At Eden, India come full circle

SP
Briefly, the Eden Gardens had shown a glimpse of its capacity to defy cricketing logic. England, chasing 41, were eight for three. But less than half an hour later, they were home and dry. India had lost their second successive home Test.

Only one man on the ground had experienced this feeling before. Twelve years ago, Sachin Tendulkar had led India when they lost 2-0 to South Africa in a two-Test series at home. His team, then, had just returned from Australia, where they had suffered a 0-3 drubbing. It wasn't a very different situation to what the Indian team now faces.

Then, the selectors hadn't played too much of a role in the sweeping upheaval that had followed those defeats. The captain and coach resigned. The match-fixing scandal ended a few careers.

Now, it seems that it is almost entirely up to the selectors to chart India's rebuilding process. Their first move has been to drop Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh for the Nagpur Test. Zaheer is on 295 Test wickets, Harbhajan on 99 Tests. Depending on how the bowling attack does over the coming months, they might or might not get a chance to reach their respective milestones.

But considering the number of names clamouring for batting slots, it's hard to imagine Yuvraj in whites again. He has played 40 Tests, over a period of nine years, only suggesting sporadically that his technique can survive the format's rigorous scrutiny.

Yuvraj's case perhaps suggests a broad selection template for the future. Every batsman who has had a long Test career for India in the last 15 years, even the rule-bending talent of Virender Sehwag, has come through a fairly lengthy apprenticeship in domestic first-class cricket.

Lessons to learn

Batsmen who have been rushed into international cricket after catching the eye in the under-19 World Cup, on the other hand, have tended to establish themselves in the ODI team but struggle to make the step up to Test cricket. It's instructive that Yuvraj and Suresh Raina played 73 and 98 ODIs, respectively, before making their Test debut. Their styles had been shaped by limited-overs cricket, and the time they had spent playing that format had restricted their participation in domestic cricket.

The selectors will also do well to revisit the mid-80s, when Australia were in a similar situation. They were struggling to come to terms with the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh. They had just lost the 1985 Ashes, and seen a number of their players give up on their Test futures by joining a rebel tour of Apartheid-ruled South Africa. At that point, the selectors identified a core group of young players in whom they had seen not just talent but also the steel required for Test cricket, and persevered with them. Slowly, under Allan Border, they matured and grew in strength before Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh took them to the top of world cricket.

In March 2000, in Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, India had a bunch of talented, steely and mostly youthful players to take them forward into a new era. Now, at a similar juncture, India aren't really blessed with that sort of readymade core group. The selectors, therefore, will be tested like never before.

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