Venkat Ananth

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Taking the giant leap forward

It's only three weeks ago that Indian cricket witnessed something special, a triumph that eventually embodied the marvelous culmination of "blood, sweat and tears" as an advertisement copy puts it, that moment of glory, that has somehow been hijacked by a tournament (the Indian Premier League), lamentably if I could add, which is largely a caricature of all things cricket. Equally, if ever the chieftains of Indian cricket had an appropriate time to script a blueprint or a roadmap, whichever way you like, for how they'd like to see the team progress in the next two-four years, I think it is now. We also need to understand that if ever there was a time to recognize and possibly implement, that inevitable word i.e. "transition" that might in course of days to come become the buzzword in Indian cricket.

 

Some of us might be inclined to assume that transition equals rebuilding, and perhaps rightly so, but as I understand it, and pardon me for some jargons here, transition has more to do with talent management - the very idea of identifying and creating back-ups and options for every position in the playing XI and even develop the notion of a squad, with rotation occupying centre stage. Transition, to me also involves a process of investment, where sustainability of players with a view to the long-term comes in. If I could be slightly biased in my view, there's no better case-study or example for managing transitions successfully, as how Sir Alex Ferguson has time and again done during his two decades plus reign at Manchester United, as opposed to the jigsaw-puzzle formula that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have applied to achieve the same end result. The only difference in both approaches, is somewhere the vision with which they're implemented - the former being more long-term than the latter, which is at best short-term, momentary and medium-term. Or even Arsenal for that matter, which to me is an example of superb long-term goals, the investment in a policy that they felt might be successful, but somewhere has terribly gone awry, if not attained redundancy. If I were Indian cricket, I'd be clearly looking at the Manchester United model of transition, where most teams Sir Alex builds has a phases of evolution, in some cases even unsettlement, but the belief that the right combination with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes going strong, could eventually result in a prosperous outcome. And I think most Manchester United teams under Sir Alex have been successful because of the judicious manner in which he’s handled this very  sensitive issue i.e. transition. This is exactly the direction I would ideally like to see Indian cricket take in the coming years, a perfect blend of that thirsty quest for excellence, with top-class talent management, which is where the decisions we choose to take in the next three months could prove to be vital.

 

For the quality of talent we have at our disposal, Indian cricket doesn't need to rebuild and start from scratch, but critically, develop a squad culture, where and when if required, some of the senior statesmen of the side can afford to sit-out a few matches/series, and that the back-up could be thrust in, to a level higher than what they're used to at home (again, I don’t mean the IPL) and see where they're at different stages. Equally, this doesn’t mean forcibly resting the likes of Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman or Rahul Dravid, for if not anything, they've earned the right to take decisions that are in both their best interests and that of the team, but at this stage of their careers, they must equally sit down for honest chats with the selectors to see where they are heading. For me, the kind of form that Tendulkar and Laxman have shown in the past two years i.e. proving the myth about age and performance wrong time and again, they must figure in India's Test plans for at least two more years. With Dravid, whose performance levels have unfortunately dipped considerably in the past 12 months or so and with half-able replacements piling on the pressure with tons of runs in the domestic scene, I think I'd give it two more series at best to see where he's at, and then maybe nudge him into making way for his back-ups, the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli or Cheteshwar Pujara, the prime contenders for his spot as it stands. Mind you, I haven't even gotten to Zaheer Khan, whom I will in a bit. Even someone like Virender Sehwag, who we're told is carrying a shoulder injury at the moment, shouldn't be playing the IPL and this is where the BCCI must put its foot down and perhaps request contracted players to make themselves unavailable for their respective franchises if they're injured.

As someone who follows domestic cricket rather closely, I am convinced that India have a reasonably strong batting bench-strength in waiting, the likes of Rohit Sharma, Rahane, Pujara, Kohli, Abhinav Mukund, S Badrinath and Murali Vijay to name a few and which is why I believe it's time to blood them in straightaway and see what they're made of. Bowling is where the real weakness is, and I am going to stick my neck out and say this, that replacing Zaheer Khan in possibly two years is going to be a tougher assignment than replacing Sachin Tendulkar. It's important to keep in mind the sort of effort and performances that Zaheer has given over the past four years and equally important would be to start a hunt for his successor NOW. In Zaheer, we have a leader whose influence runs beyond the spot where he lands the ball, a top-class mentor for a bowling attack, rich in promise no less, but not world class by any means. Sreesanth to me, is an important asset in the Test scheme of things and must be persisted with, and also give Ishant Sharma a good go to see if he’s anything close to the initial promise he showed at Perth. I am tempted to favour a possible look-in to Irfan Pathan for the West Indies tour, simply to assess his performance and endurance levels over a sustained spell of 15-30 overs as opposed to 4 at the moment. From a squad perspective, Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth must have a back-up option, with the potential for injuries and loss of form more prominent in the pace department than elsewhere. Even the spin-department, where I think Ravichandran Ashwin's inclusion has almost become mandatory now, given Harbhajan Singh's track-record of non-performance in the past few years, and who knows, an in-form and performing Ravi Ashwin might just motivate Harbhajan to try and rediscover some of his lost potency. Equally, Pragyan Ojha must tour the West Indies and importantly, be given an attacking/wicket-taking role to judge his effectiveness from round the wicket.

I think the BCCI should probably take cue, rest some of these seniors for the upcoming tour of the West Indies. From a result-point of view, this could well be a potential banana skin decision, but in the larger interests of Indian cricket we should in all probability be sending a side with enough experience to mentor and guide this team, but most importantly, the core of which must be composed of a bunch of young, hungry men, jostling for places and ultimately, rewarded for not just their cognizable potential, but also their outstanding performances in the domestic circuit (and this doesn't include the IPL, I am afraid). Unfortunately, I am expecting the BCCI to send in a full-strength squad, driven by external factors like the larger, often shallow politicking of the ICC, where the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB)'s tilt towards the BCCI on some major issues off-late has to be reciprocated. Also, the small matter of television rights which stand to be affected mightily should India not send a strong, full-strength squad. But in the larger interests of Indian cricket, tours to countries like the West Indies and Bangladesh, with due respect to the opposition they're playing, must be a semi-full strength squad, filled with benchwarmers yearning for an opportunity to show their mettle. I am glad the BCCI took the first step last year, sending a below-strength team to Zimbabwe for a tri-nation series, and the home-series against New Zealand, but it's time to take this policy to the next level with a full-tour.

Indian cricket, today has a definite choice to make - to possibly undertake a process that could potentially help India dominate cricket for years to come, or go the Australia way, where the inherent belief that the system will anyway produce world-class players from time to time to replace some legends meant a failed transition. If not implementation, which I would ideally like to see happen, the first step Indian cricket must take is to recognize the desire and the need for a smooth transition. That, by itself could be a giant leap forward.

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