Whichever way one tries to analyze the Indian team picked for the first two Tests against Australia, Sourav Ganguly will have to be at the core of the arguments. The previous selection committee headed by Dilip Vengsarkar omitted the 36-year-old former Indian captain from the Rest of India team to play the annual Irani Trophy match against Ranji Trophy champions Delhi even as they included the three other senior batsmen Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. This was seen as the starting point in phasing out the seniors.
Vengsarkar and his team made it clear throughout their tenure that they were keen on building a team good enough to win the 2011 World Cup and their overall approach was to look for long term goals instead of short term gains. Of late, young talent in Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, S Badrinath and Suresh Raina have been given the breaks while Yuvraj Singh and Md Kaif will always be claimants for slots in the middle order.
Inexplicably, Ganguly has always looked the most fragile of the Fab Four despite performing admirably over the last year as compared to the other three. Since his recall in December 2006, Ganguly has scored 1571 runs at 50.67 including a maiden Test double century. Perhaps, this has something to do with his age – he is the oldest of the quartet - as also with his slowness in the field. On performance, there is no reason to believe that the other three members should be any less vulnerable. Certainly on fitness grounds serious question marks could be raised against Tendulkar.
But it is also a fact that Ganguly has struggled against Australia, averaging just 31.73 in 20 Tests compared to an overall average of 41.74 in 109 Tests. Moreover, he managed only 96 runs in six innings during India's 2-1 series defeat in Sri Lanka a couple of months ago.
Ganguly has squashed reports of a quid pro quo agreement with the rumours having it that he would be selected against Australia provided he announced his retirement at the end of the series. This is in keeping with the BCCI’s endeavor to give the seniors a fitting farewell. So then it has to be assumed the Srikkanth and his co-selectors have found Ganguly worthy of a place in the team.
Put that down as experience scoring a point over youth but his detractors and those who supported the far-sighted approach of Vengsarkar and his team might find his inclusion as putting the clock back when there is urgent need for phasing out the seniors progressively and building a team for the 2011 World Cup. And it’s not that there are no ready replacements. The youngsters have more or less shown that they are ready to take over but for the forward thinking process to bear fruit one must not turn the clock back.
Let's face facts. Indian cricketers generally are loath to retire. They do not take a leaf from Vijay Merchant’s book that said "retire when people ask why and not why not." Even some of the greats overstayed their welcome and this is driven home by the figures against their names that took a nosedive before they either very reluctantly called it a day or were shown the door. The famous spin quartet was a case in point as also players like Dilip Vengsarkar, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Kris Srikkanth and Ravi Shastri to name a few.
A quick look at the figures clearly proves that they were over the hill when they played their last Tests. The same is the case with Tendulkar and Dravid. The former at his peak was averaging 57.7. Over the last couple of years it has come down to 54.2. For Dravid the fall is even more emphatic. At his peak he was averaging 58.8. His average now is 53.92. Laxman’s average was 47 plus a few years ago and it is now 43 plus.
Interestingly enough, Ganguly whose average has been in the early 40s for quite some time has not slid. Of course the other senior man in the team Anil Kumble has also fared no better as he enters the twilight of his career. Till not too long ago he was averaging 27 plus with the ball while the figure now is 29.plus.
It must not be forgotten that sometime ago when Virender Sehwag found runs hard to come by and his average slipped from 56 to 49 he was dropped. And Sehwag who is much younger – he completes 30 this month - has almost always enjoyed a status as exalted as the Fab Four.
Basically, what Vengsarkar and his team did was to commence the phasing out process. The inclusion of Ganguly has halted this far-sighted move. It remains to be seen whether Srikkanth and his co-selectors have the courage and foresight to start the phasing out process again should the seniors continue to perform below their lofty reputation.