Rebuilding for the next World Cup
The 2011 World Cup may have just concluded a few weeks ago, but it’s time to look at the next edition and what India’s squad could look like.
Two months ago, India won a memorable World Cup final.
After that, we had a break from ‘international’ cricket with season four of the IPL. We now have the return of country cricket and teams have already started their rebuilding process for the 2015 World Cup. Sri Lanka is looking to Tillakaratne Dilshan for leadership over the next few years. South Africa has predictably gone with AB deVilliers, while England has opted for a complicated three captain policy, with Alastair Cook an odd choice for ODI skipper. It’s one of those ‘why would you pick a captain who does not have a guaranteed spot in the starting 11’ decisions, right up there with the appointments of Andrew Strauss (who proved critics wrong) and Lee Germon (who had mixed results).
India does not have to do too much tweaking. Much of the core should remain, even with the loss of Sachin Tendulkar. Here’s what India’s batting lineup might look like for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. We’ll cover the bowlers in a subsequent article because this was getting too long already!
Openers: Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag / Murali Vijay
In terms of age, Gambhir seems like a safe bet since he will be a ‘young’ 33 during the 2015 World Cup. On a side note, while looking up his age, I realized I share a birthday with Gambhir. This also made me look up other famous people born on October 14th. Roger Moore made the list. Maybe that’s why Gambhir has Bond-like steely determination.
Gambhir should still have a few good years left in him and unless something goes really wrong, he should be in India’s playing eleven for the next several years. Example of something going really wrong - he’s named captain for a series while MS Dhoni is rested, India lose a few close matches, Gambhir loses his cool in tense encounters (if you saw KKR play in close matches in the IPL, you know what I am talking about), he gets hammered by the media which robs him of his mojo a year before the World Cup and India scrambling to find a replacement.
Sehwag is a less safe bet, since he’ll be 36 by the time the next World Cup happens. Incidentally, he’s also a Libran like Gambhir, but we’ve had enough birthday references for one article. Sehwag could also fall victim to the 33-effect, a theory put forth in the book “If Cricket Is a Religion, Sachin Is God” which provides some fairly compelling evidence to suggest batsmen lose their natural gifts (e.g. hand-eye coordination) at the age of around 33-34 because that’s how the human body works. Incidentally, this may also explain the ‘whole mid-life crisis’ issue, but that’s another article.
Look up the stats for Tendulkar, Richards, Sobers, Gavaskar, Hayden and Miandad to name a few and you’ll see what the 33-effect is all about: their averages plummeted at the 33-34 age. Some recover from it, while others don’t. It should be noted that some like Steve Waugh avoid it all together.
What all this means is that Sehwag, a batsman who relies heavily on hand-eye coordination, might struggle in the next couple of years and that might be the end of his career. Then again, Sehwag hasn’t been one to follow historical trends and there’s no reason he should start now. The man is a freak of nature, he turned 32 last year and his ODI batting average and strike rate in 2011 so far are near career highs at 48-122 (note: this is how they denote basketball stats like 20 points and 15 rebounds is a 20-15 game. I’m trying to start a trend with this average-strike rate way of representing cricket stats. It says a lot I think; the all time ODI greats have numbers as follows: Bevan 54-74, Richards 47-90, Tendulkar 45-86, Ponting 43-81). Anyhow, Sehwag could be around till he’s 36 as long as he stays fit. Even if he loses some of his speed and athleticism, he could get away with just the big shots and never have to run between the wickets, a la Sourav Ganguly.
The good news for India is that even if Sehwag doesn’t make it to the next WC, we have able backup in Murali Vijay, who will be a sprightly 31 at the time. The guy is 40-78 in domestic ODIs, a stellar 57-79 in the recent Vijay Hazare trophy this year, and clearly enjoys the big stage as indicated by his match winning 95 in the IPL final. If there’s one thing I’d like to change about Vijay, it’s that he needs a cooler nickname than Monk. But other than that, the guy is solid and would be an automatic replacement pick.
Middle order + Wicketkeeper: Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and
Virat Kohli is the easiest pick in this list - he’ll be 26 in 2015, he’s starting to peak as a premier batsmen, he already has a solid WC campaign under his belt, and there are enough leaders in this Indian side that he can just concentrate on his batting and fielding for the next four years and not have to deal with captaincy. Unless it gets to his head, Kohli is perfectly positioned to become one of the elite ODI batsmen over the next few years, and have a Kallis-esque run at number three.
Suresh Raina should also continue to mature as a batsman and he’ll be 28 during the next WC. The big question is whether he evolves from a number six finisher (a poor man’s Bevan) into a somewhat reliable number four. Hard question, because just when you think Raina is going to have an extraordinary year, he blows it with some poor shot selection in the next five matches. He’s got too much talent to be averaging 36 in ODIs. So he should make the eleven, but I don’t know where he’ll bat.
Answering the question on Raina is pivotal in determining who fills in the open spot. If Raina turns into a genuine number 4 batsman, then we need a finisher at number 6 spot. That’s a role I think Rohit Sharma could play, or a role Ambati Rayudu would grow into if he ever gets a shot. If Raina stays as the finisher, then we need a more solid number 4, someone along the lines of Badrinath - he’ll be 34 at the time but he’ll do fine in Australia as long as he doesn’t get bogged down in the middle overs.
All of this also has implications on Yuvraj Singh’s place in the side. Yuvraj was India’s 2011 World Cup hero and hopefully that performance will turn him into a reliable, dependable, senior mainstay in the Indian squad. But then again, we are talking about Yuvraj and there’s bound to be drama. In terms of his role, he’ll be a bit like Raina at the time - I don’t know if he’s the number four mainstay or the number six finisher. Put another way, I don’t know if these guys are going to be the Azhar or the Robin Singh from the late 90s Indian squads. And you don’t have the right balance if you have two Azhars or two Robins.
Here’s what I think happens: Suresh Raina blossoms into a star and become India’s number four. Yuvraj Singh battles for the number six spot but ultimately Saurabh Tiwary turns into a monster big hitter within the next four years and plays in the squad. That’s my bold pick for this article.
That leaves us with the number five spot to be filled with a batsman-keeper-captain which is a no-brainer pick. It’s been a no-brainer for a while actually, ever since I got into a debate with my cousin after Dhoni’s struggles in the 2007-08 Aussie test series and after. I was convinced Dhoni would be a mainstay in the Indian squad while my cousin was skeptical. We even had a friendly challenge (or as friendly as it gets between two passionate cricket fans who are convinced that they are right) where I said Dhoni would still be India’s captain by the end of 2012 while he wasn’t sure if MS would still have a place in the playing eleven. Three years on, I’m favourite to win because MSD has become synonymous with winning. He motivates, he inspires, he takes risks, he gets lucky (except with coin tosses!) and he performs under pressure. All he cares about is putting it all out there and winning and he’ll still be around captaining India in the 2015 World Cup.