What to do with the Big Three?
Australia are so damn good that they can make cricket boring. It took a below-par performance from them in Chandigarh - 16 wides were bad enough but that they cost 15 further runs would point to a wretched day for Adam Gilchrist behind the wicket - to bring the series, which was fast becoming a contest only in terms of bad behaviour, alive.
Till then, the Indian supporters, who had only a week to savour the Twenty20 glory, were growing increasingly restless. With each defeat, the cry got more shrill: how long can India carry the Big Three?
Carry? How short the public memory is. In the last one-day series India played, Sachin Tendulkar was their best batsman, playing strokes that seemed to belong to his glorious past; he had two 100-plus partnerships with Sourav Ganguly, who has batted as well in the last few months as he has ever done in his career; and Rahul Dravid shook off his indifferent Test form to play a couple of sublime innings down the order.
Yes, Tendulkar has looked shaky against Brett Lee, Ganguly ponderous, and Dravid is yet to hit his straps. And it's also true that one-day cricket requires energy, sharp reflexes, lightness of feet, and strong throwing arms. Yet the manner in which Australia resumed normal service in the 50-over game should have been evidence enough that this form requires different skills than Twenty20. In comparison to the shortest form, one-day cricket allows bowlers proper spells and captains to keep men in catching positions. In conditions that are kind to bowlers, it calls for batsmen to buckle down and survive a few overs. In more simplistic terms, there is a greater premium on wickets early on: it's far easier to recover from 30 for 4 in the 20-over game than in the 50-over one.
It wasn't pretty watching Tendulkar struggle against Lee in Chandigarh, but without his battling innings India were unlikely to have got to 291. In fact, there was a chance they would have been bowled out for under 200, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who is yet lose his innocence and candour at press conferences, admitted as much. It was easier for a fellow cricketer to see the value in an innings like that.
Yet, India need to start building for the future. There are no two ways about it. They were fortunate in the last decade to be blessed with abundance. Tendulkar is a batsman of a lifetime and Dravid isn't far behind. And that they had VVS Laxman and Ganguly to back those two up was a rare stroke of luck. It has been a worry for the last couple of years that their departure will leave Indian cricket hollow. Losing them together would be a blow too severe to bear and logic dictates that their departures are phased out.
One-day cricket would be the natural place to start. Laxman and Anil Kumble, another giant who belongs to the same era, are already out of the ODI equation. It can be argued that India can afford to blood younger players in a form that puts less of a premium on traditional cricket skills than Test cricket. Also, one-day cricket provides a natural evolutionary cycle in the form of the World Cup. Countries can plan building their teams around the game's premier tournament. India need to ask themselves how many of their senior players will be around for the next edition in 2011, and whether the team will not be better served by starting to groom players who will be.
But, as always, the real issues are in danger of being overlooked by a nation heady with the unexpected success in the World Twenty20, one that has begun to chant the anthem of youth with an impatience that has a near-vulgar edge to it. This clamour for youth is based not entirely on cold logic and cricket sense but rather on sentiment. Building for the future should not necessarily mean disregarding the present, and nor should age be the overriding factor in the selection of the team. If Tendulkar must be replaced, he must be replaced by a man worthy of his shoes - he remains a considerable batsman even in his obvious decline.
Nor is it any use picking a team that is unable to compete in the most challenging of arenas. It is true India must be willing to absorb some pain for long-term gain, but just as winning is a habit, so is defeat. The challenge for the Indian selectors is to balance the need for building for the future with the immediate imperative of winning.
Building for the future should not necessarily mean disregarding the present, and nor should age be the overriding factor in the selection of the team. If Tendulkar must be replaced, he must be replaced by a man worthy of his shoes - he remains a considerable batsman even in his obvious decline
Ultimately a cricket team is about the right mix. The ideal blend is a combination of energy and spirit of youth and pedigree, experience and knowledge. India can't win in one-day cricket consistently without being sharp in the field and between the wickets, but neither can they win if they fail to ride out tough conditions and to bat out 50 overs. One-day cricket is not merely about hustling, it also allows for consolidation and construction, and every now and then it requires rescue missions - particularly outside the subcontinent, where pitches offer more movement and bounce.
It is true that India can't afford too many plodders who need to be hidden in the field. It's nothing to do with age. Not all of India's young players are natural athletes; some are, in fact, decidedly clumsy. But that said, having Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Zaheer Khan in the playing XI is to perhaps concede far too many easy runs in the field. Indian selectors have to weigh that, and the runs they lose out on by their lack of spring between the wickets, with the value they offer in terms of pure skills.
In the wake of a comment from Dilip Vengsarkar, the chief national selector, that seemed to put his senior colleagues on notice, Dhoni has described them as "indispensable". Apart from what they add on the field, he has spoken about the learnings they can offer the young players by just being around in the dressing room. Dhoni's defence was perhaps partly motivated by the need to keeping the dressing room healthy, but there was also ring of truth to it.
But Indian cricket will need to take decisions, and that process must not be clouded by what they do or don't achieve in the series against Australia and the one against Pakistan. Those decisions must be based on sound principles, an eye on the future, and the balance in team composition. Whether this is to be achieved through a policy of rotation or by a gradual phasing-out is a decision the selectors must ponder. And all of this must be accomplished without intrigue, without bowing to popular sentiments, and with transparency and a clear vision. Players, particularly those who have served Indian cricket with distinction, must be taken into confidence and told where they stand.
It's not a lot to ask for. But the way Indian cricket runs, it will be stretching optimism to expect it.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine