The signs are encouraging

CRICKET is a team game, and for a side to be successful on a consistent basis, everybody has to contribute. Only then will the outfit have a sense of balance about it.

Thus, it is important for the youngsters to come good, for they add depth to the side, take the pressure off the superstars. Not for a moment am I trying to take any credit away from the star players - they have earned the status only because of their sterling performances - however, if the less experienced cricketers succeed in crunch situation, it can only augur well for the side.

In this respect, it was so heartening to find Sanjay Bangar come up with a match-winning knock under lights in the Ahmedabad one-dayer, and such displays in pressure situations from unsung players stand the side in good stead.

And let's not forget the rapid strides made by Mohammed Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, and Virender Sehwag, and the valuable runs from the blades of Sourav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid. While Tendulkar continues to be precious, there is less of a burden on him these days.

There was a period when India was dependent on the genius of Tendulkar, but that has changed now, and the side has so many options. This is a healthy sign.

This syndrome is not restricted to India alone. West Indies arrived in India without Brian Lara, but, at least in the ODI series, youngsters like Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds, Marlon Samuels, and Ramnaresh Sarwan have made runs in striking fashion.

In fact, in the ODI series, Carl Hooper, the West Indies captain, on whom there was so much responsibility in the absence of Lara, has not really been in his element, yet, the youngsters for a major part have been in cracking form, with Gayle actually knocking off three hundreds in the first five ODIs.

The responsibility has to shared in international cricket, where it is almost impossible for the same bunch of cricketers to rise to the occasion time and again.

We have the example of the Australians before us. Not long ago, Mark Waugh, a gifted cricketer, was the prime batsman in the side. In the ODIs, he invariably managed to provide flying starts to the team, finding the gaps so easily.

Then the dashing Adam Gilchrist came along, and he took so much pressure off Waugh, putting the attacks to the sword and charting out sensational victories. From an Australian perspective, the coming good of Gilchrist was a welcome news.

They had someone to assume the lead role once Mark Waugh's cricket declined. The outstanding form of the big-built Matthew Hayden was another big plus for the Australians. Now they had two aggressive openers who could do the job in the ODIs. It did not matter if both were southpaws.

Hayden and Gilchrist had the ability to knock the cover off the ball, and were both destructive in nature. When Mark Waugh found runs difficult to come by, Gilchrist took on the mantle of the senior opening partner, and Hayden came in for Mark.

The Australian selectors made the switch at the right time, but importantly, they had the right men for the job. Similar is the case with Mark's twin brother Steve.

He is perhaps the foremost fighter of our times, a cricketer who thrives in adverse situations. Yet, when the Australians discovered that he was not really performing in the ODIs, they were quick to omit him from the side.

This was a brave decision, however, the Australian selectors could still go ahead with it, since Ricky Ponting, in fine nick with the willow, is being groomed as captain, and the other batsmen like Damien Martyn are among the runs. Steve and Mark Waugh were the biggest batting stars in Australian cricket, a couple of years ago, and during that period a lot has happened. While Steve has been excluded from the ODI squad, Mark, dumped from the Test team as well, has bid adieu to all forms of international cricket. The Aussies are continuing their fine run, making light of the Waugh brothers' absence.

We are increasingly finding ourselves in a scenario, where a side is not dependent on a couple of cricketers for successes. The cool Michael Bevan was the best man to have at the final stages of a limited overs contest, and he did win innumerable matches for Australia batting at No. 5 or six. Bevan is not in the same kind of form now, but the others are still getting the job done.

If you glance at the South Africans, you would find that Lance Klusener, one of the most explosive batsmen in the game, someone who could decide a close match in a matter of a couple of overs, finds himself in the cold.

When it comes to one-day cricket, the Proteas do possess a lot of depth, and when the South African selectors found that Klusener, despite being provided with plenty of chances, failed to deliver in the end overs with the bat - in fact, he was struggling to force the slower bowlers - and axe, inevitably followed. Ironically, Klusener, in my book, was the biggest single star of the '99 World Cup, striking the ball furiously.

The Lankans may not have had a memorable tour of South Africa, at least in the Test series, but there is no denying the fact that there is plenty of ability in youngsters such as Mahela Jayawardene, Kumara Sangakkara, and Russell Arnold, despite his lack of runs in South Africa. Similar is the case with England's Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan, two opening batsmen who have been among the runs in a big fashion.

Going back to the '97 World Cup, one of the key factors behind the Lankan triumph was that - though men like Aravinda de Silva sparkled - almost everyone in the side chipped in, and what eventually carried the day for the islanders was a splendid team effort.

In fact, the Indian win in the '83 World Cup was due to wonderful combined display. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were the biggest stars in the Indian team of the 80s, however, the side had some solid cricketers like Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar, who contributed so much to the Indian successes.

Youngsters like Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh promise to accomplish much the same in the years to come, when they blossom into fully rounded cricketers. At that time too, there will be several newcomers striving to carve a place. It is a cycle. But one thing is clear - cricket is and will remain a team game.