Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The inevitable cull

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India will go into the prestigious tournament without Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, the heroes of the last edition in 2011. Are the ommissions justified?

By Gaurav Kalra

A sporting life, time is at a premium. Cricketers in their heydays can virtually walk on water. They can wave bats like magic wands and make cricket balls swing, seam and spin at their command. But with time, their powers decline, their bodies creak and complain, and younger men bursting with ambition and skill jostle to take over. They fade and are finally forsaken.

Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh—these men were integral to the cricket team on that musty April night in 2011, when India had just conquered the world by winning the tenth cricket World Cup in Mumbai. Less than four years later, the door has been all but slammed shut on their international careers.

The writing was on the wall for a while now. None of them had played a one-day international (ODI) in 2014. Sehwag and Gambhir had played their last ODI in 2013, Zaheer in 2012, and Harbhajan in 2011. India has played 95 ODIs after winning the last world cup. Gambhir has featured in 33, Yuvraj in 19, Sehwag in 15, Zah-eer in nine, and Harbhajan in three.

Their records in these games range from mediocre to moderate. Long ropes have run their course and India’s one-day outfit has moved on decisively.
In a carefully planned move, the Indian cricket board swapped the schedule of the domestic season around to play one-day tournaments before the four-day Ranji Trophy. The intention was to allow both discarded veterans as well as emerging players to stake a claim for the few spots on offer in the World Cup squad in Australia and New Zealand from February 14, 2015. But, none of these giants made a compelling case.

Zaheer’s injuries have been frustratingly slow to heal, forcing him to simply bide his time on the sidelines. Sehwag and Gambhir made one 50-plus score each in six innings. Harbhajan took eight wickets in nine games and averaged nearly 49. And Yuvraj, the only one among the lot with a realistic shot at a recall, limped to 208 runs in nine innings, at an average of 26. Far from grabbing the selectors by the collar and hollering: “Look at me, I am still around”, they barely registered on the radar.

Contrast those numbers with the ones notched up by younger men who made the cut. Manish Pandey and Manoj Tiwary both made over 500 runs in 50-over matches, this season. Ashoke Dinda and Dhawal Kulkarni have taken nearly 20 wickets each. Kuldeep Yadav, Karn Sharma and Akshar Patel hold out much promise in their spinning fingers. Their claims were simply too strong to ignore any longer.

It is foolhardy to argue that the weight of runs and wickets alone should be the criteria for selection. With proven pedigree, any of these veterans could have been considered for a high-pressure tournament in alien conditions. Their experience and ability to soak in pressure in big game situations is, no doubt, a huge asset. However, with the likes of MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma, R Ashwin and Ishant Sharma forming a strong core around which to construct the squad, there simply was no appetite to take a gamble or two.

India’s triumph at the 2011 World Cup was borderline miraculous, with a rag-tag bowling and fielding unit somehow inspiring each other towards glory. But on unforgiving big Australian grounds, there will be no place to hide, and four years on, teams will arrive fitter, stronger and sharper. India can no longer invest in single, skilled individuals and hope for the best.The culling of men with exceptional track records is never emotionless. But in elite sport, form and vitality trump figures in record books.

In the World Cup that India won, Yuvraj Singh was the man of the tournament, Gautam Gambhir top scored in the final, Zaheer Khan was India’s highest wicket taker, Virender Sehwag launched the campaign with a blistering 175 in the tournament opener, and Harbhajan Singh had the best economy rate among Indian bowlers.
Those statistics embellish stunning careers. However, they are no longer tickets to another shot at replicating that grand Mumbai night. The baton has passed to a zestful new generation that will aim to defend the title these men won. Like sand in a fist, their time has passed.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India recently announced the 15-member team for the World Cup Down Under, early this year. The team comprises MS Dhoni (captain and wicketkeeper), Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Suresh Raina, Ambati Rayudu, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Akshar Patel, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Stuart Binny.

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