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By Suresh Menon
Watching an India-Sri Lanka match without players from either side who together would have made a fabulous XI was strange. I mean, how about this team of players who did not make the trip to Zimbabwe – Tendulkar, Sehwag, Jayawardene, Gambhir, Sangakkara, Dhoni, Muralitharan (or Harbhajan), Zaheer Khan, Jayasuriya, Yuvaraj, Malinga ? They were rested, causing at least the television channel with the rights to the tournament to protest, although it was pointed out, rightly, that television channels cannot pick national teams.
It is easy to get all sanctimonious and blame the IPL for this state of affairs, where international cricket suffers because the attractions of playing in the IPL far outweigh whatever the highs of a fairly pointless tri-nation tournament in Zimbabwe. The former gives the players a certain degree of security in a world where a casual injury or a mis-step can bring a career to an abrupt halt. It takes care of mortgages, children’s education, medical bills and who are we to sit on judgement on players who want to ensure that they are properly compensated for their skills?
As for the ‘pointless’ argument, no one-day tournament can be considered pointless in the months leading up to the World Cup.
Mike Atherton, among our most intelligent and readable columnists has argued that it is unfair to deny the paying spectator the pleasure of watching the best players in action. He was referring to the Bangladesh Test at Lord’s where England played without Paul Collingwood and Stuart Broad, but the argument is the same.
So who is the game played for? The players, the respective cricket boards, the various teams, the paying spectator or all of the above? It is one of the quirks of sport that each team has a list of priorities, and looking ahead is important. Some tournaments are stepping stones, others are what these stones lead to. Thus, England are looking ahead to the more important Ashes series, and want their best players properly rested. Ditto with India and the World Cup. No single tournament – with such obvious exceptions as these - is an end in itself, but is a means to an end.
Would Rohit Sharma have played had the big stars been in the team? Yet, without the pressure of having to fight for his place, the Mumbai batsman has already toted up two centuries, and begun to look the part at least on the slow tracks of Zimbabwe. It means that India have more choice, there is greater competition for places in the team (lack of which might have been Yuvraj’s problem recently), and the bench strength is healthy. More importantly, it means that the senior players return to the fray properly rested, and that, after the money is what players crave the most.
Where India might have erred (if one goes by the defeats against Zimbabwe) is in resting a bowler with the experience to spearhead the attack. Yet this might just be the opportunity for the replacements to send a message to the selectors.
The policy of rotation is adopted with long-term interests in mind. From that perspective, therefore, short-term compromises have to be made. Former medium pacer Javagal Srinath often spoke about rotating the quick bowlers even in his playing days, but that was before central contracts and guaranteed incomes from the game eliminated some of the insecurities that players tended to feel. A replacement who did well would have ended the career of a regular, it was too great a chance to take. And that is why bowlers tended to hide injuries and play on. It didn’t do them or the team any good.
With the amount of cricket being played these days (and the variety of formats), it is unrealistic to expect players to ignore the attractions of a good pay day. Far more practical, then, to accept it as being part of the game, and plan so that physical fitness and fiscal fitness go together and players are at their best for internationals.
It is unfortunate that fans in Zimbabwe, for instance, are denied the sight of a Tendulkar or a Jayawardene in action. But if it means that such occasional compromises will lengthen the careers of these stars and retain the quality of their batsmanship, then it is a fair exchange. Television viewers will have to console themselves likewise. Rotation does not cheapen the price of an India cap, it merely ensures that those wearing it are ready for battle at all times.