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

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