The vetting of veterans

The Indian team probables’ list for the 2015 World Cup had some surprises, mainly in the form of the omission of some stars who had performed well in the 2011 edition in India that the home team won. Vijay Lokapally analyses the situation.

Do we call them oldies when they still nurture hopes of a comeback? Epitaphs on their cricket careers have been readied in anticipation of their retirements. Some feel their retirements may be just round the corner. But that seems unlikely because they have plunged into the domestic season, assisting their state teams in the Ranji Trophy.

Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan did not find a place in the list of 30 probables announced for the 2015 World Cup. Debates arose, in their favour too, but the fact remained that the National selectors had decided to move on. The emphasis on young talent, at the cost of experience, has often led to heart-burning among the seniors, but it is also true that not all youngsters merit a look in.

To pick youth over experience is not always beneficial. In this case, the planning does not hold hope for the five who figured in India’s triumph in the 2011 World Cup. One more key member of that squad, Ashish Nehra, was said to be in the reckoning for his ability to bowl well in the death overs, but the selectors were unwilling to look back.

Is it the end of the road for these veterans? “Looking forward to play the World Cup,” had been the instant response from Sehwag and Harbhajan a few days ahead of the probables’ selection. Their optimism was misplaced because the selectors were looking to invest in players who would serve beyond the World Cup.

There is reason to believe that some senior Board officials, obviously influential, did not appreciate some of these players being picked for their state associations in the Vijay Hazare tournament. But the credibility of this selection committee cannot be doubted since they had also backed these five players for a long time.

The demands of one-day cricket vary from those of the Tests. Fitness and flexibility in the team play a dominant role when finalising a team for a challenge as big as the World Cup. The 2007 World Cup had proved a disastrous campaign under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy. Yet, some survived that debacle and went on to gain glory in the World Cup held in India.

Sehwag, Tendulkar, Gambhir, Kohli, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Raina, Harbhajan, Zaheer, Munaf Patel and Sreesanth played in the Indian team that won at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. Four years down the line, just Dhoni, Kohli and Raina are the survivors. Not that the captain of the 2011 World Cup-winning team has shown any great flair, but he remains in the good books of the selectors essentially because the choice for a captain remains limited.

Time has tested the form of Sehwag and Gambhir severely. A wrong impression was created that Gambhir had opted out of the Deodhar Trophy because he probably knew his future in the one-day format. However, the selectors had made their choice and placed greater faith in performing youngsters.

It was tough on a player like Gambhir. At 33, he certainly did not fall in the category of a spent force. Sehwag, 36, had battled poor form for some time, but backed himself to come good. Zaheer, 36, had done little to raise hopes for himself. Harbhajan, 34, not getting younger, faced competition from the likes of R. Ashwin. And lastly Yuvraj, the man of the 2011 World Cup, a huge source of motivation for players around him, realised that at 32 he was being considered a veteran and may be past his best.

Some disgruntled, so-called critics (one of them a colleague of Sehwag and Gambhir in Delhi) have been advocating reasons to justify the selectors’ decisions. Interestingly, some of these ‘experts’ had cried foul when they were shown the door for non-performance. To their credit, Sehwag, Gambhir, Zaheer, Harbhajan and Yuvraj, nursing grievances no doubt, have remained dignified and accepted the policy of the selectors.

Is it the end of the road for them in one-day cricket? May be, but certainly not the end of the road totally. International cricket for players like Sehwag, Gambhir, Harbhajan and Yuvraj is not just about one-dayers and T20. Test cricket offers hope and they are willing to remain optimistic on this front.

The plethora of fast bowlers to pick from puts Zaheer in a tight spot if he is looking to regain his place in the Indian team, but the field is open for Sehwag and Gambhir. Of course, they would need to come up with monumental contributions in the current season and it would not be easy by any yardstick. A comeback demands exceptional performance and the course would be dictated by the level of motivation among the discards.

The domestic circuit is the lone platform for these players to showcase their ability to fight back and Gambhir has begun his journey in the best manner possible with a century against Saurashtra. The knock was not one of his best, but it was certainly a gutsy one considering the circumstances. Sehwag believes he is just one knock away from rediscovering his magical strokeplay. Yuvraj has his task cut out too. And Harbhajan, ever the optimist, needs to reinvent himself.

There is little to push their case if one goes by their form over the last season. But it would be sad if these stalwarts bow out of the game without a decent farewell. Tendulkar chose his at the Wankhede Stadium, walking from the field for the final time in style. V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid did not get that opportunity. A legend like Anil Kumble and a champion like Sourav Ganguly too were denied a chance to plan their exit.

It is the wish to say goodbye in style that propels Sehwag, Gambhir, Harbhajan and Yuvraj to pursue their desire to make a comeback and then leave the stage for the youngsters.

The possibility of a return undoubtedly looks bleak, given the selectors’ policy to invest in youth, but then nothing is impossible. The game has seen many great comebacks, with players like Mohinder Amarnath, N. S. Sidhu and Murali Kartik well known for such acts. How far Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj and Harbhajan can go will make for an interesting chapter in Indian cricket.