket’s sane and justified continuity.

Having said all that the next ICC-Prez Elect is a certain Mumbai politician, more caricature than character - even if not a patch on Laloo - by name Sharad Pawar? What's the game coming to? Apocalypse? I hope not!         

June 11, 2010

So long, the (long) left index finger!

The quintessential coolers, the bulging tummy, the white hat covering a bald (almost shorn) scalp and (in the last couple of seasons) a trimmed grey-haired goatee may not be as famous as Bucknor's ominous nod followed by the finger, the late David Shepherd's Nelson jump or class, Simon Taufel's poise or Billy Bowden's general antics. The "slow" left index finger however is unmistakable, idiosyncratic and a signature. And after the end of exactly two weeks (perhaps earlier if the test match ends earlier or is washed out), dated on the last day (July 25) of the cricket test between Pakistan and Australia at Headingley, the long left-index finger will be seen no more, not at least in the international arena.

In a game like cricket where players get the stick as well as the major chunk of limelight and the glitz, it is easy to forget umpires until one commits a howler which will be spoken for years to come. But Rudolph Eric Koertzen, known in cricketing circles as Rudi Koertzen (or Rudi Kirsten from the ever proper name-mangling Ravi Shastri's mouth!), who has always given me the impression of a rather brisk man with a blithe spirit even at 61, will be thoroughly missed. Koertzen, a South African who returned to the game after his playing days were over, has been in the international circuit for close to twenty years and has officiated in a world-record 209 one-day matches in addition to a staggering 106 test matches (a number second only to the West Indian Steve Bucknor's record of standing in 128 test matches !) to go with recent appearances in T20 touneys and the Indian Premiere League. And the South African along with Zimbabwean Russel Tiffin have both done umpiring a great service as the main men to have appeared on the international scene from the Dark Continent post-Apartheid.

Like all umpires Koertzen has had immaculate test matches, bad days and controversial phases. His profile on cricinfo, for instance, carries reference to a test match between England and Sri Lanka in 2001 where his umpiring errors beset and arguably contributed to one of the most "fractious" matches in the modern times. But in 2002, Koertzen was rated by players themselves as the best official on view during the Champions Trophy held in Kenya the previous year, which reestablished his credentials as one of the world's foremost umpires.
The Slow Left-Index Finger!!!

Umpiring apart, Koertzen has also been in the news over the years for right and wrong reasons giving one the impression of either a foot-in-the-mouth or of a man who spoke it as he saw it just as he "gave" it as he saw it. While his 2006 comments about the option of abandoning inconsequential test matches created some stir - in the aftermath of a terribly batsman-friendly series between India and Pakistan - his recent calls recommending full use of technology if it needs to be used speak of a discerning man. Rudi's comments against the behaviour of players of particular teams have also caused concern in the ICC camp what with world cricket's governing body always trying anew to ward of allegations of racism and discrimination. Yet Koertzen's apology to Sangakkara after giving the latter out wrongly on 192 at Hobart (in 2007) speak of a man willing to admit to his human vulnerabilities.

Comments and controversies aside, that Rudi Koertzen has been part of the ICC's Elite Panel of Umpires which sees (or has seen) names such as Simon Taufel, Daryl Harper, Srinivas Venkatraghavan, Steve Bucknor and David Shepherd for a fairly long time speaks volumes about the Cape umpire's credentials in the game and his respect among players and the game's administrators alike. Rudi might not have inspired the almost invincibly calm reliability that Taufel inspires, represented a certain giant-ness Bucknor built around him - based on his build and decisions - or the quintessential British propriety of a David Shepherd with his "Play Gentleman" etc but he has held his own amidst the bigwigs. It is arguable that Koertzen is a great umpire despite the statistical representations but he has certainly been better than just good most of the time. And as the slow left-index finger goes up for a few more times, although the Australians and Pakistanis would hope for it to happen while the opposition is batting, let us savour the final appearance of a nice decent man from the highveldt and chew on some of the sweet and bitter memories the delayed finger has left behind. Rudi will hope to spend more time with his wife and four children in South Africa once he is done with the madness that is the modern cricketing schedule.

June 7, 2010

‘King’ston special: an excerpt

A couple of months ago I helped a friend with a write up on my favourite cricketer - Rahul Dravid. I was rereading it today ti see if it will put me to sleep when I chanced upon this. And I thought I should post it here!

Time: The 2006  Series against (and in) the West Indies

The 4-1 loss in the one-day series hurt and what hurt more was the close margins in a couple of games. So as India took on the West Indies in the test series in June, the Windies held the upper head and the psychological edge. The Calypso music and beers were out and so was the sun. India had squandered two wonderful chances during their last two trips. Although, Lara was still around the West Indies team was much weaker than even the one India had visited in 2002. The bowling was piecemeal and Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle and Chanderpaul still did not contribute enough to the West Indian batting cause. However, Indians too were without Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar and Ganguly having been deposited in the wilderness, Dravid and Laxman held the key. It was a war of attrition fought on flat pitches in the peak of summer between two teams, one on the way up and the other trying its desperate best to recapture some earlier magic.
The first three tests ended in draws though the Indian pace attack bowled its heart out with good assistance from Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. With a 146 at Gros Islet and other half centuries in the series, the skipper Dravid was in good form when the teams arrived in the Jamaican capital for the final test at the Sabina Park. On a pitch which Lara sarcastically applauded midway through his first innings – as it suited the Indian spinners more – Dravid contributed two masterful half-centuries. And despite Dinesh Ramdin’s late second innings flourish of 68, Kumble’s six-for gave Indians the game and with it a series win. Four tests and one result: India 1-0. If ever you wanted to watch a captain’s innings again, Dravid’s 81 and 68 would be top of the draw. On a pitch where sixteen wickets fell before his, “Dravid stood like a giant among pygmies,” wrote Siddhartha Vaidyanathan.

Another excerpt from Siddhartha Vaidyanathan’s report to cricinfo during the test sums Dravid’s efforts on a pitch with “landmines buried underneath” and Jerome Taylor steaming in – straight and fast: “The ball was dead straight and kept a bit low as well. Dhoni couldn't get down in time and was bowled.Two overs later, Dravid got a similar delivery, waited till the last moment, watched the ball all through and brought his bat down confidently. Taylor might as well have been bowling to the concrete structure behind Dravid; considering the effort he was putting in, he might have just been able to find a gap through it.” Beat that for technique, focus and resilience!

Along the way, Dravid joined an elite club of batsmen to get to 9000 runs. He was the Man of the Match and Man of the Series and nobody could grudge him that as he was streets ahead of the next best batsman in either team. The irony could not have been starker: it is crises which help distinguish men from boys. And the Indian captain was the tallest man standing at the end of the Jamaica test as India ended a 35 year series victory drought in the West Indies. From Adelaide to Headingley to Rawalpindi to Jamaica four of India’s five great wins abroad in the last three years all had Dravid’s name imprinted in bold. From a second fiddle to the chief artiste at the orchestra, Dravid had transformed himself from a good batsman to a great batsman to a captain leading from the front and with the undeniable force of on-field performance. And if at that point Dravid had thought the sky was the limit you would not have thought twice before nodding.   

June 2, 2010

Long Version Woes!

What is likely to happen when a colossus of 305 test matches and 454 completed innings yielding 24842 runs at a staggering 54.71 comes to be supplanted by complete vacuum or a commodity that is bound to look like vacuum anyway? The statistical edifice in question jointly refers to arguably the greatest no.3 and no.4 pair World Cricket has ever produced, responding respectively to the calls Rahul Sharad Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. While the Indian middle-order’s mainstays’ turning 37 has seldom reflected in their form or appetite for runs or for that matter fitness (a lesson in commitment for upcoming youngsters), especially recently, the pragmatic will apart from basking in the glory of their legends’ extended stroke-filled sunshine have to start thinking about the Indian batting order’s future in tests. Forget about the rather inexplicable ICC rankings which are more responsible than India’s performances for its being ranked number 1 in test cricket, if the looming batting woes in the longer format are anything to go by India will do well to be in the top half of the table once the Karanataka-Maharashtra duo hang up their boots although to attribute a team’s success to the indispensability of even great geniuses is a rather fallacious argument. I hope the Indian test team proves it a fallacy!

The clarion call or the warning bell (choose your metaphor!), however, is clear: it is not based on one-off premonitions; nor am I a craven sports pessimist who glories in all things past without giving the current crop the due it deserves. Even as we lose ourselves all over again, pathetically, despite the lessons afforded by hindsight, in fortifying a squad for the upcoming world cup and unearthing more big-hitters, necessities in their own right, to lose sight of the transition that lies ahead for Indian test cricket speaks of a disturbingly purblind mindset. And just in case the argument needs any backing-up, the support comes from two quarters – the finest team of the last couple of decades, Australia, and the performances of our own rookie stars in recent tournaments.

It has been known for years that the supreme quality of cricket the Australians have played at the international level is just a logical extension of the quality manifest in the domestic competition, perhaps the toughest domestic league in world cricket. And yet, no right-minded Australian team-member, selector or fan would say (in the candour afforded by privacy at least) that a Gilchrist, Langer or Hayden is not being missed. Even with the notorious and prolific genius of Ricky Ponting, the reliability – despite its extended blip – of Michael Hussey, the effervescence of Michael Clarke and the bright start Marcus North has made to his test career, the Australian batting does not look nearly as formidable as three summers ago. Indeed, every sporting unit goes through a bit of a trough for ebbs and lows are but the very substance of Physics and life, but it is the way the unit picks itself up which defines its quintessence. While the Australians have not quite gone to the cleaners during the last few years, credit to the system envisioned by Allan Border and company at the ingress of the 1990s, that they have relatively struggled despite a rich pipeline of talent coupled with continued experience does not bode green pastures for the Indian battle order after Dravid and Tendulkar.

Analogous cases apart, the talent we have in our midst, as demonstrated in the shorter formats, does not look like it will stand up to the challenges of test cricket just yet. Ungainly handling of the short ball is just one of the worries; the glitch is technical and with practice could be bettered or worked around if not eliminated. But what about the aspect of temperament which readily reflects in on-field behaviour and fitness? Gifted and princely as he is, Yuvraj Singh’s career trail during the last season and half is a classic case of a trajectory that has plummeted because of a palpable disinterestedness or contrarily a tendency to become too big for his shoes, both of which speak of a man who has not got mind over matter. To see India’s best fielder let the ball through his legs or called as “pregnant” on twitter is painful but I am sure Yuvi himself sees the point. Rohit Sharma has promised and delivered, but either in flashy genius – like during the finals of the VB Series in Australia (2008) or the IPLs – or with extended periods of silence. Suresh Raina’s cross-batted heaves of anything resembling short stuff is indication that the talented left-hander who elicited comparisons with Tendulkar has a long way to go before he can think of even landing a test spot. Virat Kohli seems to have the right kind of head on his young shoulders along with a great mix of caution and aggression – but it is early days in the Delhi-ite’s career. As if players’ individual woes were not enough, the selectors seem reluctant to test out those people who have displayed obvious class and consistent ability to score runs.

It has been a couple of years since Sourav Ganguly’s exit and yet the persistence with Yuvraj is incomprehensible. The flirting outside the off-stump would not just do. Subramaniam Badrinath is a batsman in the classical mould who has scored tons and tons of runs for Tamil Nadu and yet does not seem to have impressed enough. Soon, he would become another one of those best never-to-have-played Indian middle-order batsmen and he is already in the wrong side of twenties one feels. Michael Husseys are picked only in Australia. Cheteshwar Pujara, unlike the middle-aged Badri, is just 22, has been incredibly prolific (with a first-class highest of 301!) but one hopes the selectors pick him sooner than later. There is no point in shielding people or giving them runs so short that nobody, least of all the player himself, has a chance to judge talent on a commonsensical basis. Sometimes, baptism by fire is the way to go.

Dravid’s and Tendulkar’s exits are not the only worries that should challenge an Indian fan’s imagination about the country’s future in tests. Laxman may not be around too long either but even if we assume that he will be around long enough to herd a new battalion of young talent and mentor them to some degree of maturity, the bowling still leaves a lot to be desired. Zaheer Khan has been rightly the spearhead for India in the longer format over the last five years but has been injury-prone; if he asks the right questions of his body and makes the right choices – like reducing if not cutting off participatin in limited overs cricket – there is an outside chance he may play four more seasons: two to three, however, seems more like it.

Harbhajan Singh his ‘economising success’ in limited-overs for Mumbai Indians and India seems to have unfortunately taken the T20 formula too much to heart for his and as well his country’s good: you frankly cannot expect to get wickets with Yorkers in test cricket and Graeme Swann, who has been better than Muralidharan and Harbhajan over the last season and half, has reasserted the simple magic of orthodox flighted off-breaks which can break through the best batsmen's defences (if Ricky Ponting despite his weakness against off-spin is a case in point). Harbhajan is smart and knows the value of flight himself  but sadly is not able to translate his thinking into deeds! To me he has not nearly lived up to his tag India’s first spinner since Anil Kumble’s retirement. Amit Mishra has been impressive but needs a senior person at the other end to work well in tandem – again case for Harbhajan to pull up his socks. Selectors and captains should reassess their rather unstated reluctance to pick left-arm spinners as well: Pragyan Ojha has according to be been India’s best spinner in the last two seasons and his non-selection for the T20 World Cup spoke of ineptitude as big as an overblown balloon. Ojha is still young but one only hopes that his does not become the case of Murali Karthik, hardly picked in the playing XI in Ganguly’s times, which only drove him to seek a livelihood in the cold county shores of England where the railways spinner has thankfully done well for himself proving a point or two to his former skippers and the selectors.

The fast-bowling reservoir looks rich, as rich as it has in many years, on paper with Sreesanth (will he ever become more civilized and therefore more effective?), Ishanth Sharma (Ponting’s punter who has since fallen back to mortality and realized that youth is not all jolly hunting), R.P. Singh (can he get wickets only under overcast conditions?), Munaf Patel (the Asif, if not McGrath, wannabe who looks as much of an enigma to himself as to the world), Irfan Pathan (who seems to have lost his swing, his most potent weapon, and pace) and others like Umesh Yadav and Ashok Dinda heralded by the IPL: clearly India’s most potent first attack needs to comprise Harbhajan, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and one or two more. But with two of the frontline bowlers themselves reduced to containment or their limitations and India’s flank not inspiring trust based on recent performances, getting twenty wickets against top class batting may become difficult especially on good pitches. And great test teams bad decently even on green tops and bowl out teams even on insipid belters!

Ironically, the one area which the current Indian selectors need not worry themselves thin over is one which gave past captains and selectors many a nightmare: with Sehwag and Gambhir, both extraordinarily consistent at the top and many years ahead of them, and a solid Murali Vijay always doing well whenever he has filled-in, the opening combination looks settled (abstracting from the vagaries and unpredictability the game stuns the players with from time to time). Yet elsewhere Dhoni – I think he is the best skipper we have had in years and all the recent crosstalk about the team’s failure as stemming from the captain himself betrays some ordinary thinking from brains in a position of unimpeachable responsibility and can be thought of as crass gmale-gaming gobbledygook – the selectors and the aging seniors themselves have to seek the right answers, and fast.

One thing I have personally suggested for a while, at least as regards the batting line-up, is for Tendulkar and Dravid to play alternate series so: (i) one of the two slots is vacated for test by a rookie; (ii) the youngster(s) can still have the opportunity of batting with one of the two greats, learning a thing or two in the process. Either the illustrious right-handers have not thought of it themselves or may be the selectors have not quite given them cues of such a possibility or choice. I feel we are already late as far as the grooming process is concerned but it is better to start late than never. As far as the bowling goes, I only hope that those at various levels in the fringes of selection work their own graphs towards a comeback. After all, success in sport for an individual like in much else depends a lot on personal commitment, resilience and desperation to get to the top. And for those like Yuvraj who have been to the top, and let it slip, there is a lot of soul-searching and inspiration-seeking to do. But in the form of Dravid and Tendulkar, men who have each seen several downs and raged or clawed out of them with incandescent or effective ups, our disoriented youngsters have the best epitomes. One only hopes that even if Indian batting goes through a low as an immediate consequence of Tendulkar’s and Dravid’s retirement, it is not an extended one. The insurance lies in the hands of our genuinely talented, and often extravagantly touted, youth. Hope they have seen the SOS and are listening!