Team India’s obsession with all-rounders for the shorter version of the game is finally over. The selectors seem to have understood that there isn’t a quality all-rounder in India at present. So it’s better to move ahead and do without them rather carrying some pseudo all-rounders in the team.
Ever since Kapil Dev hung up his boots, India’s hunt for a quality all-rounder has been on. A bowling all-rounder to be more precise, who can merit a place in the team purely as a bowler besides being a No. 7 batsman. 18 years have gone-by and the search is still on. There have been experiments after experiments without any concrete results. Kapil’s contemporary and bête noir Manoj Prabhakar was the only man who carried his legacy for a brief period. There was a time when Prabhakar used to open the bowling as well batting for India. After his unceremonious exit from cricket during 1996 World Cup, India were left with no choice but to rely on part-timers.
Every time anyone came up with something spectacular with both the bat and the ball, he was immediately on the radar of the selectors. Ajit Agarkar was a man with immense talent. He scored heavily and took plenty of wickets wherever he played - be it for Indian Under-19 team or India-A team. In 1998, after a successful series with India-A against Pakistan-A, he was drafted into the Indian team at a tender age of 21. Agarkar started with a bang, breaking Dennis Lillee’s records of fastest 50-wicket in ODIs, and also scoring a 21-ball fifty against Zimbabwe. His initial success gave us hopes and made us believe that here was a man who could be the next Kapil.
In between his heroics, Agarkar kept frustrating us. The man from Mumbai hit a century at Lord’s and the same man created history for all the wrong reasons by getting out for a duck seven times in a row. His exploits with the ball in Adelaide Test in 2003 helped India win a Test Down Under after a long time. At the same time, he kept on leaking runs at crucial junctures. Meanwhile, we kept pinning our hopes on him and allowed him to become India’s highest wicket-taker! For some people he never delivered. Some like to believe that he is still not a finished article! But if we go by pure statistics, he is the next best all-rounder after Kapil.
At a time when the lack of quality all-rounders gave birth to a number of bits and pieces cricketers in ODIs, Robin Singh, who made his ODI debut seven years ago, re-emerged in 1996 at the age of 33 and filled up the all-rounder’s slot for the next five years.
At the beginning of 2000 Indian selectors were searching a replacement for the ageing Robin Singh. They finally zeroed in on Reetinder Singh Sodhi, who had just helped India, along with Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif, win the Under-19 World Cup. He was also in the same mould of Robin- an excellent fielder, a medium pacer and a lower-order batsman. He did well with the bat initially as he scored two fifties but his bowling lacked penetration. After 18 ODIs, Sodhi was jettisoned for good.
Though his military medium pace bowling hardly won India matches, he, along with Ajay Jadeja, Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar, often did the job of fifth bowler to perfection. Technically not very sound, he was a gutsy customer when comes to batting. Coming at No. 6 or 7, he was India’s rescuer. There were numerous matches when he pulled India out of the woods and gave some incredible victories. But his real contribution came as a point fielder where he used to save so many runs and pull off some incredible catches.
India’s hunt for an all-rounder never died down. One century in Wills Trophy semi-final against Delhi saw Bengal seam bowler Laxmi Ratan Shukla achieving the stature of the next Kapil. At a time when Indian selectors were trying hard to find some all-rounders for the 1999 World Cup in England, Shukla came as a ‘perfect man’ to raise the hopes of many. The three ODIs he played for the country, Shukla neither delivered with the ball nor with the bat. He last played for India in 1999 and never came into reckoning again.
India tried several all-rounders at that time; most of them were spin all-rounders, a species abundant in India. Orissa’s Sanjay Raul, Uttar Pradesh’s Gyanendra Pandey, Karnataka’s Vijay Bharadwaj, Maharashtra's Hrishikesh Kanitkar- all came into the limelight on the back of superb all round shows at first class level with nobody ever cementing his place in the team.
Then came Sourav Ganguly whose obsession for pace brought up some fast-bowling all-rounders. Railways duo of Sanjay Bangar and Jai Prakash Yadav did enough both with the ball and the bat to attract Ganguly’s attention. Their talent, however, could not live up to the expectations of international cricket and they proved to be flashes in the pan.
Ganguly, an astute man, quickly understood that the plight of all-rounders in India. He changed his tactics and tried to compete with the best in ODIs without a single all-rounder. India needed a wicket-keeper who could be a proper middle-order batsman. This was before MS Dhoni came into the picture. Meanwhile, Rahul Dravid, already an established and a respected Test batsman, was finding it hard to cope with the fast-paced limited-overs version of the game. Sourav convinced part-time wicket-keeper Dravid to don the wicket-keeper’s role for India. Once Dravid was ready, India looked a strong batting unit with seven top-class batsmen and a quality batsman at No. 7. With four bowlers at his disposal, Ganguly needed to complete the remaining 10 overs with the help of part-timers like Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag and himself. Sometimes the strategy backfired, but India had one of the most successful times in ODI cricket including the victory in Natwest Trophy in England and the World final appearance in 2003 during that period.
There were some attempts to turn some specialist players into all-rounders which in most cases turned to be a catastrophe. Irfan Pathan, a fine left-arm swing bowler, forgot his main art when Greg Chappell tried to project him as an all-rounder. After Irfan lost his direction, his elder brother was chosen in the hope of filling the elusive all-rounder’s role in the team. The elder Pathan played some blistering knocks including one century against New Zealand, but never looked convincing as an off-spinner. So when he failed with the bat, selectors had no other option but to drop him from the side.
Yusuf Pathan’s loss was left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja’s gain. Jadeja, a member of India’s successful Under-19 World Cup campaign, had a successful IPL in 2008. His captain at Rajasthan Royals, the redoubtable Shane Warne hailed him as next big thing. Jadeja’s case was opposite to that of Pathan senior. Jadeja bowled reasonably well but his inability to play big shots made him a liability in the team. Jadeja did get a longer run thanks to his proximity to captain Dhoni. But his continuous failure with the ball compelled the selectors to drop him before the World Cup and Yusuf Pathan was back.
After the World Cup his step-brother Irfan Pathan made a came-back in a new avatar. He was again given a lifeline to resurrect his career during India’s home series against West Indies and India's tour of Australia. A shadow of his earlier self, a wiser and more experienced Irfan wanted to be seen as all-rounder. But Dhoni had other ideas. He kept faith in Jadeja. Irfan was purely played as a bowler, a role which he himself was not confident of. The selectors selected all three for the Asia Cup. After everybody failed, they had no other option but to end an era of all-rounders after Kapil Dev.
The hunt for all-rounders, however, did us some good. We might have failed to get an all-rounder, but instead got two world class batsmen - Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag.