Bored with the meaningless , interminable fixtures between India and Sri Lanka , I’d sworn off cricket for the past several months . All that changed during the first Test at Mohali when India eked out a last ball win over Australia in a real nail biter. My appetite for cricket revived , I followed the subsequent match at Bangalore with renewed interest. I was not disappointed as India came through with a confident win of the type reminiscent of the Australian sides of four or five years ago.
The Mohali match could easily have gone either way and even at Bangalore , the match was more or less even for four and a half of the five days . However , the manner in which India pulled away to a comfortable win should make Indian supporters proud , and happy about the future. In the absence of several first choice Indian players who were out injured, their young replacements came through in fine style as Dhoni’s men kept up the pressure on the Aussies. No praise can be too high for the bowlers. Zaheer as usual was the spearhead , bowling with intelligence and verve throughout and Ojha and Sreesanth ( in the second innings ) gave him commendable support. If only Sreesanth could get his head screwed on right…
Enough has been written about the batting , about Sachin and VVS and Sehwag et al, so I won’t belabor the point. What made me most happy was the performance of the youngsters as Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara came through in a big way. India has always been a good batting side , particularly on the placid wickets of the sub-continent , but now it seems that they also have a formidable array of bench talent . Murali Vijay is a dependable opener whenever Sehwag or Gambhir are unavailable and the emergence of Pujara hopefully will mean that Yuvraj will be restricted to the shorter formats of the game .I’m not shedding any tears for Yuvraj who, in spite of his undeniable talent , has squandered chance after chance and does not seem to have a temperament suited for Test cricket.
For the past three years I’ve been impatient for the Old Guard to be phased out as I felt they were holding back the development of the younger players . After the magnificent performances of Tendulkar and VVS Laxman in this series , I’m having some second thoughts. Tendulkar seems to have gotten a second wind and is playing better than ever; his double century at Bangalore attests to why he is called The Master Blaster. As for Laxman, his performance in the first Test at Mohali was nothing short of heroic .
With the heavy Test schedule next year against South Africa and other powerhouses , the efforts of the seniors will be much-needed if India are to hang on to the Number 1 ranking. Still , I’m a firm believer in replacing players at the first sign of decline so as to give younger players an opportunity. I absolutely believe that no player , no matter how great, be allowed to carry on till he is himself ready to call it a day. I’m not like the cricket fan who declares that he only watches cricket because of Sachin and that he will stop watching when the Master Blaster retires. Certainly , Sachin’s name has been synonymous with Indian cricket for the past two decades but eventually his skills too must erode and he will have to cede his place in the team to a younger player. As sublime as Sachin’s form has been , I can see him continuing at or close to the top only for another year , at most two. Dravid and Laxman hopefully will hang it up on their own by the end of 2011. It would be good if the selectors slowly phased them out, now one then the other, by resting them against lesser opponents .
Otherwise , one has only to look at what has happened to Australia in recent years and realize that it could happen to India too.During the years of their dominance , the Australian selectors turfed out their stars when they were still close to their best. Steve Waugh , Damien Martyn, Justin Langer , Shane Warne could all have played a little longer but they either retired on their own or were forced out. In deed , Australia’s present woes can partly be traced to the fact that Hayden , Gilcrist, Warne, McGrath , Ponting( who’s still active ) and some others have been so good that they locked up their places in the Test side for a decade or more and denied capable youngsters their place in the sun. When they retired , some of the players who replaced them were themselves approaching 30 and some promising players had themselves given up , frustrated by the too few chances that were available .
Perhaps the rotation of players is not a bad idea given the amount of cricket that is being played these days .That way more players will get a sniff and there will not be a prolonged re-building period when three or four key players retire at the same time. It will also be helpful in prolonging careers particularly in the case of the pace bowlers who are prone to breaking down because of overwork.
It is annoying to see Dhoni still being denigrated by some Indian cricket fans . When he doesn’t score runs , he is accused of not having earned his place in the side . When he does score runs , he is pooh-poohed as a mere slugger , without any real style . Even now , after having won a series against Australia , it is claimed that he is merely ” lucky”. Nothing will satisfy these fans , many of whom I suspect are devotees of Dada and are still bitter that Dhoni took over from their idol.
In fact , in a team full of stars , Dhoni is the one player who is indispensable. He has instilled a sense of self belief in the team , has always put the team first and has not hesitated to take bold decisions , most of which have worked out. Sending in Pujara at 1-down in the second innings at Bangalore was a stroke of genius and took real guts . After all Pujara was playing in only his first Test and had had fallen cheaply in the first innings to a beast of a ball. Perhaps sending in Pujara ahead of Dravid and Tendulkar was a joint decision of team management , but it’s only fair that Dhoni get most of the credit ; had Pujara failed , he ( Dhoni) would surely have gotten the blame .
What was pleasing about Pujara’s performance is the manner in which he got his runs , using his feet well and driving and hooking aggressively against both pace and spin. Even though this was only one match and he scored his runs against a somewhat depleted Aussie attack on a slow-paced pitch, the confidence with which he played bodes well for the future, both his and the team’s. An added benefit is his fielding . These younger players , Pujara , M.Vijay and particularly Raina ,are all good fielders and their gradual inclusion should raise the fielding standard , India’s one remaining weakness.
It’s a good time to be a fan of Indian cricket.