Instead of all of us going together, it has to be in batches so that the replacements in the team suddenly don’t suffer,” Sourav Ganguly had said before his final Test match for India in November 2008. Almost three years later, those words are back to haunt India’s Test team.
The debacle in the recently concluded Test series against England, where India relinquished its status as the world’s No. 1 Test team to the hosts after losing the series 0-4, has thrown up many questions. But maybe the most important one is this: Can India’s famed batting line-up be resurrected when the veterans retire? This thought has gained urgency after a sequence of injuries, to both batsmen and bowlers, left the team handicapped. Batsmen Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh and Rohit Sharma got injured either before or during the series.
Rahul Dravid, the lone Indian batsman among runs in England, and V.V.S. Laxman are both on the verge of calling it a day. Tendulkar might be getting better with age, but even he has his limits, as indicated by a toe injury that has rendered him unfit for the remainder of the One Day International (ODI) series (India trail 0-1 in the five-match series). Meanwhile, the crucial No. 5 batting slot in Tests, which Ganguly had vacated in 2008, is still to find a keeper. Yuvraj Singh has come and gone; and Suresh Raina, S. Badrinath, and Dinesh Karthik have tried and failed.
Clockwise from top left: Cheteshwar Pujara, age 23, Pal Pillai/ Getty Images; Rohit Sharma, age 24, Anesh Debiky/Getty images; Virat Kohli, age 22, Gareth Copley/ Getty Images; Ajinkya Rahane, Age 23, Tim Hales/AP.
Is the cupboard bare, or is there a spark of talent that holds hope for the future? Ironically, while India’s batting might was being exposed mercilessly in England, another team of Indian cricketers, literally unnoticed, beat opposition from Australia and South Africa to claim the Emerging Players Tournament Down Under in August.
One of the stars of that team, Ajinkya Rahane, watched India’s capitulation on TV, just hours after his team had won the tournament. “Obviously, it’s my dream to play Test cricket, it’s everybody’s dream,” says Rahane, who made his entry into the Indian ODI squad for England soon after the Emerging Players event—he top-scored with 61 in the Twenty20 (T20) match India lost on 31 August. “To get a chance in the Test team would be a big deal.”
Rahane has been among the more consistent scorers on the domestic circuit, logging more than 4,000 runs in just over four seasons. “I have a lot to prove to myself, and am sure my dedication and determination will see me through,” says the 23-year-old Mumbai player.
Former India coach Lalchand Rajput believes Rahane stands a good chance to make it to the Test team soon. “On a few occasions, Rahane didn’t score when it could have mattered,” he says. “But I have watched him for a long time. He is a good prospect. Unless you throw him in, he will never realize his potential.”
While agreeing that comparisons with Tendulkar, Dravid or Laxman will put pressure on any young cricketer, Rajput says “the blooding of new talent should be a gradual process. We do have a pool of players, but they must be given a long rope”.
Former chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar, though, is anxious about the transition. “It is a matter of great concern that we don’t have the bench strength to replace these big players,” he says. “The new talent is good, but will take time to settle in.”
Vengsarkar’s former India teammate Maninder Singh warns that “champions like Sachin or Dravid aren’t born every day. The problem is that we want direct replacements, and that’s not going to happen.”
When players of the calibre of Laxman or Dravid retire, transitions are never smooth. For example, Australia are still recovering from the retirement of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden.
“Of course, they are really big shoes to fill,” says Sharma, 24, who also made it to the Indian ODI squad for England, but got injured after the first match. “What they have done for Indian cricket is remarkable. Nobody can take that place, but someday people have to come in and fill those shoes. I’m waiting for the right time.”
A man with talent, wristy stroke play and great timing, Sharma has also been waiting in the wings for some time now. Good performances in India’s T20 World Cup win in 2007 and the CB Series triumph in Australia in 2008 meant he was in line. But a last-minute injury prevented him from making his Test debut. Thereon, sketchy performances have gradually pushed him towards the sidelines.
“When you are 22-23, you generally overdo what you are praised for,” says Maninder Singh. “People said Rohit has lazy elegance. But in overdoing that he became slow, his reflexes blinked. That’s why he wasn’t doing well for some time, but now he’s back and seems to have worked on his batting.”
Maninder Singh is a regular at the Mumbai Cricket Association nets where Sharma was training over the last few months before he left for England.
“Test cricket is my top priority now,” Sharma says. “I am more mature as a batsman now, compared to two years ago. I hope to be a different batsman altogether from now on.”
Another player trying to prove himself in this scenario is 23-year-old Cheteshwar Pujara. After he scored 72 on debut as India beat Australia in October, Pujara was being considered the next big name in Indian cricket. But an injury in the Indian Premier League (IPL) sidelined him, and he missed out on possible selection for the West Indies and England tours this summer.
Surgery and rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy (NCA), Bangalore, have ruled him out for four more months, but the prolific run-getter is itching to get back to the Test team. For Pujara, the knock against the Aussies was a dream come true, making him feel like a “permanent member of the team. Sachin, Sehwag, Gauti (Gambhir), (former coach) Gary Kirsten, everyone was so supportive”.
It was the 1-hour, 16-minute vigil with Laxman against the fiery Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at Durban in December that taught him the rigours of Test cricket.
“We had lost four wickets, and Steyn was on fire,” Pujara says. “But Laxman told me to just hang around, and slowly they would wear down. I didn’t score much that day, but it was a huge learning experience.”
Pujara, who’s in Rajkot attending to his father, who recently underwent a bypass surgery, seems to have done a fair bit of introspection. “It’s just about one ball, you get out and you don’t know when the next opportunity comes. Test cricket is about the two Ts—technique and temperament. What is my greatest strength as a batsman? Well, a bowler cannot get me out so easily.
“I feel no pressure. If I play well consistently, then perhaps I will get to my goal,” Pujara says.
Of all the young batsmen waiting in line for a place in the Indian squad, Delhi cricketer Virat Kohli, 22, perhaps has the best chance to cement his place first.
Already a regular in the Indian ODI team, Kohli has had a taste of Test cricket but he failed to keep his place after scoring just 76 runs at an average of 15 in India’s tour of the West Indies.
“Technically, he is a better version of Sehwag,” says Maninder Singh of Kohli. “He has the attitude and temperament needed to survive in international Test cricket.”
Sanjeeb Mukherjea is the chief cricket correspondent for CNN-IBN.
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