Make way, young turks. The big boys are here.
That's one way of looking at things in light of the announcement of the India A squads to play West Indies A in a series of limited-overs and four-day matches. The Pujaras and the Dhawans, the Rohits and the Karthiks, the Bhuvneshwars and the Pandeys have had their moments. Now, with a heavy international schedule ahead, the focus is back on men who have been integral to India's successes on the world stage not so long back, but who have been knocked off the perch by younger hopefuls who have grabbed their chances with both hands.
Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir will, from all accounts, be fighting for one spot - the reserve opener's - in the Test squad, particularly when India travel overseas. But inasmuch as Sehwag and Gambhir will be under the microscope, more keenly followed will be the progress of two men whose international careers have been remarkably intertwined, and whose last appearances in a Test came in the same game, against England in Kolkata late last year.
Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan. Two flamboyant, not-so-young men, two exciting individuals, two enigmatic personalities who have occupied diametrically opposite positions on the visibility spectrum. Yuvraj is gregarious and outgoing, happy to be in the limelight; Zaheer is at his most comfortable in the company of close friends, and while he isn't chary of being seen in public, he is an intensely private person clearly uncomfortable in the glare of the public eye.
The left-handed allrounder and the left-arm paceman exceptional made their international debut in the same match - against Kenya in the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Nairobi in 2000. One match later, both fired the imagination of the Indian fan with brilliant displays in the quarterfinal against Australia. Yuvraj, just off a fantastic run in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, smashed McGrath, Lee and Gillespie around in scoring a memorable 84 off just 80 deliveries, an innings marked by some of the best pulling by a left-hand Indian batsman. Not to be outdone, Zaheer finished with 2 for 40 from his 10 overs including the prize scalp of Steve Waugh, the Australian captain castled at a crucial stage of the match by one that hastened off the pitch and all but signalled the end of a stiff run-chase.
That quarterfinal was on October 7, the day Zaheer turned 22; Yuvraj was then a few months shy of his 19th birthday. The dashing young duo had made the perfect beginning to their international stints. With all other ingredients in place, all they needed to make themselves household names and pin-up figures was to build on that start with consistent performances on the park.
In life, though, things seldom pan out the way they are expected to. Sport being a microcosm of life, it was no surprise that neither man really graduated from the very good to the exceptional for a long time. Yuvraj alternated between the brilliant and the sublime in limited-overs cricket, and the frustratingly underachieving in the Test format - nearly 13 years after his first international outing, he has played no more than 40 Test matches. Zaheer's greatest successes, by contrast, have come in the longer version, though that wasn't until 2007, when he realised that he was running out of time and that it was imperative for him to start making up for lost time if he was not to join the burgeoning list of promising Indian pace bowlers who faded away into oblivion.
Their fluctuating fortunes on the field were mirrored too in their travails off it. Both men are prone to putting on weight if they are a little tardy with their training, and both have had their fair share of injuries. Yuvraj's unfortunate tryst with a rare form of cancer, and the single-mindedness with which he beat it back, is today the stuff of legend; Zaheer has had a succession of potentially career-threatening injuries which he has managed to come out stronger from each time though clearly, he is closer to the end of his career than its beginning.
In many ways, this is perhaps the final chance, more for Zaheer than for Yuvraj. Less than a month away from his 35th birthday, Zaheer is undoubtedly on his last legs and not merely because he is getting on in years. The passage of time has taken a severe toll on his body and forced him to sacrifice pace for guile, control and a rare mastery of his craft. When he has been free of injuries and at peak fitness, he is still more than a handful for even the best in the business but he is at that stage of his life where those periods are becoming increasingly rare. He has professed to having three or four years of good cricket left in him, but any which way you look at it, that is a highly optimistic estimate.
Realistically, India are better off nurturing Zaheer on a tour-by-tour basis because there is no doubt that when he is fit and firing on all cylinders, he is by a distance the best Indian paceman currently. Apart from the immense value he brings with his wonderfully entertaining craft, he is also a natural leader of the younger lot of quicks, a mentor who leaves nothing behind and happily allows his colleagues to dip into his vast pool of experience.
The two four-day games against West Indies A in early October will be crucial not so much from a wicket-taking perspective, but from the point of view of how well Zaheer is bowling and what physical state and mental space he is in. Assuming India travel to South Africa in the winter, and there is no reason as yet not to assume so, and to New Zealand early next year, Zaheer will be a vital cog in the Indian wheel. The decision by Sandeep Patil and his fellow selectors to ease him into competitive cricket is a commendable one; what Zaheer does with this opportunity is entirely in his left hand.
Yuvraj has a little more time ahead of him compared to Zaheer. For the time being, he isn't clearly in the selectors' scheme of things so far as Test cricket is concerned, but the Player of the Tournament in the 2011 50-over World Cup still has plenty to offer so far as the limited-overs game is concerned. It is a little over a year now since he made his international comeback after winning his battle with cancer. The three 50-over games and the one Twenty20 match, where he will lead the team against a strong West Indies A squad, will be a good pointer to where his motivational levels are at.
That neither Yuvraj nor Zaheer thinks competitive cricket is behind them was evident from the time they spent in France, honing their fitness levels under the watchful eyes of Tim Exeter, a leading private physical trainer who has worked with top rugby and football stars too. Exeter, a hard task master with little personal stakes involved, was impressed with the application and the commitment of the two Indian boys and the rapid strides they made during their six-week regimen at Brive-la-Gaillarde. Instead of merely talking the talk, Yuvraj and Zaheer have already started to walk the walk. Just how far they walk over the next few weeks will determine if it is time to start talking again, too.