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Team India need Best XI

It is a tribute to our diversity, and unity in sustaining this diversity, that this is a country where one is seemingly always too young to vote, be elected to office, marry and consume liquor, but always old enough to be on one’s way out.

This is essentially the story of us. And our cricket team. Because as much as cricket has shaped India, our Indianness has shaped our cricket even more.

Just as we are never content being just Indians and must necessarily assert our individuality by such societal distinctions as caste and community, so must one’s identity in the Indian cricket XI be qualified by such distinctions as Big Three (and Small Eight/Fry by implication), Old and Young, Senior and Junior. Like always, one is either too old or too young to be above labelling.

And to think that, just two months ago, in the high noon of a Test series triumph in England after 21 years, the team gave the impression of being seamless to the extent that nobody felt the absence of a coach, everybody was a somebody during the tour, and three men who have formed the central body of the Indian batting on either side of the millennium (Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly) voluntarily sacrificed their spots in the World T20 squad for the greater cause.

Today, while each of those three men, along with Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman, is a ‘Senior’ (a euphemism for dinosaur), the ‘Junior’, after the World T20 heroics, is symbolic of the New, Fearless Young India. And the trial-by-media voice of our nation has found a new slogan: A ‘generational change’ is needed in Indian cricket.

This series against Pakistan would have been a good time to get back to the normalcy of a seamless team, but there being no such thing as normalcy in Indian cricket, a debate has been thrust upon us. Can the ‘Seniors’ survive this series? Or will the ‘Juniors’ prove conclusively that they can be denied no longer? And so on.

A few off-the-cuff answers: The young shall inherit the earth sooner or later, but that isn’t reason enough to make the not-so-young feel as if they are on survival pension, especially when they still have fuel in their tanks. No Indian player needs to prove anything to anyone other than Pakistan.

And a few counter-questions: Does performance or the date on one’s birth certificate command a place in the team? Is team composition about six batsmen and five bowlers or five ‘Seniors’ and six ‘Juniors’?

Of course, questions and answers alone can never settle this debate. And neither can even the likes of Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar, not only because time is ticking away faster for them than those with younger legs. Whoever owns the word ‘potential’ owns the future. Hence, paradoxically, while we have come to expect success as a given from men like them with reputations to defend, for youth, there is the luxury of being allowed to fail as tomorrow is always another day.

Indian cricket runs on World Cup cycles and, irrespective of whether the time has come for sweeping changes or just a little spring cleaning, the team is at the tipping point of change. In a nation with heavy expectations, that is the crux of the debate.

While those who argue that all change is bad are seen to be caught in a time warp, those who see all change as good raise suspicion of driving rashly into the future. The truth is that no change is ever immediately explicit, and all change comes at a price.

While change is inevitable, here, it becomes the responsibility of the selectors to ensure that it is a controlled and, as importantly, justifiable process that does justice to both the future and the present. Which is why, ever since Dravid was rested for the first two games against Pakistan, exposing his ODI career to possible extinction, the noble intentions of the selectors have been so disturbing.

No cricket team is simply a matter of endings or beginnings. There is a time for everyone and players will flow in and out riding on promise and performance. For this very reason, nobody seems to have noticed the omission of Ajit Agarkar, another player fitting the labels of ‘Old’ and ‘Senior’ but veering more towards ‘Small’ than ‘Big’. Unlike Dravid, no rationale was offered, or required, in his case, but change was effected nonetheless.

Similarly, there will come a day, perhaps during this series even, when names like Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma, Robin Uthappa, Piyush Chawla and RP Singh will be more comfortably placed in the XI than they are now. Till then, however, to label them as ‘Juniors’ would be to belittle their contribution to the team. So with the ‘Seniors’, given the ulterior meaning of the term. And so with the debate itself, for debates are best devoted to more constructive causes.

Nobody would want this to come true but, in this series, India’s undoing could well be the confusion over what constitutes our best side. ‘May the best man win’ is the calling card of competition. May we field our best XI please?

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