Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara
By beating the West Indies at Kanpur on Wednesday, Team India notched up their 6th consecutive ODI series win this year. With wins against England, Australia and the coveted Champions Trophy in their kitty, there’s much excitement in the media that this might just be the start of Indian cricket’s next golden generation. While India embarks on a journey that marks the beginning of this new generation, I’d say it is best advisable to keep the praises hanging, atleast till Kingsmead is conquered.
The signs have been promising no doubt: after Jadeja, Ganguly and Dravid did it in 1999, for the first time in 14 years; we have three Indian batsmen who have scored thousand runs or more in a calendar year. The way India’s top (these) three have stamped their authority in one-day cricket has been commendable to say the least. Shikhar Dhawan has made the most of his second coming, bludgeoning his way to multiple hundreds, both at home and away.
Dhawan’s batting partner, Rohit Sharma has begun fulfilling the enormous talent that he has had all this while – scoring a double hundred in ODIs and consecutive hundreds in one’s debut Test series is no mean task. Virat Kohli on the other hand, has not only equaled Sir Viv’s record but has batted his way to those runs in a style that would make the West Indian proud.
If consistency was to be a metric, by the sheer effortless manner in which Kohli has repeatedly gone about accumulating runs, makes him stand out from the rest of the lot. With the ball, Mohammad Shami has made a dream debut, reminding us of Javagal Srinath in his prime. Along with Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, he has given Team India, hopes of a potent fast bowling attack that can take wickets, both with the new and the old ball. Like I said, it’s surely a time to celebrate for Indian cricket is on a high but let’s not look too far ahead and declare this team as future dominators of world cricket in both forms.
There are pertinent questions that need to be answered for us to believe that the post-Tendulkar era would be as wonderful as the era gone by.
Firstly, most of these victories have come about in known conditions. Barring the tri-series in the West Indies and the one-day series against Zimbabwe, it’d be hard to point out one such competition where the conditions weren’t favoring the Men in Blue. Even if you take the Champions Trophy in England as a case in point, the pitches played nothing like they did when India toured England in 2011. They were low, at times on the slower side and were consistently supporting spin.
Not discrediting the way Indian batsmen went about with their job, but the conditions almost blatantly favored them during the Champions Trophy in 2013. For any team to dream about dominating world cricket like the West Indies of the 80s did or the Australia of the early 2000s did, it’s imperative to overcome challenging conditions. And I wouldn’t count spin-friendly pitches of the subcontinent as a challenge, purely because Indian batsmen grow up on such pitches and playing spin becomes something of a habit to them.
It will be very interesting to see how Indians cope to the bounce that they will encounter in pitches like Kingsmead and Perth (where they will be playing a couple of their World Cup games in 2015). Similarly, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan’s real test will be when they have Johnson bowling into their rib cage at nearly ninety miles per hour.
Playing and championing alien conditions is something that Indian cricketers did very well in the 2000s, which set a higher standard for the current lot. The team batted first on a green top at Leeds (2002) and won, it also went onto repeat such acts under trying circumstances in Johannesburg (2006), Trent Bridge (2007), Perth (2007) and Durban (2010), to name a few. But back then, the middle order was very different than what it is today. There were players who had reached their cricketing peak by playing some of the best bowlers of their generation: McGrath, Akram, Donald, Pollock and Walsh did not bowl lollies and neither were the matches played on grounds where 360 runs in a one-day innings was un-defendable.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India, in its capacity has done all the right things in order to answer this critical question. ‘A’ team tours have been organized over the years to England, West Indies, Australia and South Africa, in a bid to acclimatize the next-gen to the hostile conditions. If one remembers clearly, Abhinav Mukund was a runaway success during the 2010 India-A team tour to England during the summers. A year later, when given the task of opening the Indian batting during the English tour, he failed to provide any meaningful contribution whatsoever. So how much these A-tours hold the youngsters in good stead is something that is yet to be seen.
Secondly, India’s bench strength in Tests and ODIs seem slightly less rosy after all. With the retirements of the three batting stalwarts in a matter of two years and the diminishing form of seniors like Yuvraj, Sehwag and Gambhir, Indian cricket has landed up in a situation where Ambati Rayadu gets a ticket to South Africa without having done anything great in whites for his state. If one does consider first-class record as a criteria for selection into the Indian test team, the Ranji records over the last two years doesn’t pop up a single name that can generate enough buzz for a place in the team, by numbers alone. It’s either going back to the old warhorses like Jaffer, Mazumdar and Badrinath or placing your money on lesser knowns like Jiwanjot Singh, Robin Bist and Aditya Tare.
When it comes to ODIs, there hangs a question mark on how well Jadeja and Raina can perform in Australia in 2015. And in that scenario, with the World Cup being a little more than a year away, any replacement would not be the most experienced around. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, Dhoni had insisted on having a pool of twenty cricketers who have played atleast fifty matches; it’s hard to identify a similar pool currently.
The bowling looks slightly better with a leaner albeit older Zaheer Khan back, and with Shami, Bhuvaneshwar, Unadkat, Umesh, Mohit, Ojha, Ashwin and Mishra around. The hot and cold, Ishant Sharma continues to hover around the Indian set-up, while the domestic circuit promises you the likes of Ishwar Pandey, Sandeep Sharma and Rishi Dhawan.
And finally, leadership happens to be most critical at present for the healthy future of Indian cricket. Yes, Kohli is seen to be a likely candidate, once MS Dhoni steps aside and yes, he symbolizes the new brand of Indian cricket. But are we willing to burden our most successful cricketer (on current form), with the responsibility of captaincy?
Surely, someone must be talking about MS Dhoni’s workload – squatting for days together with a dodgy back, taped fingers, ageing muscles and an enormously hectic cricket schedule, MS Dhoni’s life isn’t easy at present. In the likely scenario of a burnout, we do not have the experience to fall back on. God forbid, with Gambhir and Yuvraj being far off mainstays in the Indian batting lineup, if Dhoni crashes before 2015, it will be a problem too big to handle.
Way back in 2000, when five honest gentlemen decided to lift Indian cricket from its lowest ebb, there were a lot of aspersions that were cast around whether they would eventually manage to achieve their goal or not. They did manage to and managed it so well that at the turn of this New Year; one can’t stop cherishing the glories of Kolkata, Adelaide and Lord’s. At the same time, there’s a burning hope, that ten years down the line, the fan who left the stadium after Tendulkar got out in his last Test, deeply regrets missing out on watching Pujara – Kohli bat live that day.