Mount Maunganui: In most other eras, or for any other country, Padmakar Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel would have been a rage in international cricket. They would have teased and tormented batsmen in Test cricket, much as they did in the Ranji Trophy. Shivalkar finished his illustrious career with 589 wickets from 124 first-class matches, Goel with an even more mind-numbing 750 scalps from 157 games.
And yet… neither left-arm spinner, every bit as crafty and full of spine-tingling guile as those exceptional numbers suggest, could play a single Test. Their awesome work in domestic cricket, often a sure-shot recipe for a ticket to the next level, wasn’t enough to shake up the established order. And when that established order answered to the names of Bishan Singh Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkatraghavan, no amount of shaking seemed sufficient.
Since the 1990s, for a decade or so, a generation of middle-order batsmen found their pathway to international cricket blocked by the barn-door presence of messers Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. Again, like in the case of the famed spin quartet, this foursome held its own through the sheer quantum of runs, weight of performances, so much so that Virender Sehwag, essentially a middle-order batsman, had to be accommodated in the unfamiliar role of an opener because he was too good to not be playing for the country.
With the middle-order core, Sehwag formed the golden generation of Indian batting which entertained and wowed audiences across the globe. With perhaps greater support from an unsettled fast-bowling department, they should have had more victories overseas. Now that India have a fantastic pace bowling machinery with the inimitable Jasprit Bumrah as the spearhead, those wins are coming at a far more frequent clip, evidenced by India’s firm grip on the No. 1 Test ranking.
Today’s Indian batting line-up doesn’t quite carry the same aura as Sehwag-Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman-Ganguly. Virat Kohli is the indisputable lynchpin, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are mostly his comrades in arms though occasionally, for reasons best known to those making the decisions, even these virtuosos have cooled their heels in overseas Tests. Rohit Sharma is reasserting his Test credentials since reprising his limited-overs avatar in the longer format too, as an opener ala Sehwag. Mayank Agarwal, who served a long apprenticeship in domestic cricket and only finally smashed the door to selection 13 months after hammering 1,000 first-class runs in a single month, is but nine matches old to things. Hanuma Vihari has hardly put a foot wrong since making a surprise Test debut in England a year and a half back, yet is the first head on the chopping block when the team goes in with five specialist bowlers.
Prithvi Shaw is recently back in the fray, a year and a quarter after slamming a century on debut in Rajkot against West Indies and playing just one immediate Test thereafter. KL Rahul, in extraordinary white-ball touch, can’t break into the squad even in the injury-enforced absence of Rohit. And Shubman Gill, scoring hundreds and double-hundreds for India 'A' for fun more than practice, is a long way away from sniffing a place in the Test eleven. Shreyas Iyer, well entrenched in the white-ball teams, is superfluous at the moment to the Test squad. And Rishabh Pant, with overseas hundreds in England and Australia, has to wait for an injury for Wriddhiman Saha if he is to fancy a Test comeback. So, is this the new golden generation of Indian batting?
Maybe they will evolve thus, but for now, the Agarwals and the Shaws and the Viharis and the Gills are still in the fledgling category. Rohit and Rahul, vastly more experienced, have had chequered careers, as have Pujara and Rahane, who have been oscillating between the sublime and the ordinary for a while now. Only Kohli has held the torch aloft, his record across countries and on pitches of all nature a manifestation not just of his abilities but also his adaptability, his powers of concentration, his insatiable hunger and his unmatched fitness.
The Who’s Who of current Indian Test batting – surely, it’s only a matter of time before Rahul surges back into contention – is a delectable mix of the old-fashioned and the modern, of the staid and the flamboyant, of the grinders and the dashers, of the young and those not-so. Beyond Kohli, it has yet to attain intimidation levels of its illustrious predecessors. That’s probably because many are still in the nascent stages of what could segue into uber-fruitful careers where value is apportioned not on the basis of runs scored and averages achieved, but on the impact and value of those runs.
Behind this influential lot is a chasing pack chomping at the bit, busy trying to hammer away within the selectors’ earshot, aware that a Test cap isn’t as far-fetched a dream as it once used to be. Given how much cricket is played these days, and therefore how much scope there is for burn-out, injuries, wear-and-tear or simple loss of form because there just isn’t enough time to take a break from the action and focus on sorting out bad habits, slots will inevitably open up now and again. It’s this opportunity – for that’s what one man’s adversity is to another – that the next lot is eyeing with gluttonous intent.
The introduction of the Plate division in the Ranji Trophy offers a skewed picture of where the future of Indian batting is at the moment. With no disrespect, former Haryana batsman Rahul Dalal’s 1,295 runs so far this season for Arunachal Pradesh, or former India Under-19 star Taruwar Kohli’s 930 runs for Mizoram shouldn’t be viewed through the same prism as Sarfaraz Khan’s 745 for Mumbai or Mandeep Singh’s 650 for Punjab. And if some of the usual suspects don’t figure prominently in the Ranji run-getters’ list, it’s because they have been busy with India 'A' duties.
Ruturaj Gaikwad, for instance. Or Priyank Panchal. The former, 23, the latter a more wisened 29, their Ranji seasons sandwiching a long trip to New Zealand, Gaikwad for the 50-over leg and Panchal for the first four-day game before making way for the likes of Rahane and Pujara, eager for a taste of the conditions before the Test series. Gaikwad is but 20 matches old, but clearly has presented his credentials. Panchal might suspect time has passed him by, but an average of 46.81 from 95 matches might earn him a surprise reward, like Shahbaz Nadeem’s longevity and perseverance did during the Ranchi Test against South Africa last October.
Then, there is Abhimanyu Easwaran, still only 24 but already into his seventh season of first-class cricket. He has fallen on tough times after starting the season with a lovely century in the Duleep Trophy final, probably shackled by the cares of the Bengal captaincy. But he has pedigree and age on his side, just like Sarfaraz who seems to have found a second wind since making the trek back to Mumbai after his brief misadventure with Uttar Pradesh.
Still at it and keeping the young ones on their toes are former internationals Manoj Tiwary, who has an ODI century and recently made a triple-hundred for Bengal; and Abhinav Mukund, the Tamil Nadu opener who went past 10,000 first-class runs having just celebrated his 30th birthday. And we are not even factoring in Karun Nair, who made an unexpected Test triple-century three years ago but around whose neck the milestone is now hanging heavy like a millstone.
A couple of young top-order left-handers are rapidly making a case for themselves. This has been a breakthrough year for Devdutt Padikkal, a member of the Under-19 World Cup-winning team of 2018, who has been prolific across formats for Karnataka and isn’t far away from making it to the next level – India 'A'. Yashasvi Jaiswal, named the Player of the Tournament at U-19 World Cup for his 400 runs, has already caught the eye of the aficionados with his exploits for the senior Mumbai team in white-ball cricket, and his national captain Priyam Garg is an established cog in the Uttar Pradesh wheel. Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, Iyer, Rahul, Agarwal and Shaw are all gifts of the Under-19 system. Who’s to say that Padikkal, Jaiswal and Garg will not emulate their seniors?
This embarrassment of riches isn’t an accidental offshoot of an optimistic project. Instead, it’s a tribute to the system which enhances exposure not just through a plethora of matches domestically across age-groups, but also through international games for the U19s to go with more frequent and well-planned India 'A' tours. Dravid’s hand in the development of almost every player who has broken into the Test ranks in the last four years is significant and well chronicled; the coaching network, steered by his philosophy, encourages individuality while suggesting subtle technical changes to go with greater situational awareness and the ability to think for oneself. The feeder system doesn’t believe in spoon-feeding. Empowered to make their own decisions, these youngsters are attracted as much by the magnetic pull of red-ball cricket as by the moolah of the franchise-driven IPL. In that development alone lies the hope of Indian batting continuing to burn bright in time to come.
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At the end of the Test, Australia head coach Justin Langer said never ever ever underestimate Indians. That is what Australians learnt. But there is something more Indians taught. That in life or sports, never ever ever overestimate your opponent either. Believe.
After five days of intense Test cricket, the two teams cannot be separated as India pull off something similar to a heist, if the term can be applied in the context of a draw. Five days of facing Smith and Labuschagne’s brilliance with the bat, the pace trio and Lyon bowling as sharply as ever and some hostilities from the crowd, in addition to the spate of injuries and the absence of their talismanic regular captain. If the Gill-Rohit opening stand gave the early impetus, it was the surreal counter-attack by Pant and Pujara that truly turned things around today, with Vihari and Ashwin’s stonewalling efforts in the end while battling physical discomfort the cherry on the cake.India will look to carry the momentum over to the Gabba, a venue that is considered Australia’s fortress, with the series still level 1-1. Given the way Rahane and Co have fought back after the 36 all out debacle, they’ll certainly hope to end the tour on a high. For now, it’s time for me to sign off on behalf of my colleague Shubham!
The three-wicket win at the Gabba on the final day meant that India have won an unprecedented back-to-back Test series victory Down Under.