In 1998, cricket was introduced at the Commonwealth Games for the first time, in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. All other things being equal, India would have been as serious a contender as any of the other participating teams, all of which were formidable considering cricket at the time was largely a Commonwealth sport. The spanner in the works was the prestigious annual Sahara ‘Friendship’ Cup, being contested at the same time between India and Pakistan in Toronto.
As the Board of Control for Cricket in India was toying with how to balance out the two squads, came a diktat from the Indian Olympic Association. The top body wanted the ‘best team’ to be picked for the Commonwealth Games. Asked to define the best team, IOA president Suresh Kalmadi had his answer pat: “The team that has Sachin Tendulkar.”
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So it was that Tendulkar travelled to Kuala Lumpur, along with Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman and Robin Singh, as part of Ajay Jadeja’s team. With only the topper from the four-team Group B making it to the semifinals, a full-strength Australia earned that right, sweeping India aside.
The BCCI hurriedly flew Tendulkar and Jadeja out at the conclusion of that unsuccessful campaign to shore up Mohammad Azharuddin’s side, clearly labouring without many of its key personnel. The two batsmen joined the eleven for the fifth and final ODI with Pakistan having already sealed the series 3-1, and not even Tendulkar’s painstaking 77 could prevent the Indians from going down 1-4.
Indian cricket hardly boasted the depth then that it can fall back on now. Several players who were perforce inducted in one or the other squad hardly represented the country again, a clear indication that it was only the circumstances that facilitated an international cap.
Nearly 23 years on, India find themselves in the exalted, enviable position of putting out two nearly equally strong international teams, in different parts of the globe and across different formats. While Virat Kohli’s Test side is on a short vacation before reassembling to hone its preparations for a five-Test series in England starting on August 4, Shikhar Dhawan led out a 20-strong contingent on Monday on a four-week trip of Sri Lanka, where they will play three one-dayers and as many Twenty20 Internationals.
A limited-overs faceoff between Kohli’s side and Dhawan’s outfit should make for interesting viewing, however much in the realms of fantasy that might be. This, despite the fact that not even a token attempt has been made at an equitable distribution of talent, unlike the exercise undertaken in 1998. If that doesn’t testify to the strength and depth of Indian cricket, nothing else will.
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Rahul Dravid, making his maiden foray as a senior international coach, emphasised in Mumbai on Sunday that simultaneous tours of this nature was a short-term necessity for Indian cricket in view of the pandemic. Perhaps, it might not be as short-term after all, especially in the immediate future when teams are required to sequester upon arrival in a new country, and players are increasingly finding the pressures of extended lives in bio-secure bubbles mentally draining.
With the ‘A’ team programme having to come to a juddering halt owing to the march of the coronavirus and domestic cricket in India in somewhat of a limbo, these simultaneous tours will perhaps be the only indicators to the national selectors of how the fringe players they have been tracking in the past are progressing. Admittedly, not all countries will be thrilled by the prospect of a visiting Indian team minus the likes of Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja, but for every England or Australia that might look askance, a Zimbabwe, an Ireland or even a New Zealand won’t pass up the chance of seeing such exciting stars as Dhawan, Hardik Pandya, Prithvi Shaw, Ishan Kishan and Yuzvendra Chahal in action.
Having two teams playing international cricket at the same time is far from ideal for broadcasters, of course, who train their programming and hype around the universal big names. However, they will also realise, particularly in these challenging times financially for all comers that, in the end, it is not such a terrible bargain after all.
Host boards will be delighted to invite any Indian international side because they know the star power of the playing group, not to mention the excellent skill-sets they bring with them. In those countries where restrictions have been lifted a fair bit, Indians will easily put the requisite bums on the seats to fill up stadiums which, allied with even slightly more than modest returns from television and sponsorship rights, is a windfall for several cricket boards whose baleful look at the Indian cricketing structure isn’t restricted merely to the extraordinary talent pool.
Just how strong the Dhawan-helmed team is can be gauged from mere numbers. The skipper and his deputy, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, have played more than 100 ODIs each, while Hardik, Chahal, and Kuldeep Yadav each has upwards of 50 caps in the 50-over game. Only five of the 20-man squad are yet to play an international; if Sri Lanka, currently being put through the wringer in England, are expecting a ‘second-string’ side, they are in for a rude shock.
The purists might view two Indian teams doing battle at the same time on the world stage as a dilution of the concept of international cricket, but in these extraordinary times, it is difficult to stay mired in traditional thought processes which might have since become outdated. Too much of a good thing might kill off the goose that lays the golden eggs, agreed, but were simultaneous tours to become less of an exception, it is incumbent upon the top brass in the BCCI to ensure that there isn’t too much, just as there isn’t too little either. If anything, such innovations are essential if India are to keep building on the tremendous gains made through their structured developmental processes of the last several years.