The 2013-14 season has come to an end, and a new one is about to immediately begin. 2014-15 is an important season, with a Test series in Australia followed by the World Cup. Going into the new season, the state of Indian cricket appears mixed. There is much hype about the ODI side after their easy 3-1 win against England. But the 1-3 Test debacle if anything was even worse than the losses in 2011, because the defeats were absolutely spineless and the opposition was much weaker this time around. If anything, the Aussies are stronger than they were 3 years ago, so another 0-4 drubbing beckons. I’m not too optimistic about the World Cup either. In spite of the hype, the fact remains that England is a terrible ODI side and beating them doesn’t tell us much. Our ODI performances in Aussie conditions have been horrible and we lost everything in sight there in 2011. And a 0-4 Test drubbing just prior to the World Cup won’t do our morale much good.
The real problems with Indian cricket however lie off-field, with the Srinivasan-Dhoni cabal continuing to rule the roost regardless of results. And I don’t see that changing in the near future, because neither is the sort of person who will relinquish his power. our best hope for change might in fact lie in a disastrous World Cup performance. But even that is not a guarantee that Dhoni will step down or that he will be removed, because he is bound to find a scapegoat. In 2011, it was the seniors. Now it is the youngsters. If it is not the bowlers, it will be the batsmen. Even Ravi Shastri, supposedly brought in to clean up shop, has expectedly given a clean chit to Dhoni and Fletcher – he is the BCCI’s man, after all.
Nonetheless, this post is as always about what should happen, not what will happen. And what should happen is very simple. Let Dhoni lead India’s limited overs side through the World Cup. He is a fine ODI batsman and a decent enough limited overs captain. But let the Test side be led by people who are good enough to play Test cricket; indeed, let it be populated by those who have the ability and passion to play the longer form. It is clear that a number of our ODI superstars led by Dhoni don’t. In this post, I’ll work through who I think should therefore be part of our plans for the months to come.
We actually have the nucleus of a good side. In England, Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane with the bat, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma with the ball, were outstanding. Vijay has shown a newfound maturity and was unlucky in New Zealand to be dismissed early in his innings by good balls. Rahane was always a class act, and now that he has finally been given a chance he has shown it. Bhuvi thrived in conditions that favored swing, but what really impressed was his cool head and calm temperament with bat and ball. And Ishant has built on a fine performance in New Zealand, suggesting that he might finally be fulfilling his enormous potential. So we have a useful seam duo, a fine middle order batsman, and half of an opening pair. What we don’t have is a certain third seamer who can complete a seam attack, and reliable second half to the opening pair. We do have a useful middle-order though. Kohli’s and Pujara’s simultaneous loss of form hurt us deeply in England. But they are both class acts who have proven themselves around the world in the past. I am sure that they will be back to their best soon enough.
The issues to address therefore concern: a second opener; a number 6; the wicket-keeper; a third seamer; and a viable spin attack.
In many ways, the question of the second opener is the most important and vexed one we face today. It is clear that we cannot succeed abroad without a decent opening partnership, and we have not had a single one reach 50 abroad since 2011. There in a nutshell is the reason for our poor performances abroad. Gautam Gambhir’s performances in England were embarrassing and might have led to him having played his last international game for india. The much trickier question concerns Shikhar Dhawan. His caliber as an aggressive ODI batsman is not in question. But is he good enough to be a Test opener? His debut against Australia was not trivial and the psychological advantage of that kind of performance is significant. He also showed in New Zealand that he has what it takes to succeed abroad. But he has failed his two sternest tests, in South Africa and England. If being fair to the player is the priority, then Dhawan deserves a longer rope. If putting up a fight in Australia is the priority then risking a weak opening pair at the start of the series is a recipe for disaster. There is no question of Dhawan’s centrality to our limited overs and ODI plans. But his role as a Test batsman in Australia has to be under question.
This is where I make my first strong and unequivocal case for a newcomer. Karnataka’s Lokesh Rahul must be brought into the mix as Vijay’s opening partner. He is quite simply the most talented young batsman in India today, with the technique and temperament to succeed at the top of the order in Australia. He is Rahul Dravid’s protégé and the similarities to Dravid are strong. Give him three Tests against the West Indies at home, and take him on tour. He will deliver.
The middle order is strong with Pujara, Kohli and Rahane. But is its order? This is where one really sees the difference between Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly as captain. Even as Pujara continued to fail in England, Dhoni persisted with him at 3, which Ganguly never would have done. Now it is one thing to think of Pujara as the next Dravid. I think the real parallel however is to Sanjay Manjrekar. The sorry tale there is that batting at number 3 after an ineffectual opening combine brought a premature end to Manjrekar’s career. We shouldn’t make the same mistake with Pujara.
Moving Rahane up to 3 and dropping Pujara down to 5 will serve two functions. First, Rahane in fact is a specialist opener, and only weird selection policies have rendered him a middle-order batsman. Even if our opening pair fails, Rahane has the experience and technique against the new ball to deliver. Second, as the in-form batsman, Rahane can set the agenda for the middle order and take some of the pressure off Pujara. Pujara at 3 didn’t help Pujara, because he had to keep coming in to face the new ball while out of form. Pujara at 3 didn’t help Rahane, because it meant that invariably he was coming in at 3 down for very little rather than at 1 down for very little – and that ended up telling on Rahane’s performances as well as the England series progressed.
I think that the critical spot however is our no. 6 spot, and here we find ourselves in a bind. Finally (except in Southampton, when the slide started) Dhoni realized the necessity of playing 5 bowlers. Without a 5th bowler, there is just no chance of bowling out international sides of caliber especially in unfamiliar conditions. The problem is that especially with Pujara and Kohli out of form, it weakened our batting impossibly. The obvious move would be to go back to the old formula, but I just don’t think that makes sense (and in any case, it never worked). What we desperately need is a proper all-rounder who can bat at 6 or 7 and provide a genuine fifth bowling option. Ravindra Jadeja promised to be the great white hope in this regard, but I think it is clear now that he is one of those players who should be kept only in the limited overs side. he is accurate enough to be a useful second spinner in Tests; but he is just not good enough to bat in the top 7 in conditions abroad, his occasional hit-and-miss cameos notwithstanding. And he’s not a good enough bowler to warrant a place in the side based on his bowling alone.
On the other hand, I think that both Ravichandran Ashwin and Stuart Binny have shown enough potential to be persisted with for the all-rounder’s spot. Ashwin’s bowling abroad is still a question mark, but there is no doubt about his potential. I would not bank on him to be our lead spinner, but he would make a useful second spinner, someone who can actually bowl 30-40 overs an innings. However, what we really need to take seriously is Ashwin’s batting. He is not some useful no. 8 who can occasionally make a telling contribution, like Jadeja or Harbhajan Singh. This guy has the technique of a frontline batsman, including against fast and short-pitched bowling. Both in England this summer and in Australia in 2011, Ashwin showed a comfort with the bat that virtually none of our top order batsmen displayed. At the moment, when played, he is being used as the frontline spinner who bats at 8. This is a poor use of his abilities. He is not a frontline spinner abroad, but he has a Test average of 40, which is more than enough for a Test no. 7. Ashwin’s story, like Rahane’s and Pujara’s, is one of the right man performing the wrong job. Binny of course is not a bowler in the same league as Ashwin, but he is a better bowler than he was allowed to be in England because Dhoni used him so poorly. What impressed me was his batting, which was gutsy, stroke-filled and technically sound. If India wants to have the option of a horses-for-courses seam-bowling all-rounder, who is always an important person to have abroad, then Binny deserves to be persisted with.
This opens up the tricky question of the wicket-keeper. If Ashwin or Binny is batting at 7 – and I would suggest it is too much at this stage to ask either to bat higher – then we need a keeper who can bat at 6. To be honest, Dhoni proved a lot of people wrong with his batting in England, where his temperament made up for a lack of technique. but his wicket-keeping was embarrassing and is reaching the stage where it risks costing us games. If Dhoni is to play any more Test cricket, it has to be as a specialist batsman. But he is not a good enough batsman to replace anyone in the top 5, and in any case I don’t think his technique is good enough to withstand Australian conditions (as we saw in 2011, when Ishant Sharma looked more solid than he did). We can’t afford to play Dhoni as a specialist number 6 who can’t keep and can barely bowl just in order to accommodate him. And we do have strong replacements. Wriddhiman Saha has always been the best wicket-keeper in India, and is a technically sound batsman. No. 6 however might be one slot too high for him. But there is no question that it is the right spot for Naman Ojha, who is in the form of his life and has just made lots of runs in Australia this summer with India A. The last two players to turn in such a superlative performance with A tours in Australia were Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – if you can do well in Australia, you have what it takes to be a successful player for India. Ojha is also a perfectly safe wicket-keeper. He and Saha can do the wicket-keeping job in Tests far more adequately than Dhoni can, and it is time for a change of guard there.
The next question concerns the third seamer’s spot to support Ishant and Bhuvnesh, and there is no dearth of candidates. The problem is, there is a huge dearth of reliable candidates. Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav have both looked like the next great Indian fast bowling talent, but both have struggled with consistency after strong starts to their careers. Varun Aaron has a lot of hype surrounding him after a couple of sharp spells in England, but he mixes that up with lots of expensive tripe. Ishwar Pandey is a terrific prospect, but so far has been used as Rahane’s replacement as official water boy. It was wonderful to see Pankaj Singh finally get to play Test cricket for India, but he bowled too many bad balls to suggest that he can be a reliable support bowler. And the likes of Dhawal Kulkarni and Ashok Dinda have been domestic stalwarts just like Pankaj, and deserve to be kept in the mix; but we don’t know yet if they are international class. Kulkarni in particular is a busy swing bowler just like Bhuvi, and could well be a useful part of our World Cup plans. But he may or may not be a Test bowler.
What this means is that there is no dearth of seam bowling options. But none of them are sure bets to be an effective third seamer. Pankaj, Kulkarni and Dinda all deserve a look in and a longer rope – but do they have the quality to trouble Australian batsmen? Aaron has genuine pace – but will it scare Aussies brought up on such a diet if it isn’t combined with accuracy? Shami, Umesh and Pandey are probably the three who deserve to go to Australia, because each has the ability to be a match-winner and each deserves to be nurtured. But you wouldn’t yet count on any of these three to see India through a tough four-Test series.
This is why Zaheer Khan has to come back to lead the attack. Yes he is 35. Yes there are doubts about his fitness, after his second stupid IPL injury. And yes, he has lost some of his reverse swing, a function no doubt of age and of the loss of a pivot in his follow through, especially while bowling round the wicket. But in fact in New Zealand, he was bowling 40 over spells in the low 140s, tirelessly coming at Brendon McCullum in the course of the latter’s epic match-saving triple hundred. In terms of skills, consistency and craft, he remains one of the best in the business. And his biggest contribution is as the leader of the attack: he is able to guide and lift everyone else around him, so that the bowling unit as a whole becomes sharper when he is playing. Indeed, given Kohli’s loss of form, I’d even make Zak the captain of the side, asking him to perform the kind of transitional role that Anil Kumble performed so vitally in 2007-08. In addition to his experience, Zak has shown himself to be a tactically astute leader whenever he has captained Mumbai; it would be a wonderful way to crown an outstanding career.
A bowling attack of Zak, Ishant and Bhuvi has class, experience and variety. If backed up by Shami, Umesh and Pandey (who could come in to replace the frontline bowlers in case of injury, but who could also provide a fourth seam bowling option on a pace-friendly wicket), there is an attack with the potential to ask the Aussies a few questions. Nonetheless, we will not win matches abroad without a quality spinner. This might seem counter-intuitive given that most wickets we will play on will help seam. However, it is the spinner who can provide the fulcrum around which a seam attack can operate. A good spinner can play the dual role of keeping things tight from one end on unhelpful pitches, and of playing a wicket-taking role in more helpful conditions such as Sydney or Adelaide.
Our choice of lead spinners over the past three years has been one of the major factors behind our poor performances abroad. Ashwin is a naturally attacking bowler, but just cannot grind down and hold things together in conditions that don’t help him. Jadeja can keep things tight, but is not an attacking option even on fourth innings wickets. And yet the best spinner in India, Pragyan Ojha, has been consistently kept out of the side, not being given a single Test match abroad. This is someone who can both defend and attack, who picked up 10 wickets and a man of the match award in the last Test he played before being dropped. He may not be a Warne or a Murali or a Kumble – nobody is in world cricket today – but can be our Rangana Herath. The problem is that our defensive limited overs mentality has meant that we have constantly looked for spinners who have a second string to their bow and tried to turn them into lead spinners – hence the burden placed on Ashwin and Jadeja as lead spinners mainly because they can also bat, though they just don’t have limited ability in their day job outside the sub-continent. I said before the start of the England series that we will pay for not selecting Ojha, and we did. I’ll say it again – if he doesn’t go to Australia, we will pay. Unfortunately, Ojha is one of those low profile, hardworking cricketers who doesn’t get much media attention, and so no one (except Sourav Ganguly, after New Zealand) is making an issue of his continued exclusion.
I’ll make a couple of final plugs. One is for Baba Aparajith, as a reserve middle-order batsman. Along with Lokesh Rahul, he is the best young bat in India today. Rahul is absolutely ready for the big time – we have an empty spot at the top of the order for him, and he has been a top performer on the domestic circuit for four years now. Aparajith is in contrast a bit more of a punt, ahead of Rohit Sharma who currently occupies that spot. But every successful team has someone that you take a punt on; and my judgment is that Rohit is our next Yuvraj Singh – a fine limited overs batsman who could even play a defining role for us in this World Cup (if he is used in his rightful place in the middle order), someone who might even play the occasional big Test innings in the sub-continent (like his 177 on debut against a mediocre West Indian attack), but who just doesn’t have the technique to succeed in Tests abroad. Like Yuvraj, he is pretty, and that is enough to label you as “talented” and give you a long rope. But he just does not add value to a touring party. In contrast, Aparajith has terrific technique, is a more than useful off-spin bowler, and is a slip fielder par excellence – something that we desperately need after Dravid’s and Laxman’s retirement. He provides a different kind of all-round option to Ashwin and Binny, so that if we really wanted to strengthen the batting (say on a bowler’s paradise like Perth) he could be brought in while still providing a fifth bowling option. He is a special talent in his own right, and adds balance and flexibility to a touring side. Take a punt on him.
The second is for the one day side. This looks largely settled, with an ideal top 6 of Rahane, Dhawan, Kohli, Rohit, Raina and Dhoni, and Ashwin and Jadeja (or Binny) providing all-round options and batting down to 8. (The only crucial thing here is to have the technically solid Rahane open and move Rohit back to the middle order where he belongs). Rayudu is a good man to have on the bench. There are some question marks over who will support Bhuvi with the ball, since neither Zak nor Ishant really is a limited overs bowler. Shami is the obvious choice, and I’d say it’s time to give Ishwar Pandey a proper run here. He is accurate, consistent, and has the best slower delivery in Indian cricket. But here the odd exclusion is Robin Uthappa. He has been in outstanding form; can bat anywhere from 1 to 6; can provide a back-up wicket-keeping option to Dhoni; did well in the chances he got in Bangladesh; yet he wasn’t taken to England. Why?
And finally – a few names to look out for on the domestic circuit this year. These are probably players who are not yet ready for an India cap, but who deserve to be part of A team plans. The likes of Manoj Tiwary, Parthiv Patel and Amit Mishra, who have been domestic stalwarts for years, are obvious members of this category; Abhinav Mukund, who has been in the wilderness for the past three years but who is a good batsman, needs to be part of the pool of openers we are looking at. But the players to really look out for are Punjab’s young opener Jiwanjot Singh, whose first two Ranji seasons have been outstanding; Maharashtra’s Kedhar Jadhav, the top domestic performer last year; and Madhya Pradesh’s Jalaj Saxena, who could push Ashwin for the spin-bowling all-rounder’s slot. If these three continue to perform consistently and well, they could be pushing for an India spot.
Therefore, at the moment (pending form and injury), my Test team to Australia would read:
Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli (V), Cheteshwar Pujara, Naman Ojha (W), Ravichandran Ashwin, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Zaheer Khan ©, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha [Reserves: Shikhar Dhawan, Baba Aparajith, Stuart Binny, Wriddhiman Saha (W), Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav, Ishwar Pandey]
And my World Cup team:
Ajinkya Rahane, Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohi (V), Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, Mahendra Dhoni © (W), Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishwar Pandey [Reserves: Ambati Rayudu, Robin Uthappa (W), Stuart Binny, Dhawal Kulkarni, Amit Mishra]