I know it is one-day season now, but I have still been thinking about the recently concluded Test series, because for me doing well in Test cricket abroad is the true marker of a team’s quality. To that end the Tests are more significant for me even than the World Cup. Even though we lost, I enjoyed this series very much. That’s saying something – it is more than three years since I have enjoyed a Test series that has involved India. Series abroad have meant abject defeats. Series at home have meant one-sided victories that don’t seem to have developed our skills as a team that can perform in all conditions. Here, what we saw over the past few weeks was competitive cricket stretched across four Tests. The two defeats resulted from losing critical moments of Test matches rather than being comprehensively outplayed. There are serious problems with the quality of bowling we have at our disposal, but we are in the process of building a truly strong young batting line-up. And most of all, the retirement of M.S. Dhoni from Test cricket allows us a fresh start, with a hungry and aggressive captain who is determined that this team improve in the longest format.
Given that, I want to assess the performance of the players on tour, not just in their own terms, but also in terms of the golden generation past. In this young brigade, do we have the ingredients for a team that can challenge again for the number 1 spot in Test cricket? Do we at least have ingredients for a team that can be consistently competitive abroad?
Before I assess the players themselves, there are two words of praise that need to be uttered. The first is for the selection committee. The team that was selected was the perfect team, in that virtually everyone who was taken on tour (with the possible exception of Ravindra Jadeja) had done something to earn his spot. I would have liked to see Pragyan Ojha in the picture, but it has since come to light that his action is under suspicion, which explains why he has been out of the picture in spite of being the best spinner in the country in terms of performance. I hope that Ojha can remedy his action and be back in the frame for selection soon; but for the time being, alas, he is not. The second piece of praise is for Ravi Shastri. I have been critical of him in the past, feeling that he has sold out to become a BCCI cheerleader. But he has brought a sense of purpose to the side, and rectified the “spinelessness” that he accused the team of at the end of the England series. I also think his appointment was responsible for Dhoni’s retirement, because he represents an alternative power center in the team, which is not something that Dhoni would have enjoyed. It would be interesting to see if he is willing to carry on with the team as its coach after the World Cup when Duncan Fletcher’s tenure ends. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he does.
In terms of the players’ performances, I divide them into the following categories. First, there are those whose reputations have been enhanced by this series (Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul) – ultimately, our gutsy performances in this series have been largely on the backs of these four. Second, there those who did not do much, but who remain integral to the scheme of things (Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar) – there were injuries and disappointing performances from both, but they still provided more control with the ball than anyone else, and if one looks over the entirety of 2014 their value to the side is indisputable. Third, there are those who deserve a longer rope, but around whom questions remain (Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Mohammed Shami, Varun Aaron) – this is actually the bulk of the side, all still relatively young, so one has to be patient and hope that investing in them will yield dividends sooner rather than later. However, each has serious questions hanging over him that he will have to answer. And finally, there are those who have been given a fair run and should now be relegated to one-day cricket or back to the domestic ranks so that others can be given a chance (Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Umesh Yadav, in addition to Jadeja who shouldn’t have been part of this squad in the first place). These are the three unequivocal failures of this tour. I haven’t included young Karn Sharma in this list because while he is a bowler with talent, he demonstrated yet again that Test selection purely on the basis of IPL performance is a bad idea. I think and hope he will eventually come into the picture as an India player, but at this point he is not ready.
Virat Kohli has stepped into Sachin Tendulkar’s shoes. That’s a big thing to say, but after this series, he has earned that praise. He is batting in Sachin’s position and has become the big superstar of the batting unit. But really, it seems to me that Kohli is the next Ricky Ponting more than the next Sachin. Everything about his batting style screams Ponting. The question is, however: is he the next Tendulkar or the next Ponting as captain? Sachin was someone who allowed himself to be weighed down by captaincy; Ponting was never the strongest captain strategically, but led by example, and his batting thrived on leadership. Early suggestions point to the latter: not all of Kohli’s bowling changes or field placements were the strongest, but the challenge of captaincy in the tightest of pressure situations seemed to bring out the best in him, and having a young captain set the benchmark for performances counts for a lot in getting a young team to believe in itself. Frankly, it would be in Team India’s interests if Kohli was the next Ponting rather than the next Tendulkar. There are still some batting weaknesses to iron out – I think Kohli’s technique against swing is as suspect as Ponting’s against off-spin was – and these are weaknesses that are likely to be exposed in conditions that are most favorable to quality swing bowling. I predict that Kohli will find England as hard to crack as Ponting did India (unlike Sachin, who had no obvious weakness and succeeded everywhere); but that alone should not prevent him from joining the echelon of all-time greats.
Ajinkya Rahane looks like the new V.V.S. Laxman. He has now made runs in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. He has shown he can take the attack to the opposition and that he can stonewall and survive. He will never have the glamor of Kohli and perhaps statistically will never reach Kohli’s heights; but he has the steel and the calm of Laxman, and whenever the team has needed him in 2014 he has been there to deliver. Like Laxman, he was badly treated early in his career and had to do more than most to earn his spot in the side; but instead of sulking, he has just allowed it to make him tougher. And like Laxman, he rarely drops a catch, an under-appreciated side of his cricket but one that is very important given the butter fingers most of this team seems to have. If Kohli is the new superstar of Indian cricket, then Rahane is its new backbone. Already the two have started to have defining partnerships that remind me of some of the great Tendulkar-Laxman partnerships of the past decade. My only suggestion with Rahane is one that I always had with Laxman – which is that he is better served at 3 than 5. He is adaptable enough that he will make 5 his own; but a player of his ability can really set the game up at 3, and as a former opener, he is someone who is also equipped to face the new ball in case of an early wicket. At least in Laxman’s time Rahul Dravid provided a pretty significant alternative at 3; it is not yet clear if Pujara has the same makings of a no. 3 that Dravid had, which is all the more reason to move Rahane up the order.
Murali Vijay looks like a combination of Aakash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir. This is appropriate, since he has taken Gambhir’s place, and superseded Chopra when he first got a chance with India. He really knows where his off-stump is (Chopra there, not Gambhir); but unlike Chopra, has been able to build his 50s into 100s. He has now cracked both England and Australia, which no Indian opener other than Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag have managed to do prior to him. He will likely never be a great batsman, but he is already a very good one – and if a World XI were to be drawn up today, he could stake a legitimate claim to being David Warner’s opening partner. As with Chopra and Gambhir, he is level-headed and has a good temperament, and now has more than 6 years of international experience, albeit with ups and downs, ins and outs. He’s not just a certainty for the opening slot; I’d have him as Kohli’s vice-captain as well.
We don’t have a replacement for Virender Sehwag. Shikhar Dhawan certainly isn’t it, and that is one way in which this team cannot match up to the team that preceded it this past decade. Even Tendulkar is more easily replaced than Sehwag, who really was a one-in-a-million cricketer. Having said that, Lokesh Rahul has vindicated the faith of the selectors (and my faith), and has shown that he is good enough to be Vijay’s long-term opening partner. The way he came back from his nervy and disastrous debut speaks volumes for his temperament; even when he was tied down by good bowling, he hung in there and didn’t do anything stupid (unlike his more experienced partner Rohit Sharma, who repeatedly tried to do stupid things until he finally succeeded in getting out). This means that we are going to have a conventional opening pair, like Test cricket used to have, the sort that can play out the first morning of a Test and see off the new ball. But that only makes it more important to have a no. 3 like Rahane, who can change the tempo depending on the needs of the situation.
Ishant Sharma is someone that most people love to hate, though I have maintained my faith in him and he has come through with stellar performances in New Zealand and England this year. However, his poor average in Australia has continued. Nonetheless, he remained the one bowler who kept things tight even when he wasn’t taking wickets, and I really don’t see any alternatives to him as leader of the attack for the foreseeable future. What he needs however is to develop the character of a leader. At this point, he is India’s version of Morne Morkel. He brings something unique to the table with his height and ability to hit the deck, made a sensational start to his career that promised much, but since then has been erratic and inconsistent. When he is good he is very good, but he has often been bad. This didn’t matter so much when Zaheer Khan was at the other end, just as Morkel’s inconsistency is masked by Dale Steyn (and now Vernon Philander). But now he needs to become the next Zaheer: not just someone who can follow orders (like he did so beautifully at Lord’s), but someone who can create strategies, implement them and mentor the bowlers around him. With little international cricket through the summer, he really needs to be sent to England for a proper stint of county cricket. Ishant is at the same stage that Zaheer was when he had his transformative year at Worcester; I think something similar will benefit Ishant immensely. If the BCCI was interested in actually managing and developing its fast bowling talent, it would ensure this.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar is the new Praveen Kumar / Venkatesh Prasad / Roger Binny. Take your pick, every generation has had one of him, and this type of cricketer is an invaluable asset to the side. Like the above three, he is a tough, competitive and underrated cricketer; in conditions that help swing, like England, he can be devastating. He will also bowl well in India, since he has come through the ranks of domestic cricket and knows how to make the most of sub-continental wickets. But he will likely never crack the less swing-friendly conditions of Australia, where his lack of pace will be a liability. What this means is that Bhuvi is an integral part of this side, but he is the support act and cannot be expected to lead the attack – he needs Ishant to mature and fire at the other end. If that were to happen, then we have the makings of a fine new ball pair that can complement each other. Indeed, the last time the two played together in a live game was at Lord’s, and suddenly India’s bowling attack had teeth. After that, Ishant’s injury for the rest of the England series (except the Oval, by which time Bhuvi was spent), Bhuvi’s injury for the first three Tests in Australia, and Ishant’s injury in Sydney meant that the two have hardly operated together. Bhuvi’s solid batting at no. 9 is also invaluable for a team whose tail is often too fragile.
Persist, but how long?
The problem at this point for India is that a vast majority of its team has talent that deserves to be invested in, but has not yet consistently fulfilled that potential. These are players with whom one needs to be patient, and if they reward that patience, then as Ravi Shastri has said this will be a team to reckon with in the next 12-18 months. The question as always is going to be – how much patience, and what are the alternatives?
The biggest question mark hangs over Cheteshwar Pujara, simply because he is the one person around whom the question mark shouldn’t have been hanging at all. He is technically the soundest batsman in India, and the way he played in South Africa suggested that he is the next Rahul Dravid. So his failure in England was surprising, but understandable; everyone is allowed a bad series, and even Dravid failed on his first Australian tour in 1999, learning from it and becoming a better player. But a second consecutive failure in Australia now means that questions have to be asked of Pujara. He is too good a player to be dropped altogether; and one should remember that his first tour of South Africa was also a failure, but he learned from it and came back stronger the second time round. But he can no longer take his place in the starting 11 for granted. The question here is: is he the next Dravid, or the next Sanjay Manjrekar? Both were equally good technically; the difference was that Manjrekar ultimately got weighed down at no. 3, especially as he often found himself walking in early given our fragile opening situation. Hopefully a Vijay / Rahul opening combine will provide more consistent solidity that Dhawan or Gambhir have provided Pujara of late; but this is another reason to move Rahane up to 3 and give Pujara a run down the order at 5. The person who should be pushing Pujara however cannot be Rohit Sharma, who is anything but the reliable technician that Pujara is. Rather, it should be Ambati Rayudu, who has the technical solidity to play the role that Pujara is meant to play, and who has waited on the fringes for long enough.
I have been a huge critic of Suresh Raina in the past, and certainly his four-ball sojourn at Sydney has done nothing to enhance his Test credentials. But I think this time around, after nearly three years out of the side, Raina deserved to be on tour, and I don’t think anyone should be judged on the basis of one failure, especially after having sat on the bench for 6 weeks prior to it. It is quite possible that Raina isn’t good enough for Test cricket – but the hope and possibility is that he might yet be the next Sourav Ganguly. Ganguly was not as good a batsman as Dravid, Tendulkar or Laxman, and yet ironically we seem to have more ready replacements for the latter three superstars than we have for Dada. What we need is someone who can transcend technical limitations with temperament; provide a useful 5th-bowling option in conditions abroad (10-15 overs with a wicket or two), and be part of the leadership team. Raina already ticks the second and third boxes; he is certainly an asset to the dressing room, his bowling is far better than Rohit’s or Vijay’s and his fielding is stellar both in the outfield and in the slips. The question is: does he have the temperament to overcome his obvious technical limitations? He certainly has the desire and hunger to play Test cricket for India; he deserves a fair run to show that he has what it takes to translate that hunger into performance.
Ravichandran Ashwin looked a far better bowler this time around than he did in 2011. But I still don’t think he is good enough to be our lead spinner, because his performance abroad on the whole is still ordinary. The second innings in Sydney was the first time in 12 Tests abroad that he picked up more than 3 wickets – and that was on a deteriorating, sub-continental track with the Aussies going for runs, and he went for nearly 5.5 an over in the process. The hope when Ashwin started was that he could step into Anil Kumble’s shoes. I think we’ve seen him long enough now to decide that he just isn’t in that league. In fact, so far he hasn’t even shown himself to be in Harbhajan Singh’s league. However, I do see him as the next Ravi Shastri – as someone who started as a frontline spinner but grew in stature as a batsman, eventually becoming a very useful batting all-rounder for the side. If we don’t find an adequate replacement for Ganguly, then having a Shastri-esque cricketer at no. 6 is a good alternative. Ashwin’s batting average of nearly 40 is as good as Rohit’s or Raina’s. His technique against the short ball is better than both. He has looked as comfortable as the frontline batsmen in both England and Australia. And he is showing signs of developing into a slip fielder of some caliber. Therefore, I think Ashwin is the right man in the wrong role. He is not the answer to our spin bowling problems abroad. But he can be groomed as a long-term no. 6, in direct competition with Raina, thereby giving us the option to play either a batting all-rounder who can bowl a bit or a bowling all-rounder who can provide a second spin-bowling option and make 40-50 runs.
Wriddhiman Saha definitely deserves a longer rope. He has always been a class act behind the stumps, and I think is technically the best wicket-keeper India has produced since Syed Kirmani. He is also a gutsy batsman, and I can see him developing into someone like New Zealand’s B.J. Watling: quiet, understated but extremely efficient in front of and behind the wickets. His challenge however is to actually translate his potential into performance with the bat. So far, in his admittedly few chances, he has shown the ability to make useful 30s, but that is not good enough for a keeper who bats at 7 (and who ideally should have the capacity to bat at 6 when the team requires it). This is especially so because his competition will come from Naman Ojha, who is in the batting form of his life. Even if Ojha is just an adequate keeper, he will supersede Saha unless Saha can show consistent value with the bat. Saha has waited in the wings long enough that he deserves at least a full series before judgment can be passed; but because the competition in this case is both obvious and strong, he may not have as long to prove himself as he would ideally deserve. Still, it is good that we have two genuine alternatives to Dhoni, both of whom are better keepers – and possibly better Test batsmen – than Dhoni ever was.
Some of the biggest question marks concern our talented but inconsistent bowlers, with the biggest being over Mohammed Shami. If every generation has a Bhuvneshwar Kumar, it seems like every generation has a Shami as well – to me, he is the successor to Ajit Agarkar and Sreesanth. The talent is extraordinary; the action and seam position at the point of release drool-worthy; the ability to swing the ball late in the high 130s potentially deadly; the early eye-catching performances seductive; and like his predecessors the ability to spoil all of that with a rotten spell, a rotten over, a rotten ball to release the pressure built by an earlier unplayable delivery, intensely frustrating. There is so much talent here that it is hard to see us giving up on Shami, and I predict that like Agarkar and Sreesanth he will bowl us to at least one historic win abroad in the near future, on our next tour to South Africa, England or Australia. But I fear that the temperament is just not there, and that more often than not Shami is going to disappoint us and let us down at crucial junctures. Somehow, someone needs to work on the mental aspect of Shami’s game. If that falls into place, then a pace trio of Ishant, Bhuvi and Shami could be devastating. If it doesn’t, we could be looking at years of false promise and shattered hopes, yet again.
Varun Aaron is unlike anyone we have produced before. There are other bowlers who have promised to be genuine quicks and then faded away, but no one who can consistently hit 145-150 like Aaron can. That alone makes him someone worth investing in; as long as he has this kind of serious pace he is going to remain in the picture. But like Shami, he too is a loose cannon, and playing both of them in the same 11 is far too risky, as we found to our detriment in Australia. The question for Aaron is: is he the next Brett Lee, or the next Shaun Tait? Lee started off fast and wayward, but developed accuracy as he went along, making him deadly. Tait remained a genuinely fast and genuinely wayward bowler and eventually fell off the radar. The concern with Aaron is that there is no plan B – he doesn’t have swing or height or bounce, so relies entirely on pace. In that sense, he seems more Tait than Lee, who was one of the best swing bowlers of his time. On the whole, I’m not counting on Aaron to be the solution to our problems; but he provides x-factor of a kind we have never had before, and we need to hope that his talent heads in the right direction.
It seems hard to argue that Rohit Sharma is one of the failures of this tour, especially since he made a 100 in his only game in the ODI tri-series. But this is precisely the problem: Rohit has now become an integral part of the Indian limited overs side, and it is that rather than his performance in the longer form that keeps getting him selected for the Test side. When he burst on the scene, people said he was the next Sachin Tendulkar. In reality, he has turned out to be the next Yuvraj Singh. Like Yuvraj, his timing is sublime, and when he is on song, he seems to have more time than most to play his shots. Like Yuvraj, he was identified early as a special talent and given a longer rope than most. Like Yuvraj, he had early successes followed by a string of mediocrity and inconsistency: while Rohit is now a fixture in the one-day side, it has taken him 7 years to become one. In fact, after his early NatWest Trophy heroics, it took about that long for Yuvi to become a reliable member of the one-day side as well, a fact that is now easily forgotten. Like Yuvraj, Rohit had to wait for a Test chance, but started promisingly with a big 100 at home (think similarly of Yuvi’s fine 169 against Pakistan in Bangalore). But like Yuvraj, Rohit just does not seem to have the technique to succeed in Tests abroad. He has now been on four tours, and all he has to show for it is the odd 50 in New Zealand and Australia. Even his 53 in Sydney, I thought, was an ordinary innings. First he got bogged down, in large measure because of his own inability to rotate the strike. Then he tried playing the most ridiculous shots to break the shackles, finally getting out to one. This was in contrast to Lokesh Rahul, who showed admirable patience and technique in riding out a tight spell; and who was himself freed up once Rohit was replaced by Virat Kohli who started taking singles and easing the pressure on Rahul as well. In contrast, I think Ambati Rayudu has the technique to be a better Test player than Rohit, and I feel it is Rayudu, not Rohit, who should be pushing Pujara for the no. 5 slot. However, I predict that Rohit will always hold out an elusive promise that will ensure that Rayudu is kept out; just like Yuvraj, while never becoming a successful Test batsman himself, managed to ensure that the hard-working but less pretty Mohammad Kaif never got a decent run.
It’s much easier to argue that Shikhar Dhawan was a failure. He is no Sehwag: nobody is. But his performances in New Zealand suggested that he might be more than a flat-track bully. Unfortunately, other than that, he has failed miserably in his other assignments abroad, struggling in South Africa and unable to hold his place through series in England and Australia. The technical difficulties against the moving ball are obvious; and the opening slot is so crucial to our performances abroad that we just cannot have someone so flimsy at the top of the order. Dhawan may yet be a long-term part of our one-day plans, though his current struggles in Australia put a question mark over that as well. But with Rahul looking like a real prospect, Dhawan’s Test days seem to be over for now and possibly forever. Even as a third opener, I would be more inclined to give Robin Uthappa a go. He provides an attacking option like Dhawan does, and has worked so hard over the past few years to become a technically more solid batsman. He was unlucky to miss out on a World Cup spot, but I suspect that within the year he could be knocking on the door in all forms of the game.
In a series that saw many bowling failures, Umesh Yadav had to take the cake. There were many bad spells from many of our seamers; but Umesh’s second innings bowling on the 4th evening in Sydney, when we had a chance to restrict Australia to a total that could be chased, was one of the worst spells of Test match bowling I have ever seen. The talent is clearly there, and there were some good spells, especially in Brisbane. But by the end of the series, one could see why the team management was reluctant to play Umesh at the beginning, even though he had prior success in Australian conditions. In this regard, he seems to have become the new Munaf Patel. Both started off as great fast bowling hopes, but a couple of years into his career, Munaf seemed to have regressed rather than built upon his early potential. The way Umesh let the team down in Sydney reminds me of how Munaf let us down in Cape Town in 2007; it spoke of really poor temperament and a lack of dependability that a Test match side just cannot afford. One is already also seeing a drop in pace with Umesh, as happened with Munaf. He still bowls in the 140s, and can occasionally crank it up, but in Sydney was hardly getting above the high 130s. His waywardness could be excused if he was hitting 150 like Aaron; high 130s is fine if he can swing the ball like Shami. In both those cases, one feels that there is something to invest in even if the reliability isn’t there. But it seems hard to contemplate persisting with Umesh ahead of a hardworking, reliable cricketer like Pankaj Singh. Pankaj doesn’t have Umesh’s natural talent; but the way he gave 110% even when nothing was going his way in his debut Test in England is a far cry from the rubbish that Umesh came up with in Sydney. In a losing performance that was otherwise full of fight, Umesh’s spinelessness was glaring. Like Munaf, I can imagine Umesh reinventing himself as a useful limited overs bowler, but at this point he doesn’t seem mentally to be a Test bowler to me.
Finally, Ravindra Jadeja has never looked like a Test class bowler outside sub-continental conditions, and has rarely looked like a Test class batsman even in sub-continental conditions. He probably shouldn’t have been on tour in the first place. Karn Sharma is clearly not ready for Test cricket yet. Akshar Patel has the potential to play a Jadeja-like role of tight spin bowling coupled to useful no. 8 batting, but his credentials at this point largely come from IPL performances. With Pragyan Ojha also out of the running for the moment and Ashwin not good enough to be a lead spinner, the really bare cupboard is in the spin department. No other country in world cricket currently has spin resources as poor as ours, which is as shocking as it is tragic. Even Australia, South Africa and England have found Nathan Lyon, Imran Tahir and Moeen Ali, none of whom is a great spinner, but all of whom are better than anyone we have to offer. It would have been an ideal situation for Harbhajan Singh to have staked a claim, but he has done absolutely nothing in his time away from the national side to suggest to the selectors that he deserves another chance. It really might be best to give Amit Mishra another go: he is not a great spinner, but he is a good one, and after investing in him early in his career it seems a shame to not look for a return on that investment, especially when the alternatives provide such slim pickings.
Therefore, a post-Dhoni, post-Australia Test side in my mind looks ideally like: Vijay (V), Rahul, Rahane, Kohli ©, Pujara / Rayudu (though probably Rohit will be persisted with), Ashwin / Raina, Saha / Naman Ojha (W), Mishra, Bhuvnesh, Ishant, Shami / Aaron. Reserves: Uthappa, Rayudu / Pujara (or Rohit), Raina / Ashwin, Ojha / Saha, Aaron / Shami, Pankaj.