When cricket broke away from the single-format game to Test matches and One-Day Internationals, it produced specialists. It was the batsmen who came to be compartmentalised first - the ones with an aggressive batting style slipped easily into the ODI mode, while the more sedate, old-school of the lot became known as Test specialists. If you could score triple centuries at a run-a-ball or thereabouts, it was fine – you'd just acquire the 'unorthodox' tag.
With the move to a three-format game, we have specialists for each – batsmen, bowlers, even fielders. Okay, so the last of those may not be a formal specialisation yet, but with more sixes being hit in Twenty20 Internationals, maybe the fielders who have perfected the spring-beyond-the boundary-tap-the-ball-back-and-take-the-catch-after-springing-back will become a specialisation.
This is all well and fine, but I've been wondering why specialisation in the shorter formats has such stigma attached to it, especially in India.
Off hand, while Muhammad Ali was, arguably, the greatest professional boxer ever, you had in Teofilo Stevenson a counterpart for Ali in the amateur format. Lawn tennis, till grass became slower and clay became quicker, was structured to favour specialists and only rarely did you have a Rod Laver or Bjorn Borg or Steffi Graf who won both at Wimbledon and at Roland Garros. Football, unless you count Futsal (which you shouldn't), is bereft of formats, but there have always been the great World Cup heroes and the ones who are known for their club exploits - Lionel Messi the latest in a long list that draws names from around the world. (It's a bad analogy though, because there is no difference in the skill sets required to play football for club or country.)
So why is it so difficult for a cricketer to accept that he is good for one format and not the other? Is there too much pressure to be known as a Test success? Despite limited-overs cricket having beaten Test cricket in the popularity ratings, are players just conditioned to believe that they are no good unless they do well in whites over five days? Are ex-players and commentators somewhat to blame for drilling it into the minds of young cricketers (maybe because they themselves missed out on the money on splurge?) that '0 Tests and 25 ODIs' is the equivalent of 'interned at...' in a CV?
I love Test cricket – unconditionally. I was born in the 1970s, so ODIs were a part of my growing up years and I enjoyed them thoroughly too. Now, with Twenty20s doing a better job of what ODIs were supposed to do, I've come to think of the latter as somewhat pointless.
For all the power of the newer formats, I doubt someone like a, say, Suresh Raina, who is slowly becoming a legend of sorts in limited-overs cricket at least in the subcontinent, will give an interview without a "Test cricket is the ultimate – that's what everyone wants to be known for" answer somewhere. Why? Is it not enough to be a limited-overs superstar? More importantly, does someone like Raina truly believe what he is saying or is it just the politically correct note? (The equivalent of footballers declaring that it is the World Cup trophy that truly matters.)
I have met and spoken to many young Indian cricketers who have become popular after the Indian Premier League and all of them, without exception, shudder when I ask them - I always do - whether doing well in the IPL means that they will be compartmentalised as T20 specialists. "But I have also picked up so many wickets in Ranji Trophy games," they plead. "I have scored a double century after batting for so many hours," they argue. "What I really want is to wear the India whites," they claim.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, if my memory serves me correctly, is the only cricketer to have announced that he didn't care for 'days' cricket and, though he hasn't said it in as many words, would gladly chuck it up to prolong his limited-overs career. It would take a very brave and somewhat stupid man to chuck Test cricket when he is the captain of the Indian team and, I suspect, that's what's prevented Dhoni from super-specialising. Because the only other way a player can choose the dastardly no-Tests option is the "my body can't take the rigours of Test cricket" excuse. Brett Lee and Lasith Malinga come to mind, though I am not suggesting that they feigned injuries to walk away from Tests.
Maybe it's just the times we live in. No one's quite sure where cricket will go in the next ten years. Will T20 leagues become widespread enough for players to ignore international cricket completely? Will Test cricket survive? Will ODIs die away? Where will most of the money be?
Once these questions are answered, once good sense and commerce mesh to create a calendar that brings skill and entertainment together in the right measure, once the pressure to be politically correct is out the window, maybe things will change. Perhaps then kids will train specifically in one format and specialists will be respected for what they are. The way I see it, that will only raise the bar in each format.