The script can’t get any better. Four veterans, heroes of their time, coming together for one final attempt to fill that one missing link in their glittering showcase—the World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, who between them probably graced more student lockers in the ’90s than any heroes in any time, will be coming together in an Indian World Cup XI for perhaps the last time.
Skipper Rahul Dravid spoke for them all when he said, characteristically in third person, that “these players in particular would be keen to stand up and be counted”. It’s not the most guarded secret that Tendulkar—at his fifth World Cup since ’92—is hungry to be part of a Cup-winning squad, to the point of being persuaded to bat in the middle-order rather than open the innings. “I think how we do in the World Cup will really be about how the key 6-7 players, supported by the rest of the group, perform,” Dravid said, clearly putting the onus on the bunch that had done duty at the 2003 World Cup.
In fact, as many as nine players in the squad of 15 are survivors from the 2003 edition. It will be the form and determination of the ‘golden quartet’ that must inspire men like Virender Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan to deliver their best and ensure that India remains in the frame till the very end.
As is his wont, captain Dravid will be assigning the toughest, most thankless tasks to himself, and being a bulwark of the Indian batting will be the least of it. His consistency and ability to hold the innings together will be critical for the side to post big scores. The 33-year-old has an impressive average of nearly 65 runs in 19 World Cup games, right from the ’99 edition onwards.
Meanwhile, a real veteran at 33 Cup matches is biding his time. Tendulkar has seen the action up close from 1992 onwards, but the enthusiasm has hardly waned. Even more so now with the additional novelty of batting in the middle-order, a role the captain and coach talked him into—and which he, as senior statesman, duly accepted. “Every cricketer dreams of doing well at the Cup and I am no different,” he says. “I hope I can help India win this one.” In four previous Cup editions, he’s made 1,732 runs, including four centuries and a dozen half-centuries. But he’d still trade all that to get a feel of that elusive trophy this time around.
Anil Kumble played a mostly peripheral role in the 2003 World Cup in Africa, having played in just three of the 11 games. The pitches in the West Indies could be the difference this time around. Especially if they behave like they did last year when Harbhajan Singh bowled 49 economical overs (for just three wickets though) in five matches. At 36, he’s not likely to get any more electric in the outfield but can still be a handful for 10 overs on some of those Caribbean pitches. His World Cup bag already has 28 scalps, and he’ll be looking to get some more.
Coach Greg Chappell, even before he took over, had identified Kumble’s bowling in one-dayers as a key issue. The premier wrist spinner did not get to play for a long spell though, with the captain thinking long-term—keen on conserving his matchwinner’s shoulder for the Test matches and for the World Cup. Dravid convinced the selectors that Kumble bowled very well in theODIs in South Africa, and that two off-spinners in the squad may be a bit of a luxury. Kumble could also double up as mentor for the bowlers on the tour, a role Javagal Srinath played with elan back in 2003.
The final member of the quartet has had an extraordinary two years, even by his whirlwind standards. For over one of those, it looked as if Sourav Ganguly wouldn’t get a look-in at a third World Cup.But the man who led India to a berth in the final against Australia in 2003 has found himself back in favour with a string of determined performances, both in the Tests and one-dayers alike.
He has warmed up well for the big event, making as many as three half-centuries in five innings in the home series against the West Indies and Sri Lanka. His return has also given the opening slot a look of calm solidity, sorely missing for some time.Ganguly himself is matter-of-fact. “If the players perform like a team, as we did in the last Cup, there is no doubt in my mind that we can give the same performance.”
The man who has scored 844 runs in 18 World Cup matches is only echoing Dravid’s sentiments—that if the top guns show the way and the young turks follow suit, India has more than a fair shot of doing well. Indeed, the golden quartet is more experienced and battle-hardened than in ’03. On the other hand, there’s more silver to them now—each is older by four years, and age tends to show on the field. One thing’s for sure, if Team India manages to surprise us again, it’ll be because these four squared up to their dreams.