Sit down to pick a dream team from across the ages in any sport at any point in time, and you will realise that this is an exercise fraught with danger. Three main perils lurk in the shadows, waiting to bludgeon the Selector with a Jumbo bat, and each strikes with deadlier force than the other.
When you sit down to select, wearing your thinking helmet and armed with a sharpened HB2 pencil, you need to keep these three villains at bay: the Temptation of Ubiquity, the Tyranny of Nostalgia and the Misery of the Muddled Middle.
To explain: The Temptation of Ubiquity deals with the desire to pick only players who are everywhere around you, their names on commentators’ lips and on cricket writers’ laptops, faces and lithe frames on TV screens worldwide.
It would be relatively easy, in an age of instant gratification and an overdose of limited-overs cricket, to cobble together 11 players who hit the ball hard, bowl miserly military medium and field like fiends when they are not endorsing soaps or motorbikes.
This is to be avoided at all costs, for the idea is to pick a side that is truly representative of Indian cricket over the ages. But avoidance should not lead you into the arms of....
The Tyranny of Nostalgia, which, as the name suggests, gives a rose-coloured tint to all cricketers gone by. Accordingly, a player of some wristy elegance would be remembered with dewy eyes, forgetting that he would get regularly lapped by his partner when running a quick double, possessed a shapely paunch and a level of unfitness with which his age only recently caught up. Packing a side with golden oldies is not the way to go either.
Mind you, in trying to dodge the above two muddy puddles, one should avoid the mistake of landing with both feet in the Middle Muddle, stuffing the team with a preponderance of players who are neither in your face all the time or in your memories most of the time.
This may produce a team of stodgy worth, but having 11 such individuals is a sure way of sabotaging gate receipts, if you don’t like the Australians, and the BCCI’s telecast revenues, if you fall in that tiny minority that dislikes India’s cricket hegemons.
The key is not to fall into the above traps, but pick just the right number of players in each category. That mix is best achieved by that time-honoured Indian system: quotas.
It’s clear that the past two decades are when Indian one-day cricket genuinely came into its own, so the team must be weighted towards the period from 1990 onwards. Add a sprinkling of players from the 1980s, when India achieved their most surprising wins, and fewer — one each — from the 1970s and 1960s.
In doing this, consider the year in which each player made his debut — so a player active in the 1980s might actually fall into the 1960s bucket, depending on his longevity in the game.
Here’s the dream 12:
Ahead of Sachin Tendulkar and anyone else, the one player who contributed most to instilling a fear of India among the opposition. He was the impact player who took India to number one in Test cricket; his opportunities in the one-day arena were somewhat limited by the success of the Tendulkar-Ganguly combine.
This didn’t stop him hitting 15 ODI centuries at more than a run a ball, so he's well worth the no. 1 slot, especially for a World Cup played on bouncy Australian wickets. Who can forget his many-splendoured 195 on day 1 of the 2003 Test in Melbourne against a fierce Australian bowling side, worth a good deal more than a recent one-day innings of 264 by Indian cricket's enigmatic underperformer... but that’s another discussion.
The marauding moustachioed opener who gave anxious moments to bowling sides and his own one-drop teammate alike, Srikkanth was Sehwag before Sehwag was Sehwag.
He pioneered hitting over the infield, and I still remember a switch hit off Martin Snedden which predated Kevin Pietersen by two decades. At his best, an electric fielder, and a more-than-useful offspinner who picked up 10 wickets over two consecutive ODIs against New Zealand. More than anything else, he embodied the joy of the game, and his selection also serves to pay obeisance to a galaxy of great — some greater — players before him, the likes of CK Nayudu, Farokh Engineer and Mushtaq Ali.
The first of the new age babies in the team, born a full five years after India won its first World Cup in 1983. He embodies all that is cocky and aggressive in the modern Indian mindset, but underneath that sparky exterior purrs a Rolls-Royce of a batting engine.
He has the potential to be one of the greats of the game, depending on how intelligently he harnesses his overactive emotions. But leave the pop psychology aside — this is a once-in-a-generation player who would walk into any modern-heavy dream team.
If one has to reach into more distant history to pick a high-class batting all-rounder, looking past Amarnath is futile. No player in India embodies physical courage and mental strength more than Mohinder.
Add to that his immaculate shot selection and fetish for fitness, and you have a modern age cricketer born before his time. This is a thinking no. 3 or no. 4, ideal for situations that demand nuance and nous.
Such is the stature of the man that no Indian or World XI across any period would be complete without him. Let's forget that millstone of a milestone of 100 international centuries that he allowed everyone to hang around his head, or his tastelessly choreographed exit from the game. He could form the experienced heart of the side, the engine that could go into fourth and fifth gear with very little effort as the situation demanded.
On song, Yuvraj could destroy bowling sides and do it in a manner that was exquisitely easy on the eye. His selection adds a dash of left-handed elegance to the lower middle order, and the ability to strike the ball out of the park seemingly at will.
A more-than-useful left arm spinner and always sharp in the field, Yuvraj was always a compelling package, at least for the one-day game.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni (captain)
His one-day captaincy, marked by an uncanny instinct for doing the unconventional thing at just the right time, is a marked contrast with the let-it-drift Test captaincy he has just relinquished. There are few better and more innovative strikers of the cricket ball, and his keeping is just about good enough at the top level for him to be an easy choice.
Also, he is the only modern Indian captain with the experience of lifting the World Cup and most other one-day trophies that matter.
The other World Cup winning captain. The man who shouldered India’s many burdens for a couple of decades as opening bowler on merciless tracks and as a no. 7 often called upon to perform heroics such as the four sixes he hit to avoid a follow-on in an England Test. Richie Benaud once said that it was almost wrong for so much talent to be given to one person; Benaud was right.
Perhaps the four Gods in his name cursed him with too much talent, and it was a difficult burden to overcome. Siva could have become the legspinning allrounder that India has yearned for in the years since his quick fade. Even if all too briefly, his star shone brightly enough to make him an enticing pick: remember his legbreak to dislodge Javed Miandad at the 1985 B&H final in Australia.
He was also a talented bat and, long before it became fashionable, a sharp pair of heels at cover.
Often described as India's fastest bowler, and given too little credit for an illustrious career that often featured him beating accomplished batsmen all ends up, and often. Like Kapil, he shouldered the heavy burden of bowling on batting tracks, and did it manfully and with considerable impact. Remember, he was bowling quick in international cricket when Varun Aaron, now the quickest around, was two years old.
Along with Sehwag, he was one of the main reasons India rose to no. 1 in the rankings. A canny left-arm pacer who out-thought batsmen and gave India the sort of control and penetration they are missing so sorely on their tour of Australia. Handy lower-order enforcer with the bat.
The reserve medium-pacer. Binny could just the right amount of swing, took the odd miraculous catch and was a handy batsman who even opened the innings. A member of India's 1983 winning side, he would add a useful workman spirit to a side full of stars.
This is a formidable XII in many ways. The batting speaks for itself; the bowling has variety (a quick bowler, two high quality swing bowlers, a left-armer, a marquee legspinner, a couple of good part-time offspinners and a left-arm spinner with a golden arm). There are some very sharp fielders. The leadership is astute and there is just the right mix of spark and wisdom, of unpredictability and reliability, of fight-them-in-the-trenches grit and the insouciance born of extreme talent. What more could one ask for?
(Shankar has developed into a cricket tragic — a term he recently discovered — over 35 years of following the game. No day is complete without at least one mental cricketing soliloquy or diatribe voiced out loud; on the field this passion has taken him from playing against his father in the backyard to partnering his son in the front garden. Throw in a built-in alarm clock, set for Australian mornings, and you get the picture)
(Views expressed by the writer are personal. If you want to share your thoughts on the game, mail your write-ups to firstname.lastname@example.org)
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