Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman – three examples of batsmen who were transformed into world class players by an Australian summer. However, myopic thinking by the Indian management has prevented Rohit Sharma from benefitting from the rich experience – writes Arunabha Sengupta.
Lessons from history
Season 1977-78. India was battling in Australia, engaged in a hard-fought series. True, a number of the superstars of the home side were busy turning out under the banner of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, but the pace attack led by Jeff Thomson retained a lot of its edge.
One Indian batsman, floating up and down the order, was trying hard to establish a toehold in the team. The record books did nothing to back his claims. The six Tests since his debut, stretching across three series and three continents, had fetched a paltry 152 runs at 15.20 with a highest of 39. He was unsure of his role, sometimes sent in to open the innings, and sometimes asked to bat at No 3, No 5 or No 6. He had courageously stood up to the intimidating, near Bodyline, attack at Kingston, but back home, had been struck on the hand by Bob Willis. His technique against pace and temperament in Test matches were both under scrutiny.
Through the five Tests in Australia, he put his head down and fought tooth and nail. The end results were not spectacular, 320 runs at 35.55 with one half century was just about decent. However, the transformation was well underway. In the next two years, Dilip Vengsarkar played 20 Tests scoring1542 runs at 45.35 with five centuries and nine fifties, and for the next decade and more became one of the bulwarks of Indian batting.
During the final Test series of Vengsarkar, in 1991-92, there was another young middle-order batsman, who till then had scored just 588 runs at an average of 39 in 11 Tests with a solitary hundred. By the time the five nightmarish Tests in Australia were over, this teenager had metamorphosed into a leading batsman of the world. Sachin Tendulkar still bats on as the highest run getter in the history of the game with 51 Test hundreds to his credit.
In a disastrous tour that followed eight years down the line, yet another talented batsman was in the same plight as Vengsarkar. In a career interrupted by selectorial whims, and similarly made to bat right at the top and way down in the lower middle order, VVS Laxman had managed 579 runs in 14 Tests with an average in the mid 20s and had no hundred to show for his efforts. He struggled all through the series against one of the best Australian attacks ever fielded, before suddenly reversing the flow of events and resurrecting his career with an esoteric 167 in Sydney. Fourteen months later he was playing the best-ever innings ever seen on Indian soil, rewriting the course of the county’s cricket chronicles with a 281 at the Eden Gardens.
An Australian tour has always been an enormously educating experience for a new batsman, and the ones who have been part of a touring side early in their career, like Vengsarkar, Tendulkar and Laxman, have reaped the rewards by building on the lessons learnt in the trying conditions.
It does not matter whether one sets the grounds around the continent on fire. Only the genius of Tendulkar managed such monumental feats during his first visit as a young, inexperienced greenhorn. Vengsarkar, in fact, never managed a century in four full visits. But, a youthful batsman, brimming with talent and class, fielded in the hostile conditions and given a decent run always stands more than an even chance of coming out of the ordeal forged into a stronger performer, the creases in technique and temperament ironed out by the stinging heat of cricket played the hard way.
When India were 0-2 down after the Sydney Test, we had written about bringing in Rohit Sharma and resting Laxman. The situation was crying out for change, with nothing whatsoever to lose. It was a tailor-made moment to invoke the mystery injury clause of the Indian cricket selector’s handbook. Two gruelling Test matches might have seen young Rohit look flummoxed, all at sea – battling the demons of pace and pitch as well as self-doubt. It might have very well been baptism by fire. However, odds are that he would have emerged a better batsman, an investment for the future whose stocks had just climbed with the assets of invaluable experience. And at the other end of the spectrum was the happy chance of his coming good during the tour itself, perhaps the best that could have happened to Indian cricket.
Sadly, the Indian think tank missed the trick. They continued to face the debacles in batting without even shuffling the line-up, let alone change it. Laxman’s magnificent career had to plunge into a mire of misery in the final stretch as the finish line continued to be pushed back. Rohit Sharma kept carrying the drinks, running in with bats and messages for the ones in the middle, becoming a seasoned traveller, an admirable errand-boy but his cricketing experience remained stagnant.
The 0-4 scoreline is bad enough, but perhaps underneath the disastrous results lie tales of such myopic decision making which may have put further fetters on the side as they try to limp to recovery.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)