It is never easy to stay at the top after stalwarts retire. More often than not, the disappearance of all time greats results in a sharp slide. Ask the West Indies. Once the all-conquering team of the 80s and early 90s broke up, they slid alarmingly. The nadir came with their humiliation at the hands of Bangladesh when they lost the two-Test series 2-0 in 2009 despite the advantage of playing at home.
Or ask the Australians who have had this kind of mortifying experience more than once. When Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee retired simultaneously in January 1984, the Aussies went into a steep decline. They were beaten time and again and the nadir was when New Zealand defeated them twice during the 1985-86 season at home and away. They took time to regroup during Allan Border’s last days as captain before becoming the undoubted No 1 side in the world under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh.
But the Australians again suffered a slump following the simultaneous retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer following the 5-0 rout of England in 2006-07 and their fortunes took a further nosedive when Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee called it a day soon afterwards.
They lost their hold on the World Cup, went down in three Ashes campaigns and suffered a 4-0 clean sweep humiliation in India. It is only now that they are regrouping under Michael Clarke’s inspiring and aggressive captaincy.
Indian cricket basked in the sunshine in the first decade of the new millennium thanks chiefly to the most lustrous batting line-up in the contemporary game. When we watched Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly in all their pristine glory reeling off their many hundreds and double hundreds and winning matches for India through their ethereal batting qualities, we never gave any thought as to what would happen when the quartet rides off into the sunset.
Virender Sehwag made it a quintet to be feared and even as Ganguly’s powers were on the wane, Gautam Gambhir struck gold so that it continued to be a star-studded line-up.
Then as Ganguly took his final bow it finally occurred that the others too would follow suit and suddenly panic gripped us. Could we find replacements good enough to replace the all time greats? Or would we also suffer an eclipse like the West Indies and Australia?
Actually we needn’t have worried for even as the careers of the quartet were coming to an end it was clear that Indian cricket had adequate replacements. And so it proved to be with Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane filling into the big shoes admirably with a couple of others waiting in the wings.
There is still a question mark over the opening slots with neither Shikhar Dhawan or Murali Vijay really cementing his place. However the heartening aspect is that neither Gambhir nor Sehwag has retired. Sure, with the passing of every day it could be that much more difficult for the latter to make a comeback. At 35, age has perhaps affected his remarkable game based on hand eye co-ordination much the same way it handicapped his predecessor Kris Srikkanth.
His recent run of low scores around the domestic circuit could have done little to boost his confidence. But Gambhir has been among the runs and is keen to make a comeback. There is also the promise of Unmukt Chand waiting to unfold on the big stage so hopefully the top of the order will not pose a major problem.
While it was the batting that was the subject of much attention during Indian cricket’s golden phase when they rose to become the No 1 Test side, the bowling too did more than its bit to ensure the rise. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh not only took over 1000 wickets between them but also shaped many of the historic triumphs.
Zaheer Khan was the quiet performer and in some ways the unsung hero. And even as we suddenly realized that there had to be batting replacements, we also had to accept that we had to have bowling replacements in the second decade of the millennium.
Again we needn’t have worried. Kumble has retired, Harbhajan has been sidelined because of a decline in his powers and Zaheer is clearly in the twilight of his career. Yet the bowling scenario is anything but discouraging. Ravichandran Ashwin has stepped up to the plate and had quickly made himself the No 1 spin bowler in the land with his more than handy batting a big bonus.
Yes, he has to prove himself in away Tests and this year could be crucial for him in this regard with matches in New Zealand, England and Australia. Ravindra Jadeja has proved his credentials and waiting in the wings are Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra.
But the major change has been in the pace department. With the likes of Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami around, it is a heartening development and the emergence of the quartet has softened the blows that the bowling has received thanks to age catching up with Zaheer or the ineffectiveness of Ishant Sharma.
Of course there is one link between the past and the present who is still going strong. His image as batsman and captain might have taken a dent of late but MS Dhoni remains the central figure in Indian cricket as batsman, wicketkeeper and most importantly as captain.
It was under Dhoni that India won the World T20 and World Cup. It was under Dhoni that India won the Champions Trophy outright for the first time last year. It was under Dhoni that India rose to the No 1 ranking in Tests. And while there have been recent reverses, particularly abroad, he remains the undisputed leader as the Indian team faces a challenging year.
In the meantime with the young talent admirably filling in the slots left by the greats, instead of sliding India are firmly slotted at No 2 in the ICC rankings.