Abhinav Mukund (L) and Murali Vijay have one last chance to prove themselves in the ongoing tour of the West Indies after failing to give India meaningful starts in the first two Tests © AFP
Abhinav Mukund (L) and Murali Vijay have one last chance to prove themselves in the ongoing tour of the West Indies after failing to give India meaningful starts in the first two Tests © AFP


By Dileep V


While Indian cricket is richly endowed with quality middle-order batsmen in the bench, the ongoing tour of West Indies painfully underlined disturbing reserves in two key areas: the opening slot and wicket-keeping. While the likes of Suresh Raina, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Subramaniam Badrinath are vying for a single spot in the middle order, there are gaping holes in opening and wicket-keeping slots.


Injuries to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir meant India were forced to look out for alternatives for the West Indies Test series. But the early promise Murali Vijay showed has been nothing more than a flash in the pan so far – his 11 Tests – before the ongoing third Test – and 18 outings have fetched him 560 runs, almost half the runs coming from two good knocks. The inconsistency is glaring.


Abhinav Mukund, the left-handed Tamil Nadu opener, was selected on the back of some impressive domestic performance – hundreds on Ranji Trophy and Irani Trophy debuts, triple-century before his 20th birthday and a quadruple-century opening stand with Vijay.


While Vijay failed in first and second Tests in the Caribbean, Mukund showed glimpses of his potential in the second innings of the second Test. It wasn’t a commanding innings, but an assured one for sure. With the trusted combine of Sehwag and Gambhir returning to take their rightful places in the side for the forthcoming tour of England, the axe expectedly fell on Vijay, with Mukund getting another overseas opportunity.


The Vijays and the Mukunds will find life difficult against top class bowling attack on tracks that generously assist seam, swing and bounce. India’s bench strength can only improve with greater exposure to such bowler-friendly conditions. And for that, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has to organise ‘A’ tours to England, Australia and South Africa on a regular basis. Playing on the low, slow wickets of India is one thing and batting on wickets where the seam and swing can test the best of technique or threaten the limbs with disconcerting pace and bounce is a different ball game altogether. The Emerging Players tournament, to be held in Australia in the first half next month, is a step in the right direction.


On board the team traveling to Australia is opener and captain Shikhar Dhawan. The Delhi southpaw made his debut way back in the 2004-05 and has experience under his belt. His exploits in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the recent One-Day International (ODI) series against West Indies and the fact that he is just 26 bodes well for the team. He was the second highest run-scorer with 260 runs – behind Pujara – during the India A tour of England and Scotland last year. If he curtails his T20 style of batting and sort out his technique to suit Test cricket, he could well be a regular with the first team.


Ajinkya Rahane is the other player who has been a consistent performer at the domestic level. He started as an opener but made one-down position his own for the Mumbai team. Rahane averages 67.72 in first-class and his 1089 runs in his second Ranji season helped Mumbai to its 38th title win in 2008-09 season. Rahane was also part of ‘A’ team that toured England and Scotland, notching up 233 runs at 77.66 with a hundred and a fifty to his name.


Since Mahendra Singh Dhoni has cemented his place in the Test eleven, Dinesh Karthik, Parthiv Patel and now Wriddhiman Saha have been juggling in being his understudy. A look at their first-class career gives us interesting data. Though all the three are of the same age, Parthiv and Karthik made their debuts almost a decade ago whereas Saha got his break only in 2007 when Deep Dasgupta signed for ICL. While Parthiv and Dinesh Karthik have a 2.82 dismissal per match ratio, Saha is slightly behind at 2.45.


In the last few series, Saha has been chosen as No.2 wicket-keeper for India. Dhoni seems to prefer his Chennai Super Kings team mate to the other two. Saha came into prominence after he was signed by Kolkata Knight Riders for the inaugural season of the IPL. His gutsy knocks in the otherwise brittle Kolkata line-up earned him rave reviews. He was picked for the home series against South Africa last year and earned an unexpected debut in Nagpur, after first choice Rohit Sharma suffered a last-minute injury.


Parthiv, Test cricket’s youngest wicketkeeper, played his last Test in August 2008. His ability with the bat is in no doubt, but is susceptible standing up to the spinners. His IPL exploits meant he gets sporadic chances in ODIs.


Where Dinesh Karthik has an advantage over the other two is in international experience. He has played 23 Tests to Parthiv’s 20. Saha has featured in a lone Test till now and that too as a batsman. Karthik has a century to his name as an opener and also amassed 1000 runs. He also scored three fifties as an opener when India toured England last year including a 91 in the last Test at Oval. He has also performed consistently in IPL for Delhi Daredevils for the last four years. So it was surprising when Saha got a nod ahead of him for the forthcoming series in England.


Following are the first-class stats sheet of Parthiv, Karthik and Saha:


Player M Runs Avg HS 100s/50s Ct/St
Parthiv Patel 117 6147 40.17 206 14/33 287/44
Dinesh Karthik 89 4906 38.03 213 13/24 231/20
Wriddhiman Saha 33 1712 38.90 178* 4/8 77/4


Great sporting teams are built on the strength of big squad and not just their first choices. The bench strength determines how a team performs throughout the season and how it can cope when it loses one of their top players. In the present Barcelona Football Club and the Liverpool teams of 80s, anybody would come into the playing eleven and seamlessly adjust to the system. Australia’s fall from the top was the result of not finding decent replacements for Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist.


If India has to remain at the top for a long time like the Australian team of 2000s and West Indies team of ’80s, they need to strengthen their bench. Else, their stay at the top will be cut short once the top players retire, their form dwindles or they are out for long periods because of serious injuries. It’s very important, thus, that India groom their second line of players for the future. And nothing seems more important at present than the opening and wicket-keeping slots.


(Dileep.V is a Scouser fan, Sports freak, Movie buff, Laggard Quizzer and dreams of setting foot on Anfield one day)