Ashish Nehra, the grand old man of Indian cricket, finally declared his retirement from all forms of cricket last week. The endearing fast bowler with a toothy smile, a never say die spirit and a propensity to shoot from the hip was given a rousing send off after playing his last international match in front of his home crowd, carried on around the stadium on the shoulders of his present and former captain.
With the retirement of Ashish Nehra, the career of one more of India’s third golden generation of limited overs’ players has come to an end.
If we plot the number of one day internationals played by Indian players against the years they were born in, we get a plot approaching the following:
The first spike in the bar chart appears in the period between 1959 and 1963. This is when the first successful generation of India’s limited overs’ cricketers were born. They included players like Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Krish Srikkanth,Manoj Prabhakar, Mohammed Azharuddin, Navjot Singh Sidhu, etc. A few of them were stars of the 1983 World Cup, almost all of them played at the 1985 World Championship. These two tournaments presented India’s first successes as a one day international (ODI) team at the global stage. They were also part of the Indian team in the 1987 World Cup where India started as one of the favourites but crashed out in the semi-finals.
The second golden generation of India’s limited overs’ players – those born in the period between 1969 and 1973 contained some of India’s most celebrated players ever, including such giants of the game as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, and Javagal Srinath. There were also the less heralded ones in the form of Venkatesh Prasad, Nayan Mongia, and Ajay Jadeja. They formed the core of India’s ODI team for a better part of the late nineties and the early 2000s. The peak of the generation came in the 2003 World Cup when despite a poor start, India made it to the finals. Through their individual and collective achievements, this generation was also instrumental in changing the outlook of Indian cricket – from one of the backbenchers of world cricket, it metamorphosed into a global power house.
India’s third golden generation was born in the period between 1978 and 1982 – players who are currently in the age group of 35-40 years. They include players like Virender Sehwag, Ashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. A few of these players have already retired, some like Nehra have been on the verge of retirement for some time. A few others are still toiling at the domestic level, hoping against hope to make a comeback to the national side.
In fact, when it comes to an official send off, Ashish Nehra is probably one of the luckier ones in this group. The likes of Sehwag and Zaheer had to declare their retirements years after being dropped from the squad. Gambhir, Yuvraj, and Harbhajan may still dream of making one last appearance for the Indian national team, but going by the mood of the selectors, it appears highly unlikely. Which leaves Dhoni – Dhoni’s place in the ODI team may be secure as of now, but critics have already started to question his place in the T20 squad. And knowing Dhoni, you may expect him to walk away suddenly, abruptly switching off the spotlight, without much of a fanfare.
Looking at the current fortune of this cohort, it is easy to forget that some of India’s dazzling successes in the recent past have been engineered by them, and for a considerable period of time, it looked like they would surpass the achievements India’s original golden generation of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble and Srinath.
The generation largely cut their teeth in the fresh look Indian team that was formed after the match fixing scandal in the early 2000s. Almost all of them got their first extended runs in international cricket during the Sourav Ganguly-John Wright era. Zaheer and Yuvraj famously made their debut during the 2000 Champions Trophy where India made it to the finals. Harbhajan and Nehra made their debut in the nineties, but Harbhajan really became an indispensible part of the national squad after the 2001 India-Australia series. Dhoni made his debut much later, in 2004; but India had not really found a long term candidate for the position of wicket keeper since Nayan Mongia was named in the match fixing scandal in 2000.
Some of these players, including Sehwag, Zaheer, Yuvraj, Harbhajan and Nehra had strong supporting roles to play in the 2003 World Cup as well as the away series victories against Pakistan and England. But, in more ways than one, 2007 marked an important passing-the-baton moment of Indian cricket, when the debacle of the ODI World Cup faced by India’s full strength squad was followed by the daredevilry of a bunch of young no-hopers at the T20 World Cup.
In fact, India was the last ICC full member to start playing T20 cricket and most of the players and the selectors at that time had hardly any understanding of the format. The senior players in the squad had voluntarily opted out of the squad and there was no lofty expectation from a young squad with a number of unknown faces. But the likes of Dhoni, Harbhajan, Gambhir, Sehwag and Yuvraj made it count – with India winning the 2007 World Cup, the history of cricket would be changed forever.
In the very next year, Indian Premier League (IPL), a franchise based T20 tournament was launched in India. No player from this generation had grown up playing the shortest format of the game, but they took to it like duck to water. Till date, they are among the most successful IPL players ever. Even as late as the last season, Nehra, Zaheer, Harbhajan, Gambhir, Yuvraj and Dhoni were important members of their respective squads – apart from Nehra, all of them have led their respective squads at some point of time. Sehwag has retired from IPL, but is still associated as a coach with the Kings’ XI Punjab.
The period between 2007 and 2011 marked the apogee of this generation. The Indian team became the top ranked team in the world. At home, they won test series against Australia and Sri Lanka and drew against South Africa. Away from home, they won against New Zealand and Bangladesh, and drew against South Africa. Although they lost hard fought series against Australia and Sri Lanka, they were able post important test victories there. In ODIs, they won the Commonwealth Bank series, bilateral series against Sri Lanka, West Indies, South Africa, and New Zealand. And finally, in 2011, India won the ODI World Cup for a second time after a gap of twenty eight years, largely on the back of the performance of this generation.
After the 2011 World Cup, the players of this generation were at the peak of their respective careers. Aged between 29 and 32 years, they still had a lot to offer to the game. But surprisingly, their performances faded rapidly and the fortunes of the Indian cricket team also plummeted with them. By the end of the 2013-14 season, Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Harbhajan were dropped from the Indian squad while Ashish Nehra was yet to make a comeback after the 2011 World Cup. Dhoni soldiered on with a new look squad, but his test performance dipped and he decided to retire from test cricket in the middle of the 2014-15 test series in Australia.
In terms of silverware won, this group of Indian cricketers is second to none. They were among the very few Indian cricketers who managed to taste two World Cup victories, as well as take India to the top of the Test rankings. However, as their careers come to a close, it is impossible to shake off a sense of under achievement, the feeling that they did not quite achieve their full potential. Perhaps, it has got something to do with the fact that these players couldn’t retire on their own terms, unlike the two golden generations preceding them. Perhaps, their fall from grace after the 2011 World Cup and the years of toil outside the international scene has taken some shine off their previous accolades.
While the sun sets on the career of this generation, they will be happy to know that they leave Indian cricket in good hands. As can be seen from the bar chart above, the next generation of Indian cricketers has already taken over. In the form of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteswar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravi Ashwin, and Ravindra Jadeja, they can pack quite a punch. They have already tasted success in the 2013 Champions Trophy and came very close to winning the 2017 version as well. The real test of this generation will come during the 2019 ODI World Cup – winning this will cement their status as another of India‘s golden generations.