June 2, 2010

Long Version Woes!




What is likely to happen when a colossus of 305 test matches and 454 completed innings yielding 24842 runs at a staggering 54.71 comes to be supplanted by complete vacuum or a commodity that is bound to look like vacuum anyway? The statistical edifice in question jointly refers to arguably the greatest no.3 and no.4 pair World Cricket has ever produced, responding respectively to the calls Rahul Sharad Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. While the Indian middle-order’s mainstays’ turning 37 has seldom reflected in their form or appetite for runs or for that matter fitness (a lesson in commitment for upcoming youngsters), especially recently, the pragmatic will apart from basking in the glory of their legends’ extended stroke-filled sunshine have to start thinking about the Indian batting order’s future in tests. Forget about the rather inexplicable ICC rankings which are more responsible than India’s performances for its being ranked number 1 in test cricket, if the looming batting woes in the longer format are anything to go by India will do well to be in the top half of the table once the Karanataka-Maharashtra duo hang up their boots although to attribute a team’s success to the indispensability of even great geniuses is a rather fallacious argument. I hope the Indian test team proves it a fallacy!

The clarion call or the warning bell (choose your metaphor!), however, is clear: it is not based on one-off premonitions; nor am I a craven sports pessimist who glories in all things past without giving the current crop the due it deserves. Even as we lose ourselves all over again, pathetically, despite the lessons afforded by hindsight, in fortifying a squad for the upcoming world cup and unearthing more big-hitters, necessities in their own right, to lose sight of the transition that lies ahead for Indian test cricket speaks of a disturbingly purblind mindset. And just in case the argument needs any backing-up, the support comes from two quarters – the finest team of the last couple of decades, Australia, and the performances of our own rookie stars in recent tournaments.

It has been known for years that the supreme quality of cricket the Australians have played at the international level is just a logical extension of the quality manifest in the domestic competition, perhaps the toughest domestic league in world cricket. And yet, no right-minded Australian team-member, selector or fan would say (in the candour afforded by privacy at least) that a Gilchrist, Langer or Hayden is not being missed. Even with the notorious and prolific genius of Ricky Ponting, the reliability – despite its extended blip – of Michael Hussey, the effervescence of Michael Clarke and the bright start Marcus North has made to his test career, the Australian batting does not look nearly as formidable as three summers ago. Indeed, every sporting unit goes through a bit of a trough for ebbs and lows are but the very substance of Physics and life, but it is the way the unit picks itself up which defines its quintessence. While the Australians have not quite gone to the cleaners during the last few years, credit to the system envisioned by Allan Border and company at the ingress of the 1990s, that they have relatively struggled despite a rich pipeline of talent coupled with continued experience does not bode green pastures for the Indian battle order after Dravid and Tendulkar.

Analogous cases apart, the talent we have in our midst, as demonstrated in the shorter formats, does not look like it will stand up to the challenges of test cricket just yet. Ungainly handling of the short ball is just one of the worries; the glitch is technical and with practice could be bettered or worked around if not eliminated. But what about the aspect of temperament which readily reflects in on-field behaviour and fitness? Gifted and princely as he is, Yuvraj Singh’s career trail during the last season and half is a classic case of a trajectory that has plummeted because of a palpable disinterestedness or contrarily a tendency to become too big for his shoes, both of which speak of a man who has not got mind over matter. To see India’s best fielder let the ball through his legs or called as “pregnant” on twitter is painful but I am sure Yuvi himself sees the point. Rohit Sharma has promised and delivered, but either in flashy genius – like during the finals of the VB Series in Australia (2008) or the IPLs – or with extended periods of silence. Suresh Raina’s cross-batted heaves of anything resembling short stuff is indication that the talented left-hander who elicited comparisons with Tendulkar has a long way to go before he can think of even landing a test spot. Virat Kohli seems to have the right kind of head on his young shoulders along with a great mix of caution and aggression – but it is early days in the Delhi-ite’s career. As if players’ individual woes were not enough, the selectors seem reluctant to test out those people who have displayed obvious class and consistent ability to score runs.

It has been a couple of years since Sourav Ganguly’s exit and yet the persistence with Yuvraj is incomprehensible. The flirting outside the off-stump would not just do. Subramaniam Badrinath is a batsman in the classical mould who has scored tons and tons of runs for Tamil Nadu and yet does not seem to have impressed enough. Soon, he would become another one of those best never-to-have-played Indian middle-order batsmen and he is already in the wrong side of twenties one feels. Michael Husseys are picked only in Australia. Cheteshwar Pujara, unlike the middle-aged Badri, is just 22, has been incredibly prolific (with a first-class highest of 301!) but one hopes the selectors pick him sooner than later. There is no point in shielding people or giving them runs so short that nobody, least of all the player himself, has a chance to judge talent on a commonsensical basis. Sometimes, baptism by fire is the way to go.

Dravid’s and Tendulkar’s exits are not the only worries that should challenge an Indian fan’s imagination about the country’s future in tests. Laxman may not be around too long either but even if we assume that he will be around long enough to herd a new battalion of young talent and mentor them to some degree of maturity, the bowling still leaves a lot to be desired. Zaheer Khan has been rightly the spearhead for India in the longer format over the last five years but has been injury-prone; if he asks the right questions of his body and makes the right choices – like reducing if not cutting off participatin in limited overs cricket – there is an outside chance he may play four more seasons: two to three, however, seems more like it.

Harbhajan Singh his ‘economising success’ in limited-overs for Mumbai Indians and India seems to have unfortunately taken the T20 formula too much to heart for his and as well his country’s good: you frankly cannot expect to get wickets with Yorkers in test cricket and Graeme Swann, who has been better than Muralidharan and Harbhajan over the last season and half, has reasserted the simple magic of orthodox flighted off-breaks which can break through the best batsmen's defences (if Ricky Ponting despite his weakness against off-spin is a case in point). Harbhajan is smart and knows the value of flight himself  but sadly is not able to translate his thinking into deeds! To me he has not nearly lived up to his tag India’s first spinner since Anil Kumble’s retirement. Amit Mishra has been impressive but needs a senior person at the other end to work well in tandem – again case for Harbhajan to pull up his socks. Selectors and captains should reassess their rather unstated reluctance to pick left-arm spinners as well: Pragyan Ojha has according to be been India’s best spinner in the last two seasons and his non-selection for the T20 World Cup spoke of ineptitude as big as an overblown balloon. Ojha is still young but one only hopes that his does not become the case of Murali Karthik, hardly picked in the playing XI in Ganguly’s times, which only drove him to seek a livelihood in the cold county shores of England where the railways spinner has thankfully done well for himself proving a point or two to his former skippers and the selectors.

The fast-bowling reservoir looks rich, as rich as it has in many years, on paper with Sreesanth (will he ever become more civilized and therefore more effective?), Ishanth Sharma (Ponting’s punter who has since fallen back to mortality and realized that youth is not all jolly hunting), R.P. Singh (can he get wickets only under overcast conditions?), Munaf Patel (the Asif, if not McGrath, wannabe who looks as much of an enigma to himself as to the world), Irfan Pathan (who seems to have lost his swing, his most potent weapon, and pace) and others like Umesh Yadav and Ashok Dinda heralded by the IPL: clearly India’s most potent first attack needs to comprise Harbhajan, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and one or two more. But with two of the frontline bowlers themselves reduced to containment or their limitations and India’s flank not inspiring trust based on recent performances, getting twenty wickets against top class batting may become difficult especially on good pitches. And great test teams bad decently even on green tops and bowl out teams even on insipid belters!

Ironically, the one area which the current Indian selectors need not worry themselves thin over is one which gave past captains and selectors many a nightmare: with Sehwag and Gambhir, both extraordinarily consistent at the top and many years ahead of them, and a solid Murali Vijay always doing well whenever he has filled-in, the opening combination looks settled (abstracting from the vagaries and unpredictability the game stuns the players with from time to time). Yet elsewhere Dhoni – I think he is the best skipper we have had in years and all the recent crosstalk about the team’s failure as stemming from the captain himself betrays some ordinary thinking from brains in a position of unimpeachable responsibility and can be thought of as crass gmale-gaming gobbledygook – the selectors and the aging seniors themselves have to seek the right answers, and fast.

One thing I have personally suggested for a while, at least as regards the batting line-up, is for Tendulkar and Dravid to play alternate series so: (i) one of the two slots is vacated for test by a rookie; (ii) the youngster(s) can still have the opportunity of batting with one of the two greats, learning a thing or two in the process. Either the illustrious right-handers have not thought of it themselves or may be the selectors have not quite given them cues of such a possibility or choice. I feel we are already late as far as the grooming process is concerned but it is better to start late than never. As far as the bowling goes, I only hope that those at various levels in the fringes of selection work their own graphs towards a comeback. After all, success in sport for an individual like in much else depends a lot on personal commitment, resilience and desperation to get to the top. And for those like Yuvraj who have been to the top, and let it slip, there is a lot of soul-searching and inspiration-seeking to do. But in the form of Dravid and Tendulkar, men who have each seen several downs and raged or clawed out of them with incandescent or effective ups, our disoriented youngsters have the best epitomes. One only hopes that even if Indian batting goes through a low as an immediate consequence of Tendulkar’s and Dravid’s retirement, it is not an extended one. The insurance lies in the hands of our genuinely talented, and often extravagantly touted, youth. Hope they have seen the SOS and are listening!           
            

6 comments:

vEnKy said...

My theory of Short delivery weakness is simple. In a T20 you got to hit every delivery but that is not the case when you play a test. You can leave out deliveries which you arent comfortable with. Moreover if you always bowl short the batsmen will get adjusted to it.

This short ball will work only in t20 when there is hurry for runs. We need not worry about that.

What they need to learn is pacing of the innings which is different from T20s or ODIs

Srini said...

Venky,

Agreed! But do these guys have the temperament to avoid the short ball rather than mow it like they try to in T20? And do they have the technique? If recent evidence is anything to go by, I think the answer is a huge no - which is what worries me!

Plus Indian batsmen have fallen prey to good short-pitched bowling with the exception of Dravid and Sachin (and more times than not) Laxman! Yuvraj as I said elsewhere is good against short-pitched stuff, for him the mindset is the problem.

Anyway, I really think it is time they gave guys like Badri, Pujara, Vijay and extended run. In the bowling dept. Abhimanyu Mithun has been prolific for Karnataka; he should get a nod. So should Pragyan Ojha!

vibhuthi said...

It requires putting your mind to solve the problems with rising(not short)stuff.What is not needed is flat denial of the weakness against rising balls as we have seen some of our beloved youngsters do in recent times,especially after the T20 World Cup.I'm not convinced by your idea of letting Sachin and Dravid play in alternate test series.The positive foe me is the fact that they are still playing with the same intent and are able to dominate attacks in their own inimitable fashion and win tests for India,not to forget Laxman's unparalleled contribution to our game and the sheer joy he brings with his batting.
I agree with you on Rohit Sharma,but,he is the most classy among all of the younger lot and it seems like batting comes to him naturally.
Virat Kohli has a touch of brashness to him,but seems to have a great temperament when it comes to the game,as his evident by his run in the 50 over format and just that he has grabbed all the opportunities that have come his way despite being aware that he was not first choice in the team.
Pujara has been the most prolific of all the youngsters and I would vouch for him in the test team.
Badrinath has been doing hard yards for a long time on the domestic circuit,but he was not very convincing in the way he played Steyn in the recent tests.I guess this is the problem we Indians have to face(subcontinent,in general),when we bring players nearing 30,that their reflexes are not the same as that of a 20-21 year old which is compounded by the fact that we dont have quality fast bowlers in our domestic setup.So I would rather give a talented rookie a chance.
This brings me to an enticing strokemaker called Manish Pandey.Yes,we might say that more is to be seen of him,but I am for serious talent to be thrown at the highest level at an early stage.All his 4 hundreds this Ranji season and a few more 50s came under demanding situations ,immense pressure ones even by Ranji standards and I believe we have something to see into it.
Coming to the bowlers,all of them mentioned by you,including the likes of Mithun and Yadav,are potential talents.Provide we groom them,we will have a serious bowling unit.I am very impressed with the maturity shown by Ojha.Also,Sreesanth,RP,Munaf are not lost to us.

Srini said...

Vibuthi,

Firstly, I am delighted - with the rather detailed comment. Reminds me of comments I used to write. So thanks to that! And as far as what you have said I agree with all of them in principle and most of them in spirit as well!

My idea about Rahul and Sachin playing alternate series has to do with the woeful lack of grooming we have in our middle order. May be I should fine-tune my idea: at least against the non-top oppositions they should take turns. Of course, I agree... none of us would like to see the day VVS, Rahul and Sachin are out - at their ages they are prolific but what AFTER? I am concerned about that! (As for the idea's not being convincing, it is just an idea: I am not too sure myself it it will work!)

Rohit... batting comes naturally to him but so it did to Tendulkar. Man needs to become fitter and get his head right. But yes he is classy and I would love to see him as a fixture in the Indian middle order in all formats!

Badri... how many chances have we given him? I repeatedly stress on 'long run'; I personally think Badrinath is good enough to adapt and his failings against Steyn should not be held against him (especially because he has not had a longer run in the batting line-up). That of course is entirely my opinion!

As for players nearing 30s... all I can point to is a Michael Hussey: provided the selectors are willing and the middle-aged guys have the will, I do not think 30 is a problem (more like 32 or 34 IS!)

I agree with you on Manish as well as your general argument - that big talent needs early entry at the highest level. But 'I' have yet to see Manish's technical side, so I shall leave that issue pending. But indeed, he is enticing as you called it! Yet going by your description of his performances under pressure, he is worth a go now when is at the peak of his prowess!

Ojha: big YES on that. I have been impressed with him since day 1. As for RP, I am inclined to agree. Munaf has some soul-searching to do; and Sreesanth, if he does not overdo his jig of being a 'character' is easily a 200 wicket man in tests.

Are they listening?

Govind Paliath said...

In India, the pitch is a bitch. We need pitches conducive to fast bowling, not flat dusty tracks. Once bowlers get help, batsmen too shall adjust to short pitched delivery. Of course, for that we need sensible people in charge of administration, not ignorant incompetent politicians.Then we shall become a true champion side like the aussies.(Becoming the No.1 test team for a short while while losing just about every imp intl tourney for over a decade isn't really the mark of a true champion side)

Srini said...

couldn't agree more Govind as far as your take on the pitch goes. as for the ranking, I guess it is a result of some inexplicable ICC system that nobody, arguably not even the ICC, understands. however, I think we are confusing two things when we refer to the No.1 rankings (in tests) and failure to win global tournaments (which are the turf of limited overs tournaments). that is not to say we are still undisputed no.1 in tests. as I had written elsewhere, we need to win in three places and comprehensively to show we are top notch: Sri Lanka, South Africa and Australia (probably not in that order though!)

PS: Frankly, I am unconcerned about the limited overs intls themselves. They are becoming a bit of a surfeit and frankly pointless. I only take what little bearing performances from there may have on the longer version... and the times look bleak!