April 22, 2006

Whodunit? The usual suspects of new-India’s cricket.
And the end of the Saurav-Sachin saga…
By Gaurav Sethi

In many ways, with its strong expatriate population, Abu Dhabi is not unlike the sub continent. The pitches, albeit slower, weren’t completely alien either. As was the compelling win in the second match, with which India wrapped up a good few months in one-day cricket. Though most of these matches were played in India (v/s South Africa, Sri Lanka and England) and against Pakistan, in their own backyard, and in Abu Dhabi.

Throughout these series’ triumphs, never once did India have to travel far from the relative comfort of home or the sub continent – though one can argue that playing Pak in Pak is well out of the comfort zone; but still, it’s just a hop across. There is no need to acclimatize to changing time zones, weather, khana-peena or baat-cheet. The Punjabi mundas, Yuvraj and Bhajji should readily endorse that.

Now, in no way can you bury India’s recent Ceaseresque conquests; but with the West Indies tour next month, why not put it in perspective. The underachievement in test cricket notwithstanding (a series loss to Pakistan and a drawn one against a weaker English team), there’s a new buzz around the boys– especially with the ODI team. So, for starters, let’s take a peek into the one-day achiever’s gallery. Whodunit?

The usual suspects are: Yuvraj Singh, M.S. Dhoni, Irfan Pathan and Rahul Dravid. Names that didn’t figure in major ODI wins through the 90s – early 2000s. Even Rahul Dravid, till only the last world cup, had to keep wickets to retain his place in the side.

The usual suspects then were Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly; with 61 one-day centuries between them, and the distinction of being the most successful opening partnership in ODI cricket. But then came along the butcher of Najafgarh, and Ganguly surrendered the coveted openers slot to Viru. That was when one-day cricket in India changed course.

Interestingly, through the Sachin-Saurav years, India’s success depended largely on two star batsmen; the other players, at best, were the lesser co-stars, in a supporting role. Also, not since Kapil Dev’s retirement, had India ever had a true all rounder – the likes of Manoj Prabhakar, Robin Singh, Ajay Jadeja; and later, Kanitkar, Rohan Gavaskar, Reetinder Singh Sodhi, were more in the English county cricket all-rounder mode, like a Mark Ealham (England) or Chris Harris (New Zealand). There was never anyone of the caliber of a Botham or Hadlee. This gap might have now been filled by Irfan Pathan - who often batting at one-down, (after the openers early struggle), plays full-blooded drives with aplomb, as if he were teeing off in the nets. Pathan, though still not express fast, has mastered the slower ball along with an almost Shane Warne styled slower bouncer. Add to that, prodigious swing with the new white ball, and Pathan is your man. Not to forget, he’s a natural athlete, and looks good in blue. And there’s debate enough in cricketing circles to suggest that at 21, he’s not the finished article. Should get only better from here.

Also through the Sachin saga, India had so many wicketkeepers it was tough to keep count. From the disappearance of Mongia (arguably the ablest after Kirmani) to the appearance of the diminutive Parthiv Patel (rightly cast in the Little Hearts ad films), India had still not cracked the Gilchrist code – good keeper, great batsman. And though Patel played an admirable match saving innings against England in England, he never had the makings of a one-day wonder. Then came along, M.S. Dhoni. Scoring 148 in his 5th ODI against Pakistan. Going past Ricky Ponting to become the No. 1 batsman in the I.C.C. ODI rankings. End of argument. Beginning of phenomenon.

Which brings us to Yuvraj Singh, a player, who in spite of early brilliance, later, retained his place, at times, through the sheer backing of his mentor, Ganguly. Ironically, like Greg Chappell replaced his elder brother Ian Chappell in the Aussie team, a similar trade off happened between Yuvi and Dada. With his emergence as a test force, Yuvraj’s one day record too sky rocketed. And unlike Dada, his averages have been on the up and up. More remarkable, however, is the southpaw’s change in attitude – from setting up games, Yuvraj has started finishing them, with Dhoni, Raina and the lower order playing around him. Three continuous man-of-the-series doesn’t say it all – being tipped as future captain material, beyond Sehwag, speaks volumes.

Last is someone who accomplishes in masquerading as the least: Rahul Dravid. Eclipsed by Saurav and Sachin for most of his career, he now finds himself overshadowed by Greg Chappell. Unlike Dada though, Dravid sees in this an opportunity. Not deterred by lack of credit for the maverick-match strategies, Dravid has grown in stature as a batsman. Opening the batting might appear stopgap now, but with Tendulkar’s future unclear, it seems like a definite Plan B for the World Cup. Also, who knows, on Sachin’s return, the team management might envision a new role for him.

Today, while Dravid, Yuvraj, Pathan and Dhoni form the A list stars of team India, there’s also an important support cast that shines more often than not: Raina, Powar, Sreesanth. Not to forget, possible new potential in Robin Uthappa (who replaced Gambhir), the reemergence of Agarkar and Harbhajan Singh – though Bhajji is threatening to go the Saqlain Mushtaq way, bowling faster, flatter, and looking a tad edgy. Might just be an opportunity for a younger spinner, who knows?

Who knows may be this time round India can muster a series win in the Caribbean – the nucleus of the one-day and tests sides are quite similar. Also, the timing for the tour finds the hosts in an all to familiar precarious position: with Chanderpaul none to keen to captain the side and concentrate on his own waning form, and the parody of player contracts looming large again, players aren’t even sure if they’ll play the series. But then, that makes for an altogether different story. One that should emerge in the weeks to come. Stay tuned.

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