June 26, 2013

More power to youth

India won the Champions Trophy in unfamiliar conditions and without many of their experienced players. What they had were free-spirited cricket and good fielding

When Sunil Gavaskar retired, there were concerns about what would happen to India. Who would now stand up to the big bad fast bowlers of the world? As it turned out, two years later Sachin Tendulkar arrived and we had another little master who not only stood up to the fast bowlers but also managed to put some of them to the sword.

This Champions Trophy-winning Indian team under MS Dhoni was devoid of the recent stalwarts of Indian cricket. No Tendulkar, no Sehwag, no Gambhir, no Harbhajan, no Zaheer, no Yuvraj. But the young team put up one of the most impressive performances by an Indian team overseas to prove that when stars leave, very often they just make space for future stars to come in. As long as the sport is popular in the country, this generally happens.

After India's disasters in England and Australia in the last two years, there was a feeling in some parts of the media that it was time to let the ageing players go. But with that came the typical apprehension: Who will take over from these greats? Is anyone good enough to replace them?

I believe however great a player you are, there comes a time when you become a liability to the team. Smart and brave selectors recognise the signs earlier than most and sideline these players before they can go on to do damage to the team.

In India this takes a little longer to happen, because selectors fear the wrath of the millions of fans, who are emotionally attached to these players, and the media, which generally whips up the popular mood. It needs a brave selector to take this kind of step at the right time and face the fury that his decision inevitably brings forth. Indian selectors tend to wait for the performances of ageing stars to dip hugely so that dropping them does not trigger a heavy backlash.

By that time substantial damage is done, like with the 8-0 Test losses in England and Australia and the 2-1 defeat to England at home. A player's experience is invaluable to the team but there comes a time when that experience starts to become heavy baggage for him, which he carries with him everywhere on the field. It's an extra weight on his mind and consequently on his body.

Let me give you a case in point. In the first game of this Champions Trophy, when India batted first in Cardiff, despite Dale Steyn's absence, the South African attack led by Morne Morkel, on an English pitch, against a team that had a reputation of being sitting ducks against pace and bounce, looked intimidating. The Indian batsmen were new, a bit wet behind their ears. Indian fans feared the worst.

Sure, the pitch turned out to be flat, but it was not one that lacked pace or had low bounce. The way Shikhar Dhawan went after the South African pace attack was sensational. He was aggressive against the short ball and danced down the pitch to the big South African fast bowlers to hit them over covers. In Cardiff, not Rajkot. Rohit Sharma, his opening partner, did not hold back either. For me, that partnership in Cardiff set the tone for India's eventual triumph in the tournament. Dhawan's free-spirited batting at the top, minus excess baggage, served Indian cricket well.

With youth in the team, along with free-spirited cricket, you also get good fielding. For the first time in the history of Indian cricket, India laid claim to being among the best fielding sides in a tournament. The average age of this team is 26. Ravindra Jadeja's run-out of Robin Peterson in that first match was the turning point, when it seemed that AB de Villiers and Peterson would pull South Africa through. Who knows whether India would have even qualified for the semi-finals if that run-out had not been successful?

Dhoni does not show his emotions often, but you could see the pride in his eyes when he looked around at the fielders he had in this tournament. It was like a long-held desire had finally come true. A good catch here and there, a run-out at a crucial stage to turn the game become more frequent occurrences when you have a fit, athletic side.

India won every match on the tour easily, because for the first time we saw them bat well, bowl well and field well - all in one game. I hope this win makes Indian cricket think of fielding as a skill that every player must possess if he wants to play for the country.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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