The in-betweeners

Squeezed between two generations of Indian cricket is the one that missed out

Yuvraj Singh was born in 1981. So were his two other senior teammates in the ODI squad, M.S. Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir. But somehow Yuvraj has seen more of life. Debuting as a teen prodigy, he has donned the India blues more often than the two other 31-year-olds in the top hierarchy. He has aged from being a rookie who made old hands in the batting line-up insecure to a senior who is under constant scrutiny. Once the baby of Sourav Ganguly's exciting team of 2000, he now is the only one in Dhoni's struggling bunch who got his big break in the last century.

So if he complains of a disconnect, it's understandable. With Sachin Tendulkar retiring, Virender Sehwag getting dropped, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan fighting their own comeback battles on the domestic circuit, Yuvraj wouldn't have anyone in the team bus to share old jokes.

Of late, the attention has been focused on bidding goodbye to batting legends now in their late-30s and much energy wasted in speculating on the leadership qualities of certain 20-somethings. Those who have gone unattended in this season of intrigue are the fast fading "in-betweeners". When an era ends, it brings with it curtain calls and painful goodbyes. But this time of change in Indian cricket has seen another melancholy tale silently unfolding. It's about the shrinking ambitions of a bunch of senior cricketers who aren't yet the "step away from retirement" veterans. Squeezed between two generations is a "middle class" that seems to have missed out.

These are highly talented men who, a decade ago, broke into Indian cricket's Galactico. It was a dream internship with the men who knew it all. To their credit, in the crowd of decorated men, they regularly earned their stripes. They acquired their own identity and loyal fans. They added new dimension to the already multifaceted unit.

But while living in the shadows of inspirational men, the leader in Sehwag, Yuvraj, Harbhajan or Zaheer didn't grow. When these four took their first step in international cricket, they had around them Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble. It was also the period when Indian cricket opened its doors to foreign coaches, who came with new concepts and revolutionary ideas.

Besides learning from the wisdom flying around in the dressing room, the youngsters of that era had the luxury of their own exclusive mentors. For Sehwag and Yuvraj, a heart-to-heart with Tendulkar — something they would never have imagined growing up — was just a shout away. For variety, they could pick the brains of Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman. Harbhajan loved being called Kumble's chela while Zaheer, Srinath and a cricket ball were constant companions.

These eager beavers had it easy. They were indulged. They were also scolded for their misdemeanors. Actually, they were treated as grown-up kids. They would barely speak at team meetings where the seniors, along with the deep-thinking coaches, would do the plotting, planning and most of the speaking. The brat pack were committed to improving their skills set but they weren't programmed to think long term or as leaders.

As time passed, the Indian team got fresh recruits. These were different juniors. They joined a team that already had its cozy cliques. Old senior-junior bonds were too strong for the rank juniors to break. They freshers needed to fight their own battles against the middle-rung players, who understandably didn't take too kindly to the upstarts' attitude.

Then one fine day, Indian cricket got a player who didn't quite fit any mould. He was different. His strides were unusually long and so was his hair. In a line-up of aesthetically pleasing batsmen, Dhoni's home-grown skills were an aberration. But certainly not an eyesore. Dhoni wasn't reluctant to take charge, even if it was an impossible chase. He had a swagger that could make the stalwarts, from both sides, edgy.

As wicket-keeper, he enjoyed proximity to the seniors standing in the slips. With one gloved hand covering his mouth, he would whisper his observations to them when the game seemed to be drifting from India's reach. Invariably, his inputs would prove invaluable.

So when it was time to a pick a Generation Next captain, the selectors had to consult the seniors. Setting aside their personal equations, the latter pointed to the man behind the stumps. The decision was easy as the other senior contenders were not in the best of form. The bus was missed and the next one wasn't due any time soon.

Once again, as India rebuilds, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Harbhajan or Zaheer don't really figure in captaincy debates. With names like Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli thrown up, the selectors seem to have moved on. The in-betweeners would have been ideal for the top job, courtesy their experience of witnessing a generational shift. But here they are, again busy fighting their own battles against form and fitness. This doesn't mean history won't acknowledge their contribution. But they will be remembered as soldiers with a chestful of medals, not the path-breaking generals that they could have been.

sandeep.dwivedi @expressindia.com

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