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November 27, 1999


A time for change

Ashwin Mahesh

Three Test matches ago, the Australian selectors called Ian Healy and told him that his place in the side was insecure, and that should he continue to keep himself available for play, he might not make the team. Faced with the prospect of ending his career on a low note, Healy asked for one last appearance before his home crowd, and when even that was in doubt, he opted instead to retire. Immediately, the selectors turned to the undisputed heir, naming Adam Gilchrist to take over behind the stumps.

The new wicket-keeper needs no introduction; as Mark Waugh's opening partner in the shorter version of the game, he has established himself as the best wicket-keeping batsman in the world. His natural strokeplay and aggression at the top of the order have served Australia well for quite some time now. Indeed, during that time, with one-day cricket far more common than Tests, he has been the face of Aussie wicketkeeping in near equal measure to Healy. The question, for Test cricket, has always been when, and not if, he would replace the aging Healy.

The drama over Gilchrist's induction into the Test team, however, could not have been better staged. Healy asserted his ability and readiness to play and perform at the highest levels of the game, a fact that Harsha Bhogle brought to Rediff readers' attention, with an attendant belief that he should have been trusted on those words and retained in the team.

I have the benefit of hindsight in disagreeing with Harsha, and of Gilchrist's stupendous debut in the ongoing series with Pakistan. Notwithstanding that, however, one might say that the case for Healy's exit had been made quite some time ago, and that any new evidence from Gilchrist's performances merely add to the established truth.

First, to the question of trusting Healy's judgement. True, Healy has shown himself to be a professional cricketer, performing extraordinarily well over a long career. But it is neither novel nor far-fetched to imagine that a dozen years of success could make him reluctant to concede that last battle all players lose - with age. Top criceters, indeed sportsmen of every stripe, and one might say professionals of every sort, have that indelible quality that separates the men from the boys - the belief in oneself. To imagine that Ian Healy would forsake that with professional judgement is a stretch.

Or Mohammed Azharuddin, for that matter. For the selectors, the question at hand is always one that looks to the future, and in consideration of that, they must overlook every allegiance to the past. That is the professional standard expected of their appointments. Whether Azhar is a useful middle-order bat is completely beside the point. Don't get me wrong, I have been a fan of Azharuddin from the day he stepped on to the world stage with style; a more stylish cricketer and a better sportsman never played for India.

But there is a time and a place in every life of stardom, when the exit lights begin to brighten in anticipation of the drawn curtain. And Azhar's role on the stage has ended. It is conceivable that he has more to contribute, but equally it is imaginable that his replacements have much to offer. In a toss-up between the two, the potential of the latter must outweigh the glitter of the former's record. He may well believe himself capable of offering much to the Indian team, and be correct in that assessment as well. Despite this, it is not his call to make.

I don't discount Harsha's other argument, that the emotional facets of sport make just as remarkable a contribution as the actual skills displayed on the field. The grace to bid adieu with thanks and affection, the poise to say goodbye with a smile, these qualities would add much to our memories of our heroes. And perhaps some of the stars deserved a better send-off. But let's not forget, we deserved better goodbyes too. A struggling Azharuddin does little justice to the skill that has brought him thus far, and it is his skill that commands the emotion we long for. A faltering justice to his skill makes a poor case for warm sayanoras.

So let's sit back, let the game go on without its fading stars, and take note, for one of modern cricket's heroes-to-be has ascended his rightful throne. The Australian selection process picks few losers, especially in a time of plenty in the state teams. That their man in waiting would back their faith in him with the spirit of his game was never in doubt with the selectors. Indeed, one might even argue that the selectors did play to the very emotions Harsha spoke of, and that it is only in doing so that Gilchrist was denied the spot he now holds in the Test team. A more ruthless assessment of ability and potential might have seen Healy retired much earlier.

Things change, and the grace with which this constant is embraced separates the classy folks from the others as much as their talent does. At Brisbane, in front of Ian Healy's home crowd, Adam Gilchrist gave an outstanding demonstration of the very things the selectors said of him. That without falling noticeably short of Ian Healy's great wicket-keeping skills, he could deliver a substantial boost to the batting lineup. He silenced the critics on both fronts. And the match-winning century in the second Test was astounding, to say the least. With his back to the wall, and none save the gritty but out-of-form Justin Langer for meaningful support, he pulled the Australians abreast of a raging Pakistani side, and then passed the visitors in style.

Cricket, like any other sport, embodies many things its fans cling to. The gumption and skill of those on the field cannot be measured against the yardstick of heroes from another time. The best men for the job take the field, and give the best they can. This is the only standard to professionalism, and by its measure, Adam Gilchrist belongs out there on the field. Ian Healy and Mohammed Azharuddin do not. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

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