Former Australian captain Steve Waugh called India the final frontier for his all-conquering team early last decade, a frontier he could not conquer. Ten years later, the roles have reversed—with India setting off Down Under to conquer a declining Australia.
The Indian team’s year-end journey to Australia has become the platform where careers will be made or broken, records set (Sachin Tendulkar is still poised on 99 international centuries), and where, till recently, the battle for the title of the world’s best team was waged. For the Indian team currently on tour—the first Test begins on Monday, Boxing Day—this will be a particularly crucial test. For around half the squad, this will be their debut tour of Australia.
Rookie power: (clockwise from extreme left) Umesh Yadav, Ajinkya Rahane and Abhimanyu Mithun. Photographs by Mark Nolan/Getty Images
In 2010-11, India’s newest Test hopefuls took their first steps on the big stage, and for R. Ashwin, Virat Kohli, Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron, Abhimanyu Mithun and Wriddhiman Saha (the last two made their Test debuts in 2010), the time has come for a bigger leap. Joining them in Australia are Ajinkya Rahane (One Day International debut in England this year), R. Vinay Kumar (ODI debut in Zimbabwe last year), and Rohit Sharma, who are yet to play in Tests.
Ashwin, for example, made his Test debut this November at home against the West Indies, but will already be spearheading the crucial spin attack in Australia, stepping into the shoes of the retired Anil Kumble and injured Harbhajan Singh. But here’s the difference—Ashwin did not have to go through years of polishing at the domestic (or indeed any international) level to get there. He, like Yadav and Kumar, made his way into the Indian team based on his rapid success in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Ashwin has taken 15 wickets in 14 IPL matches for Chennai Super Kings so far at an average of 20.4, and an impressive economy rate of 5.88, while his first-class experience runs to just 37 matches, where he has taken 156 wickets at an average of 27.39.
Good form in the month-long Twenty20 bash was widely regarded as inconsequential to judge a player’s abilities in the more storied world of Test cricket, but in the last few years that line of thinking has clearly changed. However, the question remains: Can quick-fire Twenty20 glory prepare you for the rigours of international Tests?
“This season (Ranji) alone, I played on three different types of wickets—one was a turner, another was quick, another was 50-50,” says Vinay Kumar, who has been one of the best bowlers in domestic cricket since 2004, but only came into contention for national duty after good IPL performances in 2010, where he took 16 wickets in 14 matches at an average of 24.75, the second-highest wicket taker for Royal Challengers Bangalore after Anil Kumble’s haul of 17. “Domestic cricket just helps you learn a little more each day, but IPL definitely gives you the exposure you need because you are up against quality international players. One good game can help people take notice of you and it is a big platform for us. IPL makes you a hero in a day.”
Good form in the IPL alone may not always be enough to make the grade to national colours, but it’s a sure-fire way of getting noticed by the right people.
“The four overs (a bowler’s maximum quota in a Twenty20 match) are too little to judge a player’s character and temperament. Having said that, there are a few like Rohit Sharma and Amit Mishra who in the past made it purely through the League,” says a current Indian selector who asked not to be named. “Ranji Trophy is important as that is the main supply stream and we pick players from there. People who have played the highest form of cricket, Tests, come from having toiled in domestic leagues. Now, it is more crucial for us, as key players Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar are at the end of their careers, to find replacements for them.”
It’s a thought mirrored by another young batsman, Mumbai all-rounder Abhishek Nayar, who is on the fringe, battling hard in Ranji matches in the hope that a series of big knocks will earn him national colours. “You have to be patient, ready to grind it out and not be in a hurry to achieve what you need to,” Nayar says. “That’s what domestic cricket gives you. It works on your temperament. It is all about waiting for the right moment to grab your chance.” In 43 Ranji matches, Nayar averages 52.86 with the bat, and has taken 76 wickets.
Even as the selectors find themselves in a situation where there are too many competitions to look out for but few finds to finally latch on to, players know that both formats have given them much to ponder over. “IPL is a big stage and it’s almost like playing for your country. You are up against the best around the world. It’s a bigger stage compared to Ranji cricket. After that 100 I scored in South Africa, people have come to know and recognize me. Ranji may have given me the name but IPL has given me a face,” says Karnataka batsman Manish Pandey, who in 2009 became the first Indian centurion in the IPL. Pandey played five matches that season for Royal Challengers Bangalore, and scored 168 runs at an average of 84.
Nayar puts it into perspective. “IPL has given me recognition, a lifestyle I wouldn’t have dreamed of getting. You learn a lot playing alongside, and not against, international cricketers. But it’s (playing in) Ranji that got me there. It gave me an opportunity and the confidence to play IPL.”
Of the current crop of debutants for the Australia tour, only Mumbai batsmen Rahane and Sharma can claim to have made it to the Indian side purely on their form in the domestic circuit. Rahane scored 1,089 runs in the 2007-08 Ranji calendar, only one of 11 players to have scored 1,000 runs in a single Ranji season, and then continued with that form. Rahane has scored 4,862 runs in 50 matches at an average of 68.47 in his first-class career so far, and Sharma averaged 122 with the bat in the 2010-11 Ranji season. Bengal batsman Manoj Tiwary was inducted into the Indian team after a sensational 2006-07 Ranji season, dropped after a string of bad luck and poor form, and re-picked in 2011 after yet another fantastic Ranji season. He had scores of 132, 267 and 187 in consecutive matches in November and December. Tiwary believes that domestic cricket remains the benchmark for players looking to earn a national call-up.
“Performing in Indian domestic circuits is the main criteria to be part of the Indian cricket team,” Tiwary says. “Earlier, there was no IPL. All the great players like Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Tendulkar and Laxman came up playing domestic cricket. IPL now is only sharing that space.”
Tiwary hopes that his form in the current Ranji season will earn him a call-up to the Indian ODI squad for the tour to Australia.
Rupha Ramani is a senior sports correspondent with CNN-IBN.
A look at the 2010-11 IPL and Ranji statistics of the rookies on tour
• R. Ashwin
28 matches, 33 wickets, average of 20.63
5 matches, 24 wickets, average of 24.2
• Umesh Yadav
14 matches, 8 wickets, average of 44.13
4 matches, 13 wickets, average of 21.7
• R. Vinay Kumar
27 matches, 28 wickets, average of 26.1
6 matches, 19 wickets, average of 21.94
• Rohit Sharma
20 matches, 53 runs, average of 8.83
6 matches, 732 runs, average of 122
• Abhimanyu Mithun
13 matches, 6 wickets, average of 60.0
7 matches, 24 wickets, average of 27.4
• Ajinkya Rahane
10 matches, 120 runs, average of 20.0
6 matches, 609 runs, average of 87
Compiled by Rudraneil Sengupta.
Write to us at businessoflife @livemint.com