The pleasure of winning a series 4-0 is singular, something I have never experienced in the three decades I have followed the game. For all its travails, Australia is a better team than New Zealand or West Indies, and they are not a team that loses 4-0 very often to anyone, anywhere. Australia’s media seems to think they are a third rate team, but they are not – it is a team that beat us black and blue at home, and that has, other than a narrow defeat to South Africa, done well at home since then. Equally, however, this win does not make us a world champion team, and even after a 4-0 win, it would be good to temper celebrations and seriously consider what we need to do to improve. After all, India’s trajectory is not that different to the Aussies’: we have beaten Australia black and blue at home, but lost narrowly to England at home, and have struggled abroad over the last two years. In other words, these are two teams that are developing along very similar planes. Both are teams in transition. Both are teams that are going to be competitive at home in the immediate future. But both are going to struggle abroad.
The difference is this. India seems quite happy to struggle abroad. Dhoni seems quite happy with the home wins, and all his selections indicate a desire for home gain without concern for what happens abroad. This is, indeed, the big difference between Dhoni and Ganguly, and the reason why, for me, Ganguly will always be the greater captain. Dhoni is happy with dominance at home and abjectness abroad – after all, for him, the 2007 World Cup exit was more painful than 0-8. But I think that a 0-4 defeat will hurt more for Michael Clarke, which is why Australia’s long term prospects as a Test side look better in my opinion.
The real test of our quality as a cricket team will come in South Africa this winter. With that in mind, we need slightly different priorities and strategies to what we saw in this series. So here are my thoughts, looking forward 9 months.
All of Dhoni’s flaws as captain remain. In this series, he has shown in one innings that he can bat in home conditions at no. 6. hats off to him for that. But he hasn’t followed it up with a significant innings in the subsequent games. The question marks about his batting ability abroad remain as I think of his embarrassing performances in Australia. And that means his long-term viability as captain on the strength of his batting remains questionable.
Meanwhile, some of the major shortcomings of his captaincy still remain. The big difference in this series compared to some previous ones is that he looks a little more agitated in the field, and is yelling at his players more. But that is hardly the hallmark of genius. His mindset is still fundamentally defensive, as indicated in his field placements when Mitchell Starc, a no. 9, got going in Mohali; and as indicated even more starkly in his comments after the Mohali win that he had considered shutting shop and playing for the draw. Clarke would never have thought that way. And Dhoni’s selections are still nepotistic. Keeping Ojha out for Harbhajan and the mistreatment of Ajinkya Rahane across all formats are two examples. Hence, in spite of this result, I am still convinced that Virat Kohli is the best man to lead India forward, both in South Africa and towards the next World Cup. Of course, this won’t happen – if there is one thing this series has done, it is to cement Dhoni’s power in India’s cricket structure. But at the very least, it is time to formally appoint Kohli as Dhoni’s deputy, and groom him as a future captain in the medium term.
We do now have the nucleus of a good side, but the question is whether the players who have succeeded in the series against Australia are likely to be as successful in South Africa. The two who are, in my opinion, are Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Murali Vijay. Bhuvnesh has been the find of this home season for India, and he will be a handful in South African conditions. He still needs to be used better by Dhoni, who seems to think of him only as a new-ball bowler – even though, in domestic cricket, he has picked up a lot of his wickets with old-ball reverse swing. But he is one for the long haul. Meanwhile, Vijay – 2.0 looks a far better bet than the original version. What has changed, primarily, is shot selection. Earlier, he would just go after the bowling willy-nilly, without a second thought, and get out to poor shots even when set. In his two 150s, it is his discernment that has stood out more than anything else.
Ravindra Jadeja has also done enough to get on the plane to South Africa as the second spinner. But unless he starts showing an ability to bat at 7 in Test matches, he cannot be a certainty in the starting 11. I think Jadeja needs to be persisted with because he is a good batsman and he showed some indications of that under pressure in Delhi. But the transition from Rajkot to Durban will be a steep one, and he will have to prove himself afresh.
It is Shikhar Dhawan that I am most skeptical of. his debut innings was brilliant, but it almost had a hint of insanity about it. It is hard to drop someone after an innings like that, but I am still not convinced that he has what it takes to succeed against Steyn, Philander and co in South African conditions. I think that one of the problems we will face in South Africa is what Australia has faced here – inexperience in playing abroad – and this is why, for me, Wasim Jaffer still remains the best man to open when we travel abroad, and his continued exclusion is just stupid. Technically, he is the best opener in the country today; his form has been exceptional; and his experience playing around the world will make him invaluable in SA, New Zealand and England. “Youth policy” is all very well, but the future direction of our cricket will be determined by how well we do on our next three tours abroad, and how well we do will depend largely on whether we have an opening combination that can give us starts. For me, Jaffer and Vijay represent the best pair we have in the country at the moment.
The other question concerns our fast bowling. Bhuvnesh has bowled some telling spells in this series, and that bodes well. but we have won on the strength of our spin. Our spinners won’t get so much purchase in South Africa, and we will need our seamers to play a major role in picking 20 wickets. This will probably be our first full series abroad in a number of years without Zaheer Khan leading the attack; so it is going to be a real challenge for a young seam attack against a quality South African batting line-up.
Hopefully Umesh Yadav will be fit to lead the attack in Bhuvnesh’s company, though on the evidence of the past few months that is not something to be taken for granted. And even if he is fit, we will need a good third seamer. While India’s travails abroad in the 1990s were largely because of poor starts with the bat, the absence of a good third seamer to back up Srinath and Prabhakar (initially) and Srinath and Prasad (later) really hurt us.
So the big question is – is Ishant Sharma good enough to be trusted as India’s third seamer? I think the evidence is mixed, but I remain a strong supporter. His effort is always 100%, and even in this series he has bowled a couple of telling spells. It is hard to give up on someone in whom selectors have invested so much, especially knowing how much potential there is. But like Jadeja, he is someone who is going to be on trial, and who is going to need to start translating potential and effort into wickets sooner rather than later.
On paper, then, a seam trio of Umesh, Bhuvnesh and Ishant is a fine young attack, three bowlers who do different things and who supplement each other. But Bhuvnesh is inexperienced abroad, Umesh is injury-prone, and Ishant is still on trial. So having good back-up to these three will be essential. Here, the one personal I would most definitely throw in to the mix would be Praveen Kumar.
Praveen has had a rough couple of years – injured, left out of the side, issues with his anger, and so on. But the failure to manage him and bring the best out of him is entirely the BCCI’s. What we do know is that if Bhuvnesh can trouble international batsmen with his swing, then so too can his mentor Praveen. What we do know is that PK has proven himself as a match-winning Test bowler in England, where everyone else was being taken to the cleaners’. Indeed, PK’s bowling in that series shone as strongly as Rahul Dravid’s batting. Quality swing bowling troubles the best of batsmen, and certainly the South Africans play pace and seam better than they play swing. I think it is essential to get PK back into the mix, though he too is going to have to prove himself all over again after a disastrous 18 months.
Finally – I think there are a couple of players who are at the crossroads of their careers; four more who are in a liminal space; and two or three who are real talents who now deserve a look-in. Those who are at the crossroads, of course, are Sehwag and Gambhir. Both have given us much in the past on tours abroad; but both their exclusions are justified, based on their recent returns. Further, neither has much 4- or 5-day cricket to look forward to before we tour South Africa, so it is not going to be easy for them to make a claim to that tour on the basis of strong domestic form. This is why it would be important to select both for the India A team that will tour South Africa over the summer. A strong showing there could put them in the fray for a full tour. A weak showing could spell the end of Viru’s career, and will mean that Gambhir will have to pile on the runs in domestic cricket to make a comeback. Either way, I think the road back for both of them is going to be a hard one.
The four in a liminal space are Rahane, Pragyan Ojha, Manoj Tiwary and Ashok Dinda. All four have been treated badly in the current dispensation, and all have had their share of bad luck to compound their bad treatment. All four are amongst the most talented, and temperamentally sound, young cricketers in the country today. But none of them can take their place in the side for South Africa for granted, given the performances of those who have played against Australia, and some other youngsters who are coming through the ranks and who will squeeze them from below as well.
Rahane and Dinda have spent most of the season on the bench carrying drinks; Tiwary has spent most of the season injured; Ojha, after leading the attack against England, was made to sit out for the miserably ineffective Harbhajan Singh for half the series against Australia. Further, Rahane has now been officially deemed to be a middle order batsman, and the middle order is crowded. Assuming full fitness, Pujara, Tendulkar and Kohli are certainties at 3, 4 and 5. If Dhoni decides to stick to Jadeja and 5 bowlers, then that is pretty much that. If an extra batsman is played, then Rahane should be competing for that spot with Tiwary, but also possibly with Viru, especially if he can make runs over the summer. The other person who has to be in the fray now is the man who will push Rahane and Tiwary from below, Ambati Rayudu. In terms of sheer talent, Rayudu is every bit as good a batsman as his contemporaries like Rahane and Tiwary, and streets ahead of Raina and Rohit Sharma. Early in his career, the problem was his temperament. But the post-ICL Rayudu, having moved to Baroda, has just been phenomenally consistent. For me, the innings that really showed his readiness for the big stage was a 105 he made for India A on a seaming wicket in New Zealand last summer. There really is a case for him to jump the queue. This means that Rahane, Sehwag, Tiwary and Rayudu are all fighting for that last batting spot on tour – and as long as Jadeja continues to succeed, the best they can still hope for is a place on the bench. It would be worthwhile giving them all a chance on the A tour to South Africa in the summer, to see who stakes the strongest claim.
Meanwhile, Ojha too is being pushed. As long as Ashwin was struggling, Ojha looked like he would be India’s lead spinner. But with Ashwin getting back amongst the wickets, he has reassumed his role as lead spinner, even though he still needs to show a strong performance abroad. Ojha is unlikely to displace Jadeja in the playing 11, since Ashwin is unlikely to be risked at 7 in South Africa. So the best he can hope for is a place on the bench, to back Ashwin up in case of injury or poor form. However, he is going to be pushed even for that role by young Harmeet Singh, who is one of the most exciting spin bowlers I have seen in years. Only injury has prevented Harmeet from staking a claim to the senior team this year. If he if fit, then he will be perhaps the person most worth watching this coming year, and a senior call-up could come sooner rather than later.
Dinda, meanwhile, has been Rahane’s bowling equivalent – in the 15 because of sensational domestic performances, but made to sit on the bench all season. Like Rahane, he has been given the odd one-day game, but there too, he has never been selected for more than 3 or 4 games at a stretch, once being dropped immediately after picking up a 4-wicket haul. But he too is going to be pushed from below, as I think the young fast bowler most worth taking a look at is Dhawal Kulkarni.
Kulkarni is only 25, but he has already had a number of successful seasons for Mumbai, and he was absolutely outstanding this past season. He is a bowler in the mold of Ramakant Desai – slightly built, nippy, capable of coming at the batsman all the time, and moving it around just enough to create problems. There is another, more contemporary, bowler that he resembles, and that is Vernon Philander. I think he could be a handful in South Africa, and he is definitely the youngster most worth looking at. There are others who have done well this season – especially Ishwar Pandey, Siddharth Kaul and Sandeep Sharma – but there are many fast bowlers who have done well in a single season early in their first class careers only to fall away later (remember Abhimanyu Mithun, Sudeep Tyagi, Manpreet Gony, Deepak Chahar, Rituraj Singh, Harshal Patel? If not, then you get my point). Kulkarni, meanwhile, has consistently performed, season after season.
So, my end-of-season teams for the coming season:
India A to South Africa (July 2013)
- Wasim Jaffer
- Gautam Gambhir ©
- Ajinkya Rahane
- Virender Sehwag (V)
- Manoj Tiwary
- Ambati Rayudu
- Parthiv Patel (W)
- Praveen Kumar
- Dhawal Kulkarni
- Pragyan Ojha
- Ashok Dinda
- Abhinav Mukund
- Abhisekh Nayar
- Pankaj Singh
- Harmeet Singh
India senior team to South Africa (November 2013)
- Wasim Jaffer
- Murali Vijay
- Cheteshwar Pujara
- Sachin Tendulkar
- Virat Kohli (V)
- Mahendra Dhoni © (W)
- Ravindra Jadeja
- Ravichandran Ashwin
- Bhuvneshwar Kumar
- Ishant Sharma
- Umesh Yadav
- Shikhar Dhawan
- Virender Sehwag / Ajinkya Rahane / Manoj Tiwary / Ambati Rayudu
- Parthiv Patel (W)
- Praveen Kumar
- Ashok Dinda / Dhawal Kulkarni
- Pragyan Ojha / Harmeet Singh
I watched the Delhi Test from Sydney. It is my first time in Australia. I have grown up watching Sydney Tests sitting in Delhi; doing this the other way round was a real pleasure. I also made a pilgrimage to the SCG – a ground that has such India-Australia history, a ground that Tendulkar and Laxman have owned. I went into the visitors’ dressing room. The visitors’ attendant, Rocky Harris, started a list on the cupboard in the dressing room, where every visitor, whether first-class or international, who made a 100 at the SCG would have his name and score inscribed. There are tens of names there, but a name that appears thrice is V.V.S. Laxman’s. Each time, after the inscription, Laxman has scribbled, in his hand, a note of thanks to Rocky. It is the essence of a fine man, one who is thoughtful enough to think of and care about others before himself or his own achievements. Having Laxman in the commentary box was one of the highlights of the series against Australia; but how I miss having him wield the willow for India.