June 23, 2010

Continuity is India's strength and weakness

Six survivors from India's 2003 World Cup campaign are likely to play in the 2011 edition. And going by the younger talent at hand, the nation's hopes will rest on these six

It was the best of times after the most inauspicious of starts. A flatline opener against the Netherlands was followed by a thrashing at Australian hands, and it wasn't until the team crossed the border into Zimbabwe that India's 2003 World Cup campaign sputtered to life. Seven more victories followed before a legendary Australian side, and Ricky Ponting in particular, handed out the harshest of one-day lessons. The heroes of '83 may not have been emulated, but there's little doubt that the run to the final at the Bullring remains one of Indian cricket's biggest achievements of the modern era.

Astonishingly, six of those who came within a 100 overs of immortality that day could line up for India's opening game of the 2011 World Cup in Dhaka next February. Fitness permitting, Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan are certain starters. Ashish Nehra too should get an opportunity to reprise his heroics of 2003 - perhaps without the spewed bananas - and it's hard to see Yuvraj Singh being away from the fray, no matter what the state of his waistline.

This continuity, if you call it that, is India's greatest strength, and also a sign of weakness. In sporting terms, it's as rare as a maiden over in a Twenty20 game, and it raises serious questions about Indian cricket's talent-production line.

To put things into perspective, let's take a look at two of the greatest one-day sides of all. West Indies reached the first three World Cup finals, winning two of them. When India upset them in 1983, there were four survivors from the class of 1975 - Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts. With the exception of Lloyd, who lasted nearly two decades at the top, the other three had been young men looking to make a reputation in '75. By 1983, Roberts was the leader of the greatest pace attack ever, while Richards and Greenidge had established themselves as two of the most destructive batsmen of their age.

Nearly a quarter-century later, Australia took to the Kensington Oval for the 2007 World Cup final with three survivors from the side that had made short work of Pakistan in 1999. In that time Ponting and Adam Gilchrist had established themselves as candidates for the all-time one-day XI, while Glenn McGrath had carried on with his metronomic ways, spearheading an attack that was both parsimonious and penetrative.

Both teams, though, had strengthened in different ways over time. West Indies hadn't adequately replaced Alvin Kallicharran and Rohan Kanhai in the middle order, but the pace foursome of Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner was immeasurably stronger. Australia had moved on from Steve Waugh and Shane Warne, and unearthed the high-impact pace of Shaun Tait and the imposing all-round talent of Andrew Symonds. There was also Matthew Hayden Mark II, a punishing run-machine to complement Gilchrist at the top of the order.

India's six-man core now possesses more than 1400 one-day caps - Tendulkar alone has 442, and Nehra, the least experienced, has 101 - but the replacements for those who have departed the stage have yet to scale the same heights. Both Gautam Gambhir (99 caps) and Suresh Raina (97) have enjoyed a fair bit of success in recent times, but it would be a brave man who put them in the same class as Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, who had more than 20,000 runs between them.

The one great improvement comes in the shape of MS Dhoni, whose captaincy and improved wicketkeeping skills sometimes obscure the fact that he has evolved into one of the consummate 50-over batsmen. There are great expectations too from Virat Kohli (30 caps) and Rohit Sharma (49), but neither man has yet played a defining innings in a high-pressure situation.

India's six-man core now possesses more than 1400 one-day caps - Tendulkar alone has 442, and Nehra, the least experienced, has 101 - but the replacements for those who have departed the stage have yet to scale the same heights

It's not the batting that's the concern though. Teams that win the big tournaments do so by consistently bowling the opposition out. The Indian side that won the World Championship of Cricket dismissed every team they came across, except Pakistan, who limped to 176 for 9 in the final. In 2003, India's attack also had Javagal Srinath, and the luxury of Anil Kumble on the bench.

There are few such options when you look ahead to 2011. Zaheer, Harbhajan and Nehra remain the most important performers, and the remarkable decline in Irfan Pathan's fortunes - he hasn't added to his 107 caps in the last 16 months - has deprived the team of an all-round talent who should have been in his prime.

The other pace contenders are just as callow. RP Singh, Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar have all taken the new ball in recent seasons, but RP is the most experienced of the quartet, with just 55 caps. On the slow-bowling front, the situation is even more alarming. Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha have 23 matches between them, while Ravindra Jadeja has 29. Murali Kartik continues to take wickets in England, but he must surely be resigned to the fact that his India days are over.

The selectors and an expectant nation can only hope that wealth of experience triumphs over the relative lack of fresh options. Saurabh Tiwary and R Ashwin could prove to be interesting wild cards over the coming months, and the likes of Ishant and Sreesanth may get their groove back, but for the moment, the long-cherished dream of winning a World Cup on home soil rests very much on the shoulders of those who have been there and done that.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo