August 12, 2011

Yuvraj, Harbhajan and Zaheer at the crossroads

These three Indian players must ask themselves how they want the rest of their careers to pan out
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As things stand, Indian cricket's acquaintance with the No. 1 status will be a bit like a budget airline's with an airport: land and then a quick turnaround. It must come as no surprise, for those possessed of independent thought and an appreciation of our game have been suggesting that the ascent was unlikely to result in a long reign. And there is a reason rather more different than disdain for the subcontinent or those who inhabit it.

All great teams over the years have been built around outstanding bowling sides; indeed, have represented an excellent bowling generation. West Indies seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of fast bowlers, and Australia, whose best four were probably McGrath, Warne, Gillespie and Lee, had other fine cricketers they could call on: Stuart MacGill, Andy Bichel, Damien Fleming, even Paul Reiffel. For India to stay No. 1 they needed more depth: replacements for the tiring Zaheer Khan, the suddenly inconsistent Harbhajan (not to speak of the large-hearted Anil Kumble). Only Ishant Sharma has seemed to fit the bill, sporadically. New-ball bowlers have come and gone with the frequency of coalition ministers (Irfan Pathan, L Balaji, Abhimanyu Mithun, Jaidev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav, Pankaj Singh, RP Singh for a start), and now even spinners, like grants for the impoverished, are being lost in transit.

Imagine you are a selector and have to make a list of spinners to play for India. You would start with Harbhajan but wouldn't move much past Amit Mishra, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin. Maybe you would add Piyush Chawla to that list, though he seems to have acquired stagnancy too. India have sent left-arm spinners Iqbal Abdulla and Bhargav Bhatt to the Emerging Players tournament, and legspinner Rahul Sharma looks a prospect over a 50-over game. Maybe the time has come to blood Ashwin, a fine, thoughtful cricketer who takes his batting seriously but has yet to run through sides. His finest moments have come in 20-over cricket, but fine players of spin bowling like Sanjay Manjrekar and Navjot Sidhu think his time has come. And maybe Ojha needs a comforting arm around the shoulder and lots of bowling in longer games.

But for India to be the best team in Test cricket, there must be a settled bowling line-up, at least some members of which will keep the opposition awake. At the moment, while people may not be queuing up to bat, they aren't exactly quaking in their boots either.

For India to be the best team in Test cricket, there must be a settled bowling line-up, at least some members of which will keep the opposition awake

India need to be aware, too, that three key players are at the crossroads of their careers. There is a road ahead but it will be paved with extraordinary intent and determination; call it Rahul Dravid Avenue. Zaheer has been an outstanding cricketer for India, as have been Harbhajan and Yuvraj Singh, but this break is a good time for them to think about where they want to be.

Zaheer turns 33 in October, by when he will probably be planting his ankle rather gingerly and waiting to start fitness training. The road from there to becoming one of contemporary cricket's finest bowlers again will be long. The injury will prey on the mind, the pace will drop, and while the mind can remain sharp, his arsenal will deplete. It is not easy to begin afresh at 33, especially if you take the new ball for your country.

Harbhajan is 31 but has been 13 years in international cricket. It has been a stellar career, whatever metrics you use to judge it by. But the future is about incremental results rather than history; for history tells you what you were, while recent results tend to tell you who you are. Recent results have not been flattering for Harbhajan, and while young challengers aren't exactly snapping at his heels, the selectors will be tempted to look elsewhere. Maybe he needs to prioritise, make one form of the game paramount and take what he gets with the rest. All of us face such moments in life but only some can look at the present squarely in the eye.

And surely by now Yuvraj should have been the one holding the baton handed over by Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman. In limited-overs cricket there are few more thrilling players in the game, but Test cricket has yielded relatively unflattering results. So as he heads towards 30, he must make sporting and lifestyle choices. Few tours these days are as demanding as this one in England, so fewer questions will be asked of him, but he must ask himself if he is willing to do what it takes to play 50 Tests, starting now.

Each of the three is accomplished enough to write his own future. But whether they have the unwavering determination we will have to wait and see. India's position in the top three could also depend on that.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Viswasam on August 15, 2011, 15:16 GMT

    I think it may be appropriate to add Sehwag to the list. He did himself no favours with his performance at Edgbaston and one of the key reasons India cannot be number one. As Dhoni put it, to be number one you have to be consistent and Sehwag we all know does not fit that bill. One thing strikes me about the great teams of the past; strong methodical opening partnerships coupled with bowling that had depth. Windies of the 70's 80's had the Greenidge/Haynes couple with the pace quartet; Australia had the Hayden/Langer couple with McDermott, McGrath and Warne - both sides had enviable second XI's that could have taken on the other countries tio demonstrate depth. I think India used Dravid, Tendulkar, Zaheer et al to get to the top but I don't think that there is quality in the depth of the pool to sustain the number 1 ranking.

  • Sidthoughtworks on August 15, 2011, 3:45 GMT

    It is always hard to reach the pinnacle of glory and yet stay motivated. That is what separates legends from talented cricketers!!Probably, they need to take a break and bring back their focus...it is all about playing for your country, tournaments and series are only incidental!! It will do wonders if they can follow the adage" stay hungry and stay foolish!!"

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on August 14, 2011, 21:03 GMT

    It's about time India starts preparing some hard, dead and flat pacy wickets so that the youngsters will get accustomed to some back foot play. We are masters at negoitiating any kind of bowling on our challenging spin friendly tracks. Just a little bit of practice should enable us to play well on those dead tracks of England, SA and Australia where bounce is much predictable but comes at a different height.

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on August 14, 2011, 20:57 GMT

    @Martin, get your vocab right. What do you mean by batsman friendly wickets? You mean the dead decks with predictable, pace friendly, ball coming nicely onto bat as in England, Australia and SA or the flattest of flat decks at Edgbaston? Wickets like hard wood and concrete rolled into one? And on top of that use the heaviest of rollers to make it even more flatter and even more harder? Lol...Spin friendly wickets are challenging with their variable bounce and turn and unpredictability. If they are batsman friendly, I wonder what is meant by a challenging track!

  • sundar1967 on August 14, 2011, 12:36 GMT

    It high time for Bhajji and Zaheer quit test cricket. India has to now groom for new fast bowlers and train them to play only Ranji Trophy and other domestic tournaments and not IPL for sure. Please ban IPL

  • dummy4fb on August 14, 2011, 3:10 GMT

    The scrutiny should start from K Srikanth. How could he leave out a player like Rohit sharma who has been scoring consistently in the domestic circuit and the one day series in WI. K Srikanth must take the blame and resign.

  • Mahatma_of_Great_Britain on August 14, 2011, 3:03 GMT

    This will be a final nail in the coffin of Test cricket. Out of 10 Test playing nation, only England & Australia cares a damn about this Victorian format of cricket. Frankly, they just don't wish to move on with time & would rather live in 18th century. No one has a time to wait for 5 whole days of slog to watch a Test that often culminates into a draw anyway. It's like me working for 5 days and not getting any result or pay. Anyhow, if India's not playing Test, Test viewership would lose one of its biggest audience & without the viewership, Test matches bound to die - it's just a matter of time.

  • iamsoumitra on August 14, 2011, 2:11 GMT

    Entirely agree with Harsha. We are now moving into a phase which might make us even more vulnerable than what Australia are at this moment in their phase of transition.The next year/15 months are critical for Indian cricket and the BCCI needs to look at the monster called the IPL. In 15 months time there will not be Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and we hardly have replacements for them.Zaheer needs to look as what form of the game his body is best suited to and the vacuum left behind by Ganguly's exit has not been filled up in two years of his retirement by either Raina or Yuvraj.Yuvraj ,it is now certain, will never be a world class Test batsman suited to all conditions and even Sehwag at 31 needs to look as to which way he wishes to take his game forward once the batting trio retire. Probably it would be a better idea to convert Dhoni into only a Test batsman and tell him to give up the big gloves for somebody younger and a better keeper. Also: revive the career of Irfan Pathan.

  • dummy4fb on August 13, 2011, 20:43 GMT

    We need specialists for each formats. We need to balance the heavy load being exerted in form of FTP, IPL and ICL.Also Indians might start playing other upcoming leagues. We need to strategize well. Dhoni needs ample rest. We need a good stand by captain.Gambhir is a good choice. Raina, Kohli, Yuvi are good for ODIs and T20s. However, groom Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane for tests and try getting back Wasim Jaffer. He is any day a better bet than Mukund or Murali Vijay. Also, we need to get left handed fast bowlers to be a diverse attack. We have Sreeshant, Ishant, Praveen being 3 good bowlers when looked at separately, but while combined, pose no real threat. We need to trust RP Singh more. He can handle the spearhead's responsibility. Sreenath Arvind, I Pathan need to be groomed to have good pool of left arm seamers.Also, it's high time, Bhajji is displaced. He has no surprise element left. He does not have the humility to sustain his talent. Good pool of spinners also need to be groomed.

  • dummy4fb on August 13, 2011, 19:46 GMT

    For me the more important question is not that India needs good bowlers but why we are not able to produce one? Though who follow Indian cricket have heard these from generations that we need a tear away fast bowler or a "genuine" spinner but why we are not able to produce one.

    I have heard Indian mud bowls or flat tracks are the reason but then Pakistan or Sir lanka does not create/have seamer friendly track but keep coming with Amir, Aaseef, Malingas.

    I have also heard that there are fast bowlers in India who loose pace because of not enough of care but again i fail to understand how could Pakistan create this support system.

    Harsha, I expect a more justified reason next time that what is stopping creation of good bowlers in India?

    BTW, if you have time, also think on why we dont produce good umpires too ?

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