Thereís always talk of Indian cricketers over thirty declining. The moment they get to the early thirties, selectors put the knackerís yard on their speed dials just so thereís no delay in turning old bones into glue. Some players go into an early decline: Laxmanís been declining in the opinion of selectors and captains since his late twenties. He was dropped for the World Cup four years ago because his knees were shot; old before his time, poor fellow. Now heís thirty-plus. So are Tendulkar and Dravid, but as Orwell pointed out in his lost cricket classic, Keep the Money Plant Climbing, all over-thirties are old but some over-thirties are older than others. One or two unusual talents grow younger as they head for thirty. Dinesh Mongiaís just got back into the one-day team because he bowls left-arm slows better than Laxman. This is true. Laxmanís useless at bowling left-arm slows.
Also, Mongiaís really fast between wickets. Laxmanís nowhere near as quick at getting to the bowlerís end when heís batting with numbers ten and eleven. You should have seen Mongiaís confidence in Ten and Jack in Malaysia; he was really Australian, not coddling the tail, making Munaf Patel and R.P. Singh take responsibility as Waugh would have done. It did wonders for their confidence. They didnít last long enough to give this confidence a decent outing and India lost, but the game isnít just about winning and losing. Itís about implementing key disciplines because cricketís a journey and you have to get the right processes in place.
So you need players who are flexible, at home in a variety of roles. Like Yuvraj who can tear an attack apart, fields like an angel and (this is increasingly crucial in Indian cricket), bowls left-arm slows. His recent Test match performances have allowed Chappell-baiters to claim that heís a rubbish Test batsman, who canít bowl at all and drops catches as often as he takes them, but this is the kind of motivated carping weíve become innured to. Look how he won us that Lordís final in the summer of 2002. Form is temporary, class is permanent. Thatís why Dravid and Chappell dropped Laxman to make room for Yuvi for the Mumbai Test. It was tough on Laxman, but he was up against the best left-hand batsman Indiaís had sinceÖDinesh Mongia. Okay, so India lost but people forget what happened against Australia in Mumbai the last time they toured. Michael Clarke, a rookie part-time bowler, took a fiver and nearly won Australia the match. And what does he bowl' You guessed it: Yuviís specialty, left-arm slows.
Versatility: thatís where Laxman loses out. All he can do is bat. Heís a super-specialized batsman in a three-in-one world. I use super-specialized advisedly. If you look at his record, heís a superb batsman who bats superblyÖagainst Australia! How can you expect Chappell and Dravid to assure him a steady place in the side with the Champions Trophy and the World Cup coming up. These are tournaments with a whole bunch of teams, not just Australia. The need of the moment is players who can take on Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and Kenya and New Zealand, these dangerous floaters, and destroy them. You canít block up a place in the team for a man who specializes in Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath. His record against Australia is very creditable and all but who is going to take on Shahid Afridi' And Shaun Pollock' Pollock isnít as fast as he was but his hairís still red. Also Warne doesnít play one-day cricket any more, so Laxman wonít get to thump him even if we do play Australia. Warneís absence is another reason not to pick him for the World Cup.
Think back to the last World Cup. We didnít have Laxman. Did we miss him' No. We got to the final. All right, we lost the final. Okay, we got hammered. But that was because Ganguly put the Australians in. Dravid wouldnít have done that. And Mumbai doesnít count: that was a Test match. Anyway, the point is, you canít pick a team just to defeat the world champions. Thatís so daft that it shouldnít need saying. The trick is to pick a team thatíll beat the rest of the world and hope that one of the other teams in the tournament knocks the Aussies out. And if Laxman insists that the Australians can be taken on, bat in hand, and beaten, all the more reason to leave him out of the team. Humouring lunatics is a dangerous business.
For the World Cup, Chappell has put a process into place thatíll help us play Dutch cricket. No wisecracks about French cricket, please. This is a serious strategic plan, which requires the Indian team to play cricket in the style in which Cruyffís team once played total football. The Dutch football team of the Seventies had no assigned positions; its players switched places incessantly, confounding opponents and undermining their plans. In just that way has Chappell drilled the Indian team and in Malaysia we saw the first fruit of his daring. Bowlers have become batsmen and batsmen have become bowlers. The opposing captain doesnít know whether he should plan for Harbhajan Singh or Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan or Dinesh Mongia, left-arm fast or left-arm slow (Ganguly doesnít make the cut because heís right-arm medium.).
Pathan and Dhoni have played in pretty much every position from the opening slot to the tail-end of the team. Dravid has moved from the middle order to opening the batting. The move mightnít have worked but the important thing is not the result but Dravidís attitude, his willingness to commit himself to the total process. Compare this to Laxmanís rigid refusal to open the innings in Test cricket. Heís a dinosaur, really, as fixed and old-fashioned as the Maginot Line.
I know there are small-minded nit-pickers who point to Pathan and say that total cricket has made a fine strike bowler into an occasional pinch-hitter, but malice will out and Chappell should ignore the gossips and stand by his disciplines and processes. Total Cricket, like Total Football, needs exceptional levels of fitness. It needs young legs and strong bodies, built by climbing mountains, rappelling down cliff faces and trekking through obstacle courses and rough terrain. And thatís not Laxman. Heís the kind of old-style batsman who just plays cricket.
Iím second to no one in my admiration of Laxman. Heís been a great servant of Indian cricket and heís earned his gold watch and pension. And yes, I know that his 281 was voted the greatest Test innings ever played by an Indian batsman. But that was five years ago, in 2001. Class might be permanent but weíre talking about 2001. 2001 is when 9/11 happened. Itís, like, history. In fact, now that 20-20 is here, the specialist, five-day batsman is history. We need young, greased-lightning type like Raina. And luckily heís left-handed. Which means Chappellís got him practising the subtle art without which no modern Indian batsmen is complete: left-arm slows.