M.S. Dhoni. Photo:
M.S. Dhoni. Photo:

A fresh beginning for the Indian cricket team

A core team which includes a plethora of young players under Dhoni seems to be taking shape ahead of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup

The Indian team announced for the Champions Trophy, starting 6 June, suggests the end of an era. Missing the flight to England are five players without whom a One Day International (ODI) side was unthinkable less than a year ago: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan.

Consensus opinion—and not without merit—seems to be that the selectors are looking ahead to the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup, which explains the plethora of young players in the squad. Not all of them may last the two-year distance, but a core team for that campaign under Mahendra Singh Dhoni seems to have taken shape.

This does not mean that Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Khan or Gambhir can be ruled out for the 2015 World Cup, but the difficulty quotient for them in making a comeback will be enormous, for reasons of age and fitness more than just form. Of this lot, it would appear that Harbhajan and the still-young Gambhir could make it, but just about.

Interestingly, all these players were part of the overhaul that accompanied Sourav Ganguly’s ascent to the captaincy in 2000, though Gambhir came at the cusp, when Ganguly’s tenure was approaching its end in 2004.

Of the others who made their debut under Ganguly, Irfan Pathan makes a comeback. And there is Dhoni, the current captain, whose influence in recent selection matters is believed to be considerable.

Harbhajan, Yuvraj and Khan all made their international debuts as promising young guns between 1998 and 2000, and Sehwag burst on to the scene with a century on Test debut in 2001. They were to align with formidable names like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, V.V.S. Laxman and Javagal Srinath to make India a major force in world cricket, especially when playing overseas, where the team had always struggled.

This was a trying period for Indian cricket, with the match-fixing scam having been unearthed, and it couldn’t have been easy for Ganguly, only 28 when he was put in charge, to resurrect not just the image of Indian cricket, but also make the team perform credibly.

Barring Gambhir, this bunch came to be identified closely with Ganguly because he trusted their ability and backed them in times of adversity. All four—Sehwag, Harbhajan, Khan and Yuvraj—lost the trust of the selectors at some point, but not Ganguly’s, and returned to the side as match winners.

Not unnaturally, they showed strong allegiance to their captain, especially when Ganguly went through rough times. In hindsight, it is hardly surprising that these players did not find favour with coach Greg Chappell when he was at loggerheads with the then Indian captain.

Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Khan, Gambhir and Dhoni were to play stellar roles in India’s World Cup triumph in 2011, and in taking the team to the No.1 Test ranking earlier that year. Though Yuvraj was not a regular fixture in the five-day format, his influence in limited-overs cricket was enormous.

By this time, of course, Ganguly’s own career was over, as was Kumble’s. Dravid and Laxman were no longer part of the scheme of things where limited-overs cricket was concerned and Tendulkar has since quit ODIs.

But Dhoni benefited greatly from the ability and experience of “Ganguly’s Gang", much as the former India captain had benefited from having inherited players like Tendulkar, Kumble and Dravid.

The team makeover since seems almost complete. It’s been an excruciating two years since the World Cup triumph but the recent whitewash of Australia and significant wins against England in ODIs suggest that Indian cricket is on the mend.

Dhoni has a young brigade that seems to be abundantly talented, yet remains unproven in overseas conditions or difficult situations. Players like Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Cheteshwar Pujara (who is on the shortlist for ODIs too), R. Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and M. Vijay have been hugely impressive at home but their credentials overseas are still suspect.

On the face of it, this makes the captain (and team) vulnerable; on the other, it provides Dhoni a completely clean slate to do as he will. There has been talk that he has handpicked players. It may not be true, but I don’t find it disagreeable even if it is.

I believe a captain must have a major say in team selection, and as long as his suggestions are not outrageous, the selectors must be accommodating. If Dhoni has got who and what he wanted, fair dinkum. But he also has the onus of making the team as formidable as it was during Ganguly’s heydays.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.