October 11, 2007

What to do with the Big Three?

Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid still have plenty to offer, but they need to be phased out gradually for the sake of the team's future
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Perhaps playing just two of the Big Three in each one-day match is the way forward © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • chhavi on October 18, 2007, 22:36 GMT

    Sachin is indispensable as per the current scenario. Gangully I suppose should be replaced with Gambir or Badrinath or may be even Rohit Sharma, ya he can be tested as an opener. People should not worry abt Dravid, he is class apart and he is gonna find his form very soon and nowadays he scores quick too. As many of you have suggested India should look out for more quality pacers as RP and sreesanth dont deserve to play for that long at highest level.

  • Shashank_Tripathi on October 18, 2007, 13:32 GMT

    This discussion of "seniors" vs the alleged young stars is rendered moot by the final ODI with Australia. We have just been beaten by a team that averages over 30 years, continuously outplayed by players such as Symonds and Hayden who are both above 35! This puerile discussion needs to end as it only shows the obsessive idiocy of an entire nation. Could Sambit Bal and other deluded cricket fans please write up the series average of media magnets and the 'future of cricket' stars such as Dhoni, Yuvraj, and Sreesanth? Ganguly may be rightly rested from ODIs (for his solipsism more than his skill) and so too Dravid for a while (to recover from his mental slump, not an aging of talent as people hasten to misconstrue) but Tendulkar has rightfully earned his place with actual display of class and consistency. Opening an innings is difficult. Utthapas, Gambhirs, and such, have failed woefully against lethal spin of good bowling attacks. Get with the program.

  • rinsy on October 18, 2007, 3:59 GMT

    India should have a plan with Big FOUR; VVS should be drafted into one day scheme of things. Less relevant games should have only 2 of the 4 playing and could consider 3 playing major games. Juniors and new faces can revolve around that. That could better way of grooming Too many young lads for the sake of leaving out BIG 3 or 4 can only spoil the show and make the life of young lads with the team also short. Schewag, Yuvraj and Kaif thrived around the big four. Suresh raina failed when only Dravid was around. Robin Uthappa, Rohit Sharma, Badrinath can be groomed with the help of Big 3 or 4. Important matter, a plan has to be worked out with the Big 3; keeping them in dark is going to affect their presence too.

  • fasyelectronic on October 17, 2007, 7:11 GMT

    replacing the big three is a big task, tendulkar as always is superb but look at the other two, firstly we take ganguly we notice though he is scoring runs but look at his strike rate, which gives an impression as if hes only playing for himself not the team, same is the case with dravid. tendulkar if u see his game plays for the team not for himself and thats the main difference for indian team to be a strong one players will have to start playing for the team not only for themselves only then can we have a team on par to the australians.in regards of bowling department i think irfan pathan is good he promises to be a future wasim akram but for that he has to work hard and find his rythm back. If i was an Indian selector i would like to make sure that playing 11 play for the team not themselves only in this factor lies the salvation of INDIAN CRICKET........

  • KartickKrishnamoorthy on October 17, 2007, 5:04 GMT

    The "Big Three" has been talked about all the time. Cricket is a game of 11 people it is not just about 3 people in a team who have played more than 300 odd matches. What have all the other people in the team done to save the day? Everyone in the team has played for themselves. If Australia has the potential to bowl u out for a target under 150 odd runs you can also do the same. Just what lacks is a game plan. It is not a one man game. If batsmen don't fire the bowlers need to fire on all cylinders. Just blaming the batsmen will not be a good job. According to Navjot Singh Sidhu "The wickets fall like cycles at Patiala Talkies, one falls and the rest fall after it". Team India needs to have depth in their batting and also have better bowling options. If someone like Brett Lee can bat for the Ausies cant Zaheer or Harbhajan do the same for India.

  • Mahipal on October 16, 2007, 22:48 GMT

    The problem with Indian think tank is they lay too much emphasis on the future. I'm not saying that future isn't important, but I want them to give utmost priority to the current game at hand. Think NOW! What do I do NOW to win THIS game? Once you get the NOW portion taken care of consistently then, you can afford to think about the next game, then the next series, the next captain and the next world cup. On the same lines, don't focus on how to phase out Tendulkar, Dravid or Ganguly. Instead focus how to get the best out of them and win THIS game NOW. By saying "phase out", "aged" etc would not put these players in the right frame of mind. You have make them believe that they are the present and present is what matters to us.

  • shiva.sk on October 16, 2007, 9:09 GMT

    Well Said Mr. Baskar Guha,

    Sambit Bal should be phased out!!

    Mr. Bal just keep quiet and enjoy the big 3 play for just another year or so ... because they know went to call it a day.

  • ashetty on October 16, 2007, 8:42 GMT

    Who is Sambit Bal? He is entitled to his opinion, but here are some facts. Firstly what is the criteria for selection in any team? I am sure every one will agree it is performance. After his return from injury Sachin has been top scorer for India in the 3 series played (vs SA,Eng,& Aus).He has in excess of 800 runs in 16 mathches at an avg of 51.His strike rate is around 80. Ganguly has not disgraced himself either. Rahul Dravid has been out of form but it happens to every player. Everyone is quick to point out that agarkar is a very expensive bowler etc etc, and he should get the Axe.What about Shresanth? He has been consistently giving more than 6 runs/overs in the last few matchs he has played.In fact his career econ rate is close to 6.Add to that his misfields and dropped catches in every match and we have a recipie for disaster. Should he stay in the team for his silly antics? Come on guys,its not abt the big 3 or the small 3.Its about performance.

  • Shrescs on October 16, 2007, 7:11 GMT

    Why are we always blaming the batsmen and the seniors, in particular? Dravid has failed and it really cost a batsman for India in this series for sure!!But Australia is playing with out a batsman, too.Brad Hodge!!He has not hit the form at all. You know who is getting away with all these blaming on the seniors? The Indian bowlers!! They should really be thanking the seniors for taking all the heat. Its not only the batsmen that have to win the matches, always!! Aussies have so many match winning bowlers. Look at any Aussie bowler. Everyone is doing their bit.But unfortunatley for India, only batsmen need to win all the time. Australia is a very strong team. They are the best in the business for a very long time now. To topple them off of the top spot overnight is something not thinkable. We have to be glad that we have played some good cricket in this series. We have to be positive and build on whatever we got out of the series.

  • KartickKrishnamoorthy on October 16, 2007, 5:05 GMT

    A country, which is just the size of Uttar Pradesh, can produce 6 to 7 fast bowlers, but Indian Cricket is yet to have seen a fast bowler. We need to explore for more player who are capable of doing more, there are Sachin's and Dhoni's who are yet to be discovered. India has the capacity to produce a whole new Indian Team every season; the only thing that lacks is "Initiative".

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