Eight years ago, after India nudged Steve Waugh towards the precipice in his farewell Test before settling for a draw, the inimitable Matthew Engel wrote in The Guardian: "There are bright new stars twinkling in cricket. A remarkable constellation of them can be seen with the naked eye in the Indian middle order-Rahul Dravid, man of the series, Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. It seems now they might be lighting Test cricket for years to come."
They did too, taking India to the pinnacle of the game over the course of the decade. But when they returned to the land of the Southern Cross this winter for one last attempt to storm the ramparts, a nation watched in shock and dismay. A reconstituted and vibrant Australian side extinguished the lights.
There's a school of thought that says the Indian adoration of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman verges on the mawkish. But while sentiment no doubt colours perceptions of their decline, what is undeniable is the impact they've had on the fortunes of a team that had never enjoyed anything more than sporadic success.
Consider this: Before Laxman made his debut in November 1996, India had played 299 Tests, winning 55 and losing as many as 98. In the years since, 163 games have produced 57 wins and 49 defeats, numbers that would have been much more impressive, but for the disintegration in England and Australia.
In the Tests that they played together, the trinity hit 67 centuries, most of them central to victories in a decade when Indian cricket went a long way towards shedding the hapless-tourists tag. Worryingly now, those days are upon us again, with a crumbling batting line-up showing all the frailties once associated with Indian cricket on the road.
Where do we go from here? Establishing a succession plan is crucial to the renewal process. Regardless of when Tendulkar, Dravid or Laxman bow out, the replacements need to be identified and given enough time to feel that they belong.
With M.S. Dhoni's Test captaincy credentials now being questioned by experts and layman alike, it's equally important to assess the leadership qualities of others. Vice-Captain Virender Sehwag is being mentioned in some circles, but it makes little sense to give the job to someone who, at 33, is three years older than the current incumbent. Sehwag has also done little in recent months to suggest that he should be entrusted with the responsibility in the five-day game.
A few months ago, the obvious choice would have been Gautam Gambhir, 30, but a poor run of form, allied with recent churlish comments about home advantage, hasn't advanced his cause. With Virat Kohli, 23, who led the Under-19 side with distinction, just establishing himself in the side though, Gambhir would be the best alternative if change was mooted. Whatever happens, a change at the top of the order is inevitable. Gambhir and Sehwag have been anything but productive in the past 12 months, and Sehwag has expressed the desire to move to the middle order once a slot opens up. At number six, against a softer old ball, he has the potential to be as devastating as he has been against the new one. It shouldn't be forgotten that his century on debut, at Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 2001, came at number six.
There are several candidates to partner Gambhir. Mumbai opener Ajinkya Rahane, 23, is one, and a first-class average of 68.47 suggests that he can make a mark. When tried in the limited-overs side in England, he unveiled a few eye-catching cameos, though those who have watched his progress attest to the fact that his strength is the long form of the game.
The middle order is a team's heart, and it stopped beating in Australia. Each spot demands special skills and players must be given the opportunities. The modern-day number three is one who can be the fulcrum of an innings, while also being able to score rapidly. Kohli has done the job quite well in one-day cricket and coming off a strong finish to the Tests in Australia, he would fancy his chances of making the role his own.
Whoever replaces Tendulkar at number four in the long run needs to have exceptional stroke-making skills. It isn't just Ian Chappell who thinks Mumbai's Rohit Sharma, 24, is the most talented young Indian batsman around. The ability has never been doubted. The commitment to excel has, and it cost him a World Cup place last year. Since then, however, he has seized every chance that's come his way in one-day cricket. Delaying his entry into the Test side will only set Indian cricket back. The other pivotal position is number six, from where Laxman launched many an epic rearguard action. Batting with the lower order is one of the most difficult skills to master. On the one hand, you need to shield them from ferocious spells of bowling. On the other, you need to give them the confidence to play their own game, as Laxman did so well with Ishant Sharma, 23, at Mohali in October 2010. Performing this role requires composure, and Saurashtra middle-order batsman Cheteshwar Pujara, 24, showed that in his debut Test against Australia 15 months ago.
At number five, you ideally want another left-hander. If Yuvraj Singh recovers in time for the start of the next Indian season, he should be given a final opportunity to make the spot his own. If not, Uttar Pradesh left-hand batsman Suresh Raina, 25, is more than eager to redeem himself. Raina's woes against the short ball have been extensively documented, but better players than him have had to surmount such hurdles in the past. Raina adds much to India's fielding effort and no one has ever questioned his capacity for hard work.
Another interesting option is Tamil Nadu opener Abhinav Mukund, 22. Exposed badly in English conditions, he's another player with an outstanding domestic record. A couple of series in conditions that he's familiar with could well be the making of him.
One of the few consolations apart from Kohli during the Australian debacle was the wicketkeeping of Wriddhiman Saha, 27. In a difficult situation, he showed that he could handle a bat as well. Should Dhoni take a break at some point in the future, there's little doubt that Saha should be the man entrusted with the big gloves.
Even as Harbhajan Singh bides his time for a comeback, the selectors need to persist with right-arm offbreak bowler R. Ashwin, 25. His figures in Australia-nine wickets at 62.77-don't make for happy reading, but you only need to see how the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka struggled there (12 wickets in five Tests at 75.41) to realise what a difficult tour it can be for an off-spinner. In favourable conditions at home, Ashwin deserves the chance to show that he can lead India's spin attack.
Things are a lot more fluid when it comes to pace bowling. Zaheer Khan, made it through the Test leg in Australia for the first time, but he is another with few miles left on the clock. Ishant Sharma hasn't progressed as hoped, while Umesh Yadav, 24, came out of the Australian misadventure with a little credit. He and Varun Aaron, 22, need to be told to focus on bowling fast, with Praveen Kumar, 25, or Irfan Pathan, 27, providing a swing-bowling option when required.
Most of all, though, expectations need to be toned down. There are likely to be more blips before things get better and turning down young hopefuls will get Indian cricket nowhere.
It took Laxman as many as 20 games to find his feet in Test cricket. Those who succeed him need the same kind of indulgence.
- Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief, Wisden India
Reproduced From India Today. © 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.