For four years he backed his instincts. He played by instinct and became an integral part of the Indian attack for a decade before losing his place for non-cricketing reasons. Having emerged the team’s best bowler at the 2011 World Cup semi-final against Pakistan at Mohali, the consistently good Ashish Nehra was shown the door after injury forced him to miss the final, which India won. He was lost to international cricket. Now he is back where he deserves to be — part of the Indian team for the World T20, beginning March 16.
The other comeback that has caught the attention of the cricket fraternity is of Parthiv Patel, the wicketkeeper-batsman from Gujarat. He returns to the Indian squad 13 years after a Test debut against England at Nottingham. He was the youngest ever Test wicketkeeper then. At 30, he is now a veteran who will compete in the shortest form of the game. The 2016 Asia Cup T20, which ends tomorrow, also marks the return of Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh.
For Nehra (36), Yuvraj (34), Patel and Harbhajan (both 35), this is nothing short of giving their cricketing life a new lease on the strength of their self-belief. In staging a comeback, one has to surpass the deeds of the debut season and relive conditions that propel your selection. “Easy to make the team than retain your slot,” was Sunil Gavaskar’s advice to debutants. It is a universally accepted fact that consistency has no substitute. For these four it became the mantra for comeback.
“Never thought of quitting,” Nehra told us on the day he was selected for the Asia Cup and World T20. For Patel, it was the culmination of a good run. “I just backed myself,” he had remarked. It was no different for Yuvraj and Harbhajan, both going through the grind of domestic cricket in a throwback to their younger days. “I know my cricket and my capacity the best,” was Harbhajan’s reply when asked about the chances of a comeback.
It is indeed ironic that in the youngest format of the game, the robust T20 brand, the field is marked by players who have spent close to 15 years in international cricket. Experts want us to believe that youth is the essence of T20 cricket and coaches around the world emphasise on fresh legs for these fierce contests. Not many would bet on Patel and Nehra finding a place in the Asia Cup but the selectors altered the trend.
“Yuvraj is special,” National Selection Committee chairman Sandeep Patil reminded critics. No doubt about that. Equally special is Harbhajan, with 700 plus international wickets. If that be the case one wonders why they lost their positions in the national team in the first place? Patel was pushed back because the selectors had Mahendra Singh Dhoni as the first choice with Dinesh Karthik, Robin Uthappa and Naman Ojha as back-ups.
What does the return of these four for the Asia Cup imply? It confirms the fear that Indian cricket has not found young players with potential. True, Patel remains a standby for Dhoni in case the Indian captain aggravates a back injury, but Yuvraj and Nehra carry immense responsibility. As for Harbhajan, only an injury to R Ashwin would give him a spot in the playing eleven. It went in the players’ favour that Patil and colleagues did not follow in the footsteps of their predecessors who laid emphasis on age.
The discerning, however, are convinced that it was the lack of talent among the younger crop that added pressure on the selectors and the management to pick horses for courses.
“You can’t buy experience,” is Harbhajan’s favourite line. He should know. Sheer experience has kept him in the reckoning in a field where the challenge comes from Ashwin, who is at the peak of his career. Skill is the dominating feature of Harbhajan’s style, not to forget the guiles that Nehra adds to his repertoire. Hence the critics are not willing to accept that selection of these veterans was driven by a refreshing policy to pick performers.
Where are the performers? Even the selectors are aghast at the appalling decline in quality players. The paucity of talent, without debating the ability of the senior players, is glaring. More than anything, it drives home the point that there is not much to rave about in terms of flair to excel in the big league. For the likes of Nehra and Yuvraj, there is always hope. Their performance at the World Cup should set the benchmark.
Vijay Lokapally is the Deputy Editor (Sports), The Hindu