The emerging five

THE ability to dazzle by the sheer fearlessness of the mind is one of the priceless gifts nature bestows on the young. Not yet burdened with responsibility, not yet cluttered in the mind, not yet possessors of a frightening reputation to defend, they seem to bring a fresh air to everything they do. There is a virility, a certain lustiness to the approach that the veteran, calmer of mind and more reasoned in thought, struggles to impart. That is why good teams like to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It is not easy to get the balance but India seem to have got it; for the moment at least!

The focus is moving and gathering momentum; away from the big four to the emerging five. The expectation that can burden some and empower others is being spread around better and that always makes for a better dressing room. There is a fine harvest out there. If one-day cricket has found its way firmly back into the hearts of the Indian public, it has as much to do with the exploits of Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Kumble as it has with the vivacity of Zaheer, Yuveraj, Kaif, Sehwag and Harbhajan.

The first thing that strikes you, even overwhelms you, when you spend some time with them is the huge air of confidence they seem to radiate. Older minds tend to ask what if, the young haven't had that lesson in life yet and with the success Indian cricket has had in recent times, they are entitled to wonder if people on the wrong side of 25 worry too much!

Sehwag and Harbhajan are stars in their own right now and it is heartening to see that their paths have converged from different routes. It was clear that Sehwag was going to create a bigger impact in the one-day game but he has shown that he has the technique and the maturity, apart from a very rare ability, to succeed in Test cricket. Harbhajan took the other route, achieving great success in Test cricket for one so young and then evolving into an outstanding one-day bowler.

Sehwag is a very special talent and he combines the ability to hit a good ball with the courage and the confidence to do it. It is a sign of the times that someone can hit a gorgeous, straight-bat back-foot drive past mid-off one ball and then jump into the air to slice a six over point the next. Sehwag's gift lies not just in playing explosive shots but in marrying them to the refined. He can be very correct and that gives him a much wider range.

Harbhajan's challenge may well lie in remaining a high quality Test match bowler having attained such heights in one-day cricket. His control over length, and the variations he is able to produce, are quite outstanding for one so young and you can see the great advantage of starting out very young. Having allowed time for the edges to smoothen, he is now a complete off-spin bowler at 23 and that makes him an outstanding asset to possess.

With both Sehwag and Harbhajan, as indeed with Zaheer and Kaif, what gladdens the heart enormously is that they have all come from small towns, or from less affluent suburbs of larger towns, but do not carry the shyness that seemed part of the baggage with cricketers from such areas. They like being centre-stage, you won't find them dissolving into little corners, and they are not afraid to mingle with anybody. That is the great strength of modern India. The inferiority complex that often took so long to overcome has gone. Maybe it is because they earn good money early and so, don't experience the denial that an earlier generation did. To have seen both sides of the picture, separated only by a few years, has been heartwarming.

While Harbhajan and Sehwag had been marked out for success early, with Harbhajan it was assumed that it was only a question of time, the arrival of Kaif and Zaheer carries a different story to it. I must confess that I am astonished by the strength with which Zaheer has returned. He had started earning a reputation as a shirker but nobody can hold that tag against him anymore. He has shed some extra kilos and is now the proud owner of a magnificently crafted body. John Wright said to us in England that he topped the trainer's log-book and that tells you a thing or two about commitment. I have no doubt at all that it was the physical development that helped an already combative person to go through the rigours of the last few months and still come out bowling strongly. He might well need a break before the World Cup and he can put those feet up for a while for they have done outstanding work. Very rarely in our cricket has someone bowled the end-overs with such variety and confidence.

Spare a thought for Kaif too who smiles and skips his way through life having to play the most difficult role of all; that of a specialist batsman at number seven. A lot of teams, including Australia, have struggled to fill that position with someone who can bat 30 overs if needed, or can smash the ball around in five overs. In his brief career, Kaif has shown that he can do that. He is a very good player of the single and has grown into a punishing player of boundaries by learning to pick his spots in the field. His acceptance of the number seven job and his desire to make the most of it is so heartening especially because it comes with the added realisation that he must necessarily be a very good fielder. His combination with Yuveraj is the best I have seen in Indian cricket. They enjoy what they do and they complement each other remarkably. And they make the older legs in the team stand out as well!!

That brings us to the fifth member of this modern army. There is a charisma about Yuveraj that is granted to very few in this world. It was his strength and his undoing and in a funny kind of way, he needed to experience both. He is among the star fielders in the world now and at last, at point and cover, India are cutting off both boundaries and singles. Against Zimbabwe and against South Africa, he produced the turning point of the match with his fielding, and he carries the air of someone born to do that. Navjot Sidhu called him the Pied Piper of Punjab when he first hit the world scene. If he can play the right tune, and he knows now what it is not to, Sidhu will have to find a new title for him, one that encompasses a much wider region.

There should have been a sixth member of this group. Ashish Nehra is as gifted as anyone else but you just sense that he doesn't believe in himself as much as some of the others. It is a thin line, one that he must cross. In the current atmosphere in the Indian dressing room, that should not be too difficult to do.