New Delhi, Mar 11: Sachin Tendulkar is enjoying not having to play batting lynchpin anymore, if his comments on the current ODI lineup being the best he has been part of are anything to go by.
It's impossible to compare batting lineups across eras, especially with the ever-changing demands and rules of the One-day game.
Even so, if the usually taciturn Tendulkar, after 20 years of honing his legend, says this is the best bunch of batsmen he has played with, it's a safe bet he has carefully thought it out. But will everybody agree?
"I would definitely say so," Tendulkar himself said on Sunday. "We have got almost five to six guys who can clear the ropes at will. At the back of our minds we know that with such an explosive lineup, no target is impossible."
It's also fair to say India have never had such strong bench strength when it comes to power-hitting options, goading even the regulars to consistently give their best. Of the five World Cups that Tendulkar has been part of, the two best performances came in 1996 (India made the semifinal) and 2003 (final).
In 1996, Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Vinod Kambli and Jadeja played in all games. Rahul Dravid, incidentally, was the topscorer in 1999 but India failed to make the semifinal.
The lineup wore a refreshing look in 2003 with the Tendulkar-Ganguly-Dravid combine boosted by the arrival of the awe-inspiring Sehwag, along with Yuvraj and the now-forgotten Kaif.
But Sachin was still the lynchpin as some batsmen were yet to evolve into the force they are now. "That's not the case now," feels ex-India player Anshuman Gaekwad, "Sachin's comment is more a reflection of the fact that he is not feeling the pressure to carry the team's burden. Earlier it was all about being dependent on a few individuals but they were never that consistent."
There's something else. The team imploded in the 2007 World Cup but a different captain and coach have restored belief.
Sachin was hinting as much at the mental aspects ("no target is impossible") as the physical, big-hitting prowess of the current lineup.
Since Dhoni took over, Sehwag's ODI average has shot up from 31.61 to 45.50. His strike rate has gone up several notches.
Yuvraj, who averaged 36.23 before Dhoni, is now doing 42.19, with 4 tons and 10 half-centuries in 47 games under the new skipper.
Suresh Raina's average has shot up from 26.60 to almost 47! Gambhir's has gone up from 32 to 41.68. And figures don't reveal Yusuf Pathan's slam-bang abilities at the death.
All of these players have also publicly praised the congenial dressing room atmosphere.
"The mental aspects are there, but now everybody is in form and the bench strength is awesome. There are people waiting in the wings and there is pressure on everybody to perform. That's the bottomline. If suddenly three of four top batsmen are out of form, Sachin might feel differently," said an Indian cricketer.
Sourav Ganguly, for one, is among those who disagrees with Tendulkar. "This batting lineup is consistent, but they're not the greatest. That was in 2003," said the ex-skipper, adding that Sachin himself should go on to play till 2011.
Of course, the likes of Azharuddin and Ganguly would walk into any lineup but the others from the class of '96 or '03 would struggle to displace Sehwag, Yuvraj, Gambhir or even Raina. Yusuf Pathan, on current form, will easily replace the likes of Robin Singh.
And a public pat on the back from the Master could be the best news for these players ahead of the next World Cup. Best of all, it might help Sachin regularly play as freely as he did at Christchurch.