By Nishad Pai Vaidya
It has been more than six months since India last played a Test series – one that saw them taste the ignominy of a 0-4 drubbing at the hands of Australia. With plenty of one-day cricket and the Indian Premier League (IPL) since that tour, the future of the Test squad was subject of intense speculation. The heat on the ageing old guard intensified and Rahul Dravid’s retirement raised more questions than presented solutions. That leaves us with the classy VVS Laxman – one whose failures in his one-time favourite territory – Australia - were alarming.
The selectors would meet on Friday, August 10, 2012, to pick the Test squad for the home series against New Zealand. India move into unfamiliar territory – one where Dravid wouldn’t walk in at the fall of the first wicket. A major talking point would be his replacement with a number of youngsters staking a claim for that spot.
In all probability, Cheteshwar Pujara should be named Dravid’s successor. The Saurashtra batsman has been a run-machine at the domestic level for a number of seasons and has also delivered for India A. Even as India’s other youngsters flattered to deceive during India A’s latest sojourn in the Caribbean, Pujara stood tall and gave ample evidence that he is a class apart. On his Test debut, Pujara walked in ahead of Dravid in the fourth innings and scripted a knock that set up a victory. That was probably the first indication that the Indian think-tank were looking at Pujara to fill into Dravid’s shoes in the future.
Pujara didn’t get the opportunity to cement his spot as he picked up an injury last year that kept him out for a long time. His returns in the Caribbean are encouraging signs and he should be drafted into the squad. Not only is he technically correct, but he also has a sound temperament – something that would hold him in good stead as he attempts to carve out a long international career. Off the younger lot, he isn’t too flamboyant and has kept a fair distance from the media glare. It is time, he gets his rightful due at the highest level as years of hard work and consistency merits the India cap.
Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane may be other contenders for Dravid’s spot, but Pujara beats them by some distance. Rohit’s failures in Sri Lanka may be at the back of the selectors mind, but one mustn’t forget that he was in India’s plans during the Test series in Australia. Can the selectors draw a line between his struggles in one-day cricket and long term Test prospects? In the current scenario it seems difficult, but it would be an inspired call if the selectors keep him in the squad. Rahane may have to wait for his opportunities even though he has been impressive. His failures in the Caribbean may work against him and he may have to record another good season for Mumbai to get back into the scheme of things.
Question mark over VVS Laxman’s future
The most intriguing question is: Would Laxman hold on to his spot in the team? The likes of Rohit and Rahane may be pushing a case to replace him due to the age factor. Playing an ageing Laxman in a team that is looking to rebuild may not make complete sense. He isn’t the quickest on the field and his recent performances to do help his case. Rahane and Rohit’s performances in the Caribbean don’t inspire much either, but they are the future of Indian cricket. After innumerable Houdini Acts, one cannot expect more from Laxman and perhaps it may be time – sooner rather than later. However, with all the emotions attached, the selectors may want to give him another go and allow him the opportunity to play another Test at his home-ground – Hyderabad.
Yuvraj Singh in focus
While the selectors would try to tackle these questions, there would be another development that would eclipse the announcement of the Test squad. The wise men of Indian cricket would also pick the 15-member squad for the ICC World T20 2012. Yuvraj Singh’s fate would grab all the attention – whether he makes the cut or not.
The performance during the 2011 World Cup has endeared Yuvraj to the masses even more and his subsequent battle with cancer raised his popularity. He has become an inspirational figure – one whose aura would magnify the moment he dons the India jersey again. It would be a remarkable story when he returns to the Indian team, but we must ask the question: Wouldn’t selecting him for the World T20 be a bit rushed?
There were reports that Yuvraj may be picked and the selectors would base their final decision on a fitness report from the National Cricket Academy (NCA). As it later turned out, he got the green signal, but can the selectors base their decision on mere emotions? Here is a man who is loved by the country for the inspiring tale that unfolded over the last year. He hasn’t played any competitive cricket since last year, barring a few practice games in the recent past. Is that enough to earn him a berth? The selectors certainly need to have another look.
It is imperative that Yuvraj’s return is timed perfectly and that he is in prime condition to play. The whole country wants to see him back and wouldn’t want a comeback where he struggles. However, Yuvraj is known for his tremendous grit and fighting spirit. If he is named in the squad, one cannot rule out a brilliant showing at the World T20. That would be the ultimate fairy-tale.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)