Today, 7th July 2011, marks the 30th birthday of Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and as of now one could safely say that whatever he does from here, he is going to be spoken about in legend. A T20 world cup win, victory in the world cup, India's first series win in New Zealand in 41 years, a drawn series in South Africa (where India had lost every series played until then) and very possibly a series win in the West Indies (where India have won only two series to date), quite apart from taking India to No.1 in the test ranking- such is the CV of M.S. Dhoni.
And yet the signs for the future are worrying. India might be well set to win a series in the carribean, but the two highest scorers are Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, two men in their late 30s who are in the twilight of their careers. Of the younger batsmen, only Suresh Raina and Abhinav Mukund (on the evidence of the second innings in Barbados) have shown the ability to tackle challenging conditions. If presented with challenging conditions, as they have been in this series, will the Kohlis, the Pujaras or the (Rohit) Sharmas be able to cope?
There is no reason to believe that the next generation will be unequal to the challenge. With most of them in their early 20s, they still have a long way to go. Let's not forget that an Indian line up that featured Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid- all in their early 20s back then- was blown out for a paltry 81 at Barbados 14 years ago (on admittedly a minefield of a surface). Let's also not forget that a batting lineup that boasted of Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman failed to chase down 236 in Zimbabwe back in '98, lost 0-1 in New Zealand in 1998-99 and 0-3 in Australia in 1999-2000. The same lineup was blown out for 100, 66 and 144 in the space of four innings against South Africa in 1996-97.
The young men who oversaw those embarrasing defeats were the very ones whose magnificent efforts saw India rise from from No.7 back in early 2002 to No.1 by the end of the decade. Talented, classy and committed as they were, it took several years experience at the highest level before they attained the temperament, the self-belief and adaptability to become legends. If 2001 is to be taken as the tipping point when it started turning around, then its worth remembering that the fab-4 were all in their late 20s by then.
All of which goes to show that players need investment in time and patience before they mature. The conditions in the carribean have been difficult, as Rahul Dravid has himself admitted. It is crucial that the promising youngsters are given time to settle down and find their feet at the highest level. It is only after exposure to different conditions that they will learn to adapt, as did their seniors who are legends today.
In other words, the challenge that Indian cricket faces today is not the availability of quality players to replace the golden generation. The real challenge is to nurture them, to give them time and opportunity to develop their game so that they will eventually be ready to shoulder the responsibility of taking Indian cricket forward.
Given the fabulous success he has had till date, Dhoni is particularly well placed to bridge the generation gap. It is now upto him and the likes of Gambhir, Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh to nurture the (Rohit) Sharmas, Pujaras and Kohlis. For all that he has achieved, Dhoni at 30 faces an even bigger challenge ahead. Only time will tell whether he will be remembered as a captain who failed to arrest the decline of a great team or as a legendary captain who managed a successful transition despite the loss of legends.