Indian cricket is battle-weary. Its soldiers are reeling from a fatigue—mental and physical—enhanced by three consecutive Test series losses to major teams. The legends have more or less faded out and even the mighty Sachin Tendulkar seems to be on his last legs.
The transition period has well and truly set in, but the signs of recovery are not yet visible. There are two reasons for this. One, the handful of youngsters making it into the team are taking time to find their feet. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Pragyan Ojha, R. Ashwin and Umesh Yadav are all at different points of the settling-in process. Two, most of the spots in India’s Test eleven are still open.
It is at such times that the selectors must turn to domestic cricket, more pertinently the Ranji Trophy. The new-look, well-structured tournament can provide answers, though perhaps not immediately. Building bench strength, players to pick from at a moment’s notice, is the prerogative of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) selection committee chief Sandeep Patil and company.
It’s going to be a long haul. Though the Indian team for the first two Tests of the forthcoming four-match home series against Australia has been announced (the first Test starts on 22 February in Chennai), there are two more Tests to go and a tough away series against South Africa in November.
The new bunch of selectors has started well, experimenting with bowling options during the recently concluded, limited-overs series with Pakistan and England. Bhuvneshwar Kumar (27 wickets in six matches at 20.66) and Shami Ahmed (28 wickets in five matches at 21.35) were given a chance to impress on account of their performances in the domestic arena. And they did, with the former going on to be selected for the first two Tests against Australia in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The lad from Uttar Pradesh, who can swing the ball both ways and was a thorn in the flesh of Pakistani batsmen, believes his time has come.
“I would be lying if I say I was not hoping for this,” Kumar told a local newspaper in Bangalore. “Having done well in the One Day Internationals (ODIs) recently, I thought it would be the right time for me to have a go in the Tests as well.”
Of course, it can be argued that Ahmed should be selected too, given that Ishant Sharma has an injury-prone ankle and Ashok Dinda hasn’t really impressed anyone. Ahmed did find a place in the Board President’s XI that took on the visiting Australians in a tour game (12-13 February), a signal perhaps that domestic figures will be taken into consideration. He went wicketless in the14 overs he bowled.
Topping the wicket charts this Ranji season is Madhya Pradesh’s Ishwar Chand Pandey. The 23-year-old from Rewa served notice of his arrival with 48 wickets from eight matches at 21.06. Picked later for the season-ending Irani Cup, he shot into prominence with a six-wicket haul against Mumbai at Indore in a Ranji match. The Irani Cup is played between the Ranji Trophy champions and a Rest of India team comprising the best players from other domestic teams. Two other five-wicket hauls came for Pandey at the same ground, plus one more at Jaipur, despite a not so seamer-friendly pitch. He claims to “concentrate on making the batsmen play”, and has an energetic bowling action, with his breezy run-up allowing him to put emphasis on his delivery stride.
Pandey actually wanted to be a batsman but couldn’t deal with the leather balls the first time he padded up for net practice. Since then, he has had to be content with taking wickets, only allowed to pursue a career in cricket as long as he completes his education alongside. “My parents didn’t want me to neglect studies,” he said on the sidelines of the Irani Cup in Mumbai earlier this month.
In the case of the second highest wicket taker in the Ranji Trophy this season, Siddarth Kaul, the sport runs in the family. His father, mentor and coach, Tej Kaul, is a former first-class cricketer, while brother Uday keeps wickets for Punjab.
“Playing with my brother is fantastic,” he claimed excitedly. “We take care of each other and he has a few more years of cricket under his belt than me, because I have had to sit out due to injuries. His experience helps me.”
Siddarth was part of the 2008 Under-19 World Cup win in Malaysia, the team that gave us Virat Kohli. Like other youngsters of that grade, he too was fast-tracked when picked up by Kolkata Knight Riders for the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008. But injuries have let him down time and again. His relative inexperience, along with a freak injury record, has perhaps kept him off the selection radar, despite 44 wickets in nine matches at 23.79.
“For me, the emphasis this season was on keeping fit and doing the basics right,” Siddarth said. “There were camps organized by the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) that allowed me to regain fitness and thereafter, with help from my father, I concentrated on line and length, with pace coming in when everything worked out fine. The results were good, of course, but I am sad that Punjab crashed out in the semi-finals.”
Punjab’s young opener Jiwanjot Singh made waves in his first domestic season, notching up 995 runs in 10 matches, at an average of 66.33. The 22-year-old’s run-scoring streak, inclusive of five hundreds and two fifties, with a best score of 213 against Hyderabad, preceded England batsman Alastair Cook’s histrionics in the four-match Test series against India in November.
“India’s Cook” was a moniker given to him by journalists following local cricket. Yet he wasn’t considered for the Rest of India. One reason could be the continuance of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay. But the latter has had a poor season, with even 35-year-old Wasim Jaffer trouncing him on form.
Away on a pilgrimage for most of the first half of the Ranji season, Jaffer returned to smack 835 runs in only seven matches for Mumbai. Three centuries and four fifties took him past Amol Muzumdar as the highest run-scorer in Ranji history, taking Mumbai to their 40th Ranji title. Another hundred and a fifty in the Irani match set tongues wagging wildly, with Dhawan (461 runs from seven matches in Ranji) and Vijay (138 runs in five matches in Ranji) paling in comparison. Age was cited as an excuse to keep him out against Australia in the forthcoming home series, though Dhawan and Vijay are in the team.
There are two sides to the coin. On the one hand, India have to look to youngsters to fill the vacuum for their first eleven. On the other, if the youngsters fail, players like Jaffer need to be around to cushion the blows at the top of the batting order.
Jaffer isn’t the lone Mumbai cricketer awaiting his turn. No, this isn’t about Ajinkya Rahane warming the benches. This is about Abhishek Nayar making all the right noises about claiming that revolving-door No. 6 spot. As much as Jaffer, Nayar’s 966 runs in 11 matches, with three hundreds and eight fifties, as also his 19 wickets, were instrumental in pushing Mumbai towards the title.
He was hot property at the 2013 IPL player auctions. A hefty $675,000 (around Rs.3.65 crore) price tag took him to Pune Warriors, but Nayar believes something better is in store.
“I would like to believe that I am peaking as a cricketer. At age 29, this is going to be the best phase of my career. I will have to keep working on my fitness, because in the past I have been laid low due to injuries. For that, I put in a lot of work during the off-season and in a way, it has paid off this time in the Ranji trophy. I have done my bit, without worrying about selection,” he says.
While batting is his strength, Nayar is a useful medium-pace bowler who can make use of bounce and life in the pitch to ably skid the ball into batsmen. He makes for a good batting all-rounder, in sync with India’s plans for the future, should they continue to pick the same combination as against England in the fourth Test at Nagpur. If Ravindra Jadeja makes it as a bowling all-rounder in helpful conditions at home, then Nayar is the man for the job overseas.
As the Indian team goes through a process of change and overhaul, a long-term plan will help it regain the top ranking among Test-playing nations. Domestic tournaments are key to this process, a measure of talent which must be taken into account rather than relying on tested, but unsuccessful, players.
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The U-19 Inventory
How the 2012 World Cup stars have fared domestically.
The Indian Under-19 team’s World Cup victory in Australia last year coincided with the Test team’s fall from grace. Not surprisingly, there were calls for chopping and changing, infusing new blood and throwing young cricketers into the battle of international cricket. So how did these boys do in the big, bad world of domestic cricket?
Spinner Harmeet Singh was included in the Rest of India squad for last season’s Irani Cup match in September. The 20-year-old picked 4 for 45 in the second innings at Bangalore against Rajasthan in the Irani Cup, but was benched by Mumbai for their championship bid this Ranji season despite a frail attack.
Much-touted future all-rounder Baba Aparajith, 18, had a more consistent run for Tamil Nadu. In eight matches, he scored 395 runs, with one century and one half-century. Yet his bowling skills remained largely untested as he bowled only 70-odd overs in these games, bringing in three wickets in the just-concluded Ranji season.
From these examples, it is clear that these young stars need as much time as possible to hone their skills in the domestic arena before a step up to the big league. They seem to appreciate this.
“After my hundred in the finals of the Under-19 World Cup, it was the media who termed me a big-match player. Sure, I like challenges and it was great to score for the team, but I don’t know how that (reputation) came along,” says Unmukt Chand, by far the most celebrated among this lot.
Like Aparajith, he has enjoyed a prolonged run at the top for Delhi, though his scores (445 runs in eight matches at 37.08, one hundred and three fifties) are yet to fire up any thoughts of selection for senior cricket.
“At this time, I am only keen on playing cricket, welcoming any opportunity that comes along. It is only about learning the basics and not making mistakes in the middle. Ranji cricket is already a big step up. The rest will happen when it happens, if it is to happen,” says Chand.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.