July 12, 2007

Icons to Incas?
What made the Big Three sit out of the Twenty20 World Cup - the threat of extinction or a future vision?

Most Cricket Boards have announced their probables for the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa. It’s fascinating how all these initial lists comprise 30 players that will be later squeezed down to nearly half. So, a la “Indian Idol” all 30 will have a shot in the dark at fame.

But why 30, when finally only about 15 players will have a serious shot at making the final eleven? And what, if anything, can the hopefuls achieve in a month that will undermine the reputations of years of international cricket? But who are we fooling, for once India’s team selection is wide open – specially after three reputations chose to sit it out.

Interestingly, in most teams there is no dearth of senior pros. Pakistan has short-listed the two Ys, Yohanna and Younis. But then, had the two Ws been around, they could have made it too. Sri Lanka has Sanath Jayasuriya - who is possibly the best-suited Sri Lankan batsman for this form of frenzy. And much to everyone’s surprise, England hopes to revive Marcus Trescothick. Meanwhile India has not included Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly. Apparently because the three believe it’s a youngster’s game, and requested to be exempt from the taxes of Twenty20.

On the face of it, Twenty20 appears a lot less taxing than a one-day international or a five-day test match. For one, it’s shorter by a mile – 40 overs versus 100 overs verus 450 overs. Also, innings are time bound and must be completed in an hour and a half. Compare that to ODIs that drag with the whims of fielding captains, and can stretch up to 8 hours. Flip side is on a dismissal the next batsman has to gallop to the wicket within seconds, or else he will be given out – but that’s a small price for playing party cricket!

If anything, Twenty20 appears geared to some of the older players who still have the big shots in them. And with many teams playing up to 40 ODIs a year, slam-bang cricket is second nature to most players. Given the money to be earned, only an Englishman (like Harmison) will hang his boots from one-day or Twenty20 cricket. But then, only an Englishman will step out in the blazing afternoon Delhi heat.

As it is, there are too many unanswered questions with the voluntary exclusion of the three senior players. And unlike Brian Lara’s hurried retirement, there are not too many clues as to the future intent of these players – for, in Lara’s case one knew he wanted to tour England for the test series, but after the West Indian-World Cup debacle, he was forced to retire from all forms of cricket. In this case however, we are left to our own conclusions. By the way, Brian Lara is now hinting at a comeback.

Back in India though, the World Cup is far from forgotten. And from Icons to Incas – the threat of extinction is too real for India’s senior players. Can these players risk another early World Cup exit – that too barely four months after the first one? And no matter how many runs are scored against Bangladesh, Ireland, South Africa, England or even Down Under, the equity of these players has dramatically dropped. And don’t they know it?

Put on the telly, how many ads of our heroes? Talk about cricket, if you can muster the courage, any takers? If any, chances are they will be baiters. And they love to drill it in – that the Big Three are done and dusted. This anyway, is the common voice of India, and not necessarily an oracle on what lies ahead. It’s a selfish sentiment that lacks empathy with the vagaries of life and sport. But it isn’t completely dishonest.

Over the last few seasons, Rahul Dravid has been striking closer to a run-a-ball - that from a strike rate of a shade under 70. At times playing lower down the order, Dravid has looked more than accomplished at upping the rate. It started with a surprise, going down the wicket six of Alan Donald, and since then, Dravid has shifted gears.

Dravid’s decision to opt out seems to be weighed with the expectations of the tough season ahead – a test and triangular ODI series in Australia, one where India will be up against the top bowlers in the world. For someone of Dravid’s temperament, the Twenty20 World Cup would have been a needless distraction, what with stern critics waiting to wield sharp pens back home. In better times though, it would have been a good break from the rigours of competitive cricket.

In Dravid’s absence though, India will miss a player who can bide his time if wickets fall in a heap – though a team being bowled out in 20 overs seems absurd, stranger stuff is known to happen in cricket. And what with inexperienced batsman on bouncy wickets, without a mentor at the other end – will the big three make a return to Twenty20 like they did to one-day cricket after the unimpressive show in Bangladesh?

Saurav Ganguly's game isn’t too dissimilar from what it was before – only one-day cricket isn’t what it used to be. Dada takes his time initially and then looks to step it up. His game seems out of place in the new format - as up the order, there are no slow bowlers for the slaughter. But Dhoni and Sehwag aside, he's the biggest bully of slow bowlers in the team. And slow bowlers have to bowl somewhere – unless you are South Africa and play only quicks.

As for Sachin Tendulkar, after his recent high scores versus South Africa, his was the surprise exclusion. Which brings to play the nature of the collective decision – three seniors, supposedly in two camps – how did they finally see eye-to eye? And that too on the hyper-sensitive issue of not playing in a World Cup – that too a novel concept waiting to be cashed in by the world’s advertisers.

Has reality finally hit home? Have India’s three senior most players finally seen the virtues of mortality? And in doing so, will they ensure their immortality?

List of 30 probables:
Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, Mohammad Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Irfan Pathan, Yusuf Pathan, Sreesanth, Manoj Tiwary, Ajit Agarkar, Karan Goel, Zaheer Khan, RP Singh, Ishant Sharma, Abhishek Jhunjhunwala, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rajesh Pawar, Piyush Chawla, Harbhajan Singh, Joginder Sharma, Rohit Sharma, Gautam Gambhir, Munaf Patel, Niranjan Behara, Praveen Kumar, Anirudha Srikkanth, Ramesh Powar, Robin Uthappa, Niraj Patel

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