The Indian cricket team that landed in the West Indies last week for a series of One Day and Test matches in the Caribbean islands is clearly short of international experience. The unavailability of senior players is both an immediate problem and a long-term opportunity.
The 16 players selected for the Test matches against the West Indies have played 625 Tests between them. The five most experienced among them—M.S. Dhoni, V.V.S. Laxman, Harbhajan Singh, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan—account for 499 of these Tests. The other 11 players have just 126 Tests between them, or a little more than 11 per head. Players such as Virat Kohli and Abhinav Mukund have yet to be capped. Others such as Suresh Raina, S. Badrinath, Amit Mishra and Murali Vijay have played less than 10 Tests each.
How bad is this? Let’s compare this with the 17-member team that went to South Africa at the end of 2010. They had a collective experience of 856 Tests. The top seven players (Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and the five named above) had played 626 Tests, while the other 10 still had played only 130 Tests between themselves, or 13 Tests per head. That team had greenhorns such as Cheteshwar Pujara, Wriddhiman Saha, Jaidev Unadkat and Umesh Yadav.
Young blood: Indian ODI skipper Suresh Raina (centre) and Rohit Sharma. AP
Both teams were divided between a small group of experienced players and about a dozen freshmen. The balance between experience and freshness is especially skewed right now. As it prepares to take on the West Indies, the Indian Test team is at least two senior players short. Gautam Gambhir is a wonderful talent—and has been unfairly pulled into the club versus country debate—but he has only played 38 Test matches, a few more than Ishant Sharma.
The West Indies series could prove to be an opportunity to build the Indian team for the next decade. It’s a job that nobody wants to openly talk about, but let’s face it: Players such as Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Zaheer Khan are headed towards retirement. There will soon be a time when their prodigious talents will not be available. It is time to think about the core of the Indian team for the next 10 years. It means a lot of new players will have to be given an opportunity. Some will make it while others will fall by the wayside.
So a good strategy is to anticipate such bunched retirements and plan ahead. It’s been done before. In the late 1960s, the Indian selection committee headed by Vijay Merchant began building a new team during the Australian tour of India, to prepare for a decade without players such as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Chandu Borde. G.R. Vishwanath, Mohinder Amarnath and Eknath Solkar were capped. Sunil Gavaskar got his break during the tour to West Indies in 1971. Not all the new players eventually made their mark in international cricket— think of Ashok Gandotra or Ramesh Nagdev.
The late 1980s saw another round of bloodletting, this time because of the insistence of Raj Singh Dungarpur that India needed to build a new team for the 1990s. Gavaskar retired in 1987; Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar were dropped from the Indian team in subsequent years. New players such as Tendulkar and Anil Kumble got their initial breaks in this era of renewal. They grabbed the opportunities while the likes of Vivek Razdan and Salil Ankola were less fortunate. Others such as Vinod Kambli and Pravin Amre began well, but inexplicably faded away.
Successful teams tend to be stable. Their success makes it so. The same players form the backbone of the team for long periods of time. For example, the Indian middle order has had Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Sourav Ganguly for a decade. They have been so successful that selectors really did not have to look around for replacements when the going was good. Then the national squad is hit. The players who have played together for many years suddenly retire in quick succession. Countries are left with new but raw teams.
Smart managers and administrators need to ensure that they are not blindsided by bunched retirements of the best players. There will be a day when the stars who have dominated Indian cricket for a long time will hang up their boots. Tendulkar will be gone. Dravid, Laxman and Zaheer will be gone. Who knows, even Sehwag.
The West Indies tour is a good opportunity to test talented youngsters such as Raina, Kohli and Vijay—to see whether they can fill the massive gaps that will open up soon.