The long dreaded moment finally on Thursday when India went into a Test match without Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in their ranks.. Arunabha Sengupta takes a look at the Indian batting line up and wonders about the best combinations for now and the future.
The past six months have witnessed two of the greatest names of Indian middle-order riding into the sunset. Right now, their fantastic careers flash by in front of our eyes – leaving us marvelling at the divine sparks that they kindled through the last 16 years.
However, as The Beatles put it, “Life goes on within you and without you.”
The barrage of eulogies will abate far sooner than the long careers of the fantastic pair. Both Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman will settle down nobly as ex-cricketers. That is good. In Indian cricket, the tribe of past players needs to be bolstered by the dignity of the duo far more urgently than any middle-order requiring their class.
And at the other end, Indian cricket cannot afford to stay mourning by the epitaphs.
Thursday will see them taking the first tentative step into the future where no Wall stands shielding them from foreign attacks, and no artist paints masterpieces as bullets and bombshells rip the canvas.
Forget the batting, can one even imagine what the slip cordon will look like?
Remembering and rebuilding
There is the eternal flame of Sachin Tendulkar that continues to light up the horizon. But, apart from that, the middle-order suddenly looks like the post 9/11 Manhattan skyline – the twin towers erased, with only the great edifice representing the Empire State of a glorious past still rising to the occasion.
However, New York City has continued to remember, but not forgotten to rebuild. The onus is on Indian cricket to do the same.
Around the monolithic presence of Tendulkar, there are promising blueprints which are yet to become skyscrapers in their own rights.
The stature of Virat Kohli has grown with exceptional success in overs-limit cricket, but his century at Adelaide was just the foundation stone of what may yet turn out to be a phenomenal structure in Test matches.
Cheteshwar Pujara has demonstrated maturity and temperament in First-class cricket, has batted encouragingly for India A, but his claim to fame at the highest level is still the second innings 72 against Australia at Bangalore, a brilliant effort, the like of which he was not able to reproduce in the more demanding conditions of South Africa.
Along with these excellent building blocks, India has been given a rather safe passage from the darkness of loss to the future of light – paved with home pitches in a succession of Tests. It is a great opportunity for successful change management without the all-encompassing challenges of a difficult overseas tour. The opponent to start against is also a rather amiable New Zealand without Daniel Vettori, an appropriate answer to the prayers of a batting line-up about to be rebuilt.
Sehwag in the middle?
While there is a surfeit of runs and Tests at the top of the order with Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir established as one of the senior-most opening combinations in world cricket, the middle order, apart from Tendulkar, does look woefully shorn of experience.
In recent times, however, Sehwag’s hand-eye coordination has been raising increasingly uncomfortable questions.
This situation leads one to wonder whether it might not be doubly optimal to start the innings with Gambhir while blooding the classy Ajinkya Rahane at the other end.
This can enable Sehwag to come in at No 5 and fill the freshly-created vacuum in the middle with his 96 Test experience. With the meat of Tendulkar and Sehwag’s runs sandwiched between the wafer thin experience of Pujara and Kohli, the transition to the post Dravid-Laxman era can indeed be made more palatable.
Unfortunately, that will mean the hardworking Subramaniam Badrinath missing out, but it does seem rather near-sighted to opt for a 32-year old an investment for the future.
Touring may not be that complicated
Once the home Tests are through, there will always be the phenomenal pressure of touring distant foreign lands without the insurance of Dravid and Laxman in the line-up. However, careful demystification of records – battling against the current mental state of accolades and adulation – does indicate that the efforts of the duo can be aimed at if not matched.
Apart from the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, the other middle order men have not really set stadiums on fire by blazing away uniformly around the world.
For all the exploits of Dravid in England and Pakistan, and Laxman in Australia and Sri Lanka, there are barren patches in countries which have not exactly been greenest pastures. It may be a surprise to know that Dravid scored at 29.71 in South Africa, 33.10 in Sri Lanka and a not too flattering 41.64 in Australia. Likewise, Laxman has ended with 34.47 in England, 37.42 in Pakistan and just managed to squeeze past 40 in New Zealand.
While most of their feats are difficult to live up to, the above is indeed a sign that their accomplishments are, after all, mortal. It may indeed be difficult to tour without them, but not impossible.
The home Tests can definitely be looked at as an opportunity to form a nucleus for the future, arriving at the right mix of youth and experience by the time we tour again.
Passing the torch
There are few historic parallels that can be drawn to the trinity of Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar.
When Everton Weekes had called it a day and Clyde Walcott had persisted for only two Tests after that, Frank Worrell had carried on till the young guns of that era, Gary Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, could set up a new world order.
In India, Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath had played their last Tests in successive years, ending their Test careers in very different circumstances. Dilip Vengsarkar had continued after that, sometimes stumbling along the final stages, before Mohammad Azharuddin had been joined in the middle by the young Sachin Tendulkar.
Now, as India prepares to take their first step in Test cricket with the huge shoes of Dravid and Laxman strapped on unfamiliar feet, one hopes Tendulkar can carry on long enough for the Pujaras, Kohlis and Rahanes emerge as the new generation of champion Indian batsmen.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)