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Handing over the baton to the future through the present

Kapil Dev (L) was around when Javagal Srinath (R) made his debut. File   | Photo Credit: KRISHNAN VV

It is possible that we are approaching a transitional phase in Indian cricket, with some stars preparing to make way for a new generation. Not immediately, and perhaps not for a while after the England tour, but it is best to be prepared. The feeder lines are clear and unclogged, as they have been for some time, and that has been one of India’s strengths.

The average age of the team that played the Headingley Test is just 30, so any discussion over succession might appear premature. But given the amount of cricket they play, both international and domestic, today’s players tend to give up Test cricket earlier than those of a previous generation did.

Longevity

Rahul Dravid was 39 when he announced his retirement, Sachin Tendulkar 40, Anil Kumble 38. Can the modern player last as long despite a better physical regimen? There is too the temptation of lucrative media offers besides business and family commitments. Few players voluntarily make a clean break.

Following the tour of Australia, Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman retired in 2012, next year Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar did so, and the men who constituted one of the finest batting line-ups in the history of the game were gone.

Crucially, as they were finishing, they welcomed into the squad the new kids on the block: Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara. That is how the baton is passed on. Some of these replacements were planned for, others came as pleasant surprises. It has always been thus, and will continue to be. There are no guarantees in sport; even Don Bradman was dropped after his first Test.

This generational overlapping is important. You can trace a direct line from Kapil Dev to Javagal Srinath to Zaheer Khan to Ishant Sharma. Kapil was around when Srinath made his debut, Zaheer bowled alongside Srinath and Ishant had Zaheer to look up to when he made his debut. Such patterns might look inevitable, but they are a tribute to the right selection at the right time, and an awareness of baton-passing.

Virat Kohli is only 32 and has already played more Tests than Dravid had at that age besides T20 by the bucketful. He is the fulcrum around which the Indian team will revolve for some time. In the next five or six years, he will play midwife as a new generation steps out. Much like Dhoni did, and Sourav Ganguly before him, backing some players on instinct and record while other choices fall into the basket marked ‘what-might-have-been.’

Roll of the dice

Selection to the highest level is based on potential and performance; players make it on one of these grounds. When Kumble or Tendulkar were first picked, there was no way of knowing they would be the greats they became. Kumble was 19, Tendulkar 16, and selectors staked their reputation on these two. For every inspired choice, there are many who seem equally worthy but fail at the highest level for one of these reasons: temperament, fatal technical flaw, wrong timing.

Sometimes a strong mind can overcome a flaw, sometimes a player chosen at the wrong time can be lost forever. Some never discover what the right time could be as their First Class careers overlap with the international careers of more established and successful players. Once the middle-order during the Tendulkar period was in place, there was no vacancy there. Each batter played over 100 Tests, and many like Amol Mujumdar (who made 260 on his First Class debut) who might have played in another era simply didn’t get a look-in.

In the years when India had world-class spinners who would have easily walked into any other international team, many were held back. Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar are the best examples; they were kept out by the presence of Bishan Bedi. But there was V.V. Kumar too, a classical leg-spinner up against Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. Later Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, who between them had over 1,000 Test wickets, ended the aspirations of many.

On knife-edge

Careers also depend on how the team performs. Victory lends a hand to those on the brink of dropping out, pulling them towards safety. In the current team, Pujara redeemed himself with a knock of 91 in the last Test; the focus is now on Ajinkya Rahane. Ishant Sharma may be rested for the third Test. Among the reserves is Wriddhman Saha, who at 36 is the oldest.

Players have two more Tests to make things work for them — both as a team and individually. The series is balanced on a knife-edge, as are some careers too. Contradictory as it sounds, looking ahead is a continuing process in sport.


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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 8:42:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/handing-over-the-baton-to-the-future-through-the-present/article36211926.ece

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