Indian cricket's big headache: Where's the talent on the bench?

Having lost two Tests in a row for the first time since 2000, India’s selectors decided to ring the changes for the final Test against England in Nagpur. Out went Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh. In came Delhi fast bowler Parvinder Awana, Saurashtra allrounder Ravindra Jadeja and legspinner Piyush Chawla.

Awana and Jadeja, both of whom earned their first call-ups, are like-for-like replacements while Chawla is there presumably to exploit England’s weakness against legspin. The larger question though is why these three in particular have been picked. The answer points to a lack of options in first-class cricket, something Rahul Dravid explicitly stated in an interview on the BBC’s Test Match Special.

Ravindra Jadeja has been called-up to India's Test team for the first time. AFP

“People talk about attitude and say (the players) don’t care because there is too much money in the Indian Premier League,” Dravid said, adding ''That’s one side of things but the main thing is their lack of skill and ability, which is more worrying for me. It raises questions as to the talent and quality of players coming through.”

Jadeja has scored three first-class triple-hundreds in the last two seasons and therefore merits consideration but what about Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary and even S Badrinath? Sharma was deemed good enough to go on tour to Australia where he didn’t play in the Tests, but struggled in the ODIs. His poor form has followed him in Ranji Trophy so far. Tiwary made a century in his last ODI for India, and had been picked for the T20s (before he hurt his back), but can’t break into the squad in Tests despite making runs in Ranji Trophy. Badrinath is now the wrong side of 30 and so has probably missed out permanently.

Meanwhile, Awana hasn’t even been a regular selection for the India A side: He was overlooked for the tour of the West Indies before an injury to RP Singh allowed him to play one game. He then missed out on the A tour to New Zealand but was picked for the match against England at Brabourne Stadium, where he went wicketless. Awana does have good figures this season though - 21 wickets at an average of 21.57 - which provides some rationale for his selection.

Chawla’s selection is the most puzzling. His bowling averages over the last three first-class seasons are 48.33, 40.61 and 41.04. Amit Mishra has better numbers, but they are not exceptional either.

Raja Venkat, who was a national selector from 2008 to 2012, told Firstpost that there is a worrying lack of Test talent in first-class cricket. “From 2008 to 2011, it took three years to find a replacement for Ganguly [in Virat Kohli]. In 2012, India were hit harder by the loss of Dravid and Laxman.

“[Cheteshwar] Pujara has come in and looked good in two games. He looks like he can play the longer format. Apart from him, there is nobody. The bench is absolutely empty. There is nobody on the bench. Batsmen, fast bowlers, spinners; there is nobody.”

According to Venkat, one of the main causes for the decline in the standard of first-class cricket in India is the rise of Twenty20 cricket. “T20 has spoiled the game,” Venkat told Firstpost. “Spinners can’t flight the ball. Medium pace is about containment. Batsmen make a quick 30 and everybody talks about how well they did.”

He tells a story he heard from Sandeep Patil (now the head of selectors but who was then running the National Cricket Academy), of a 14-year-old boy from Uttar Pradesh who was at the academy for a coaching clinic. When asked what he wanted to do with his career, the boy said he wanted to sign a contract with a franchise and play in the IPL. Only after that did the boy mention playing for his state and maybe his country. It took a visit from Rahul Dravid, who exhorted the virtues of Test cricket, to change the boy’s mind.

The answer, Venkat said, was to find a balance between the formats. And it was imperative that players only played the longer format in their formative years. That way they develop the necessary skills that will make them complete cricketers, rather than being able to hide their flaws when only called upon to bowl four overs or bat for an hour.

He also felt that this was the wrong time for Sachin Tendulkar to retire as India needed his experience since it would take a year or two to rebuild the team. “Leave Tendulkar alone for six months and the Virats of the world, the Pujaras of the world, can develop around him.”