Indian cricket is in a good place; now for the future

Perhaps it is time to groom someone for the No. 3 slot, where Shubhman Gill might be a natural fit

It was quite bizarre watching the Ashes Test in Melbourne played to a vociferous, raucous crowd and then switching channels to Centurion where India were playing South Africa in an empty stadium. The difference is startling, and further proof that just like a book is incomplete without a reader, sport is imperfect without spectators. But such are the times we live in; we should be used to the empty stadiums by now.

Watching England gurgle down the drain in Australia, it is useful to remember that earlier this year an Indian team beat this same Australia in one of the most exciting Test series of modern times. An Indian team that was all out for 36 in the first Test and written off by most. Especially after their best batsman then returned home for personal reasons.

India had (and continue to have) two, sometimes three players for each slot; England barely have one. But this is not just about the skill level of the players and competition for places in the team. It is about being match ready at every turn, and England are struggling because players are taking time to settle in. Modern cricket does not allow a player that luxury. Like Australia’s Scott Boland, a bowler should be primed to pick up wickets when he gets his chance.

Remarkable performance

Tours, especially in times of Covid, give teams little or no time to acclimatise; the focus is on the international itself, not the build-up to it. Which is why India’s performance on the first day of the Centurion Test was remarkable. They came into the match with no warm-up games, with the knowledge that no Indian team had won a Test series in South Africa before, and that often they have tended to lose the first Test of a new series abroad and then struggled to make up ground.

Yet, they began dramatically, with a century opening partnership (even if the rest of the team didn’t quite build on it). Skipper Virat Kohli might be struggling for runs (although he played with some of his old fluency in the first innings), but his team is doing well; for England, skipper Joe Root is doing well, but his team is struggling. No prizes for guessing which of the alternatives a captain might prefer.

In Joe Root and Pat Cummins, the Melbourne Test saw two of the most decent international captains pitted against each other. Successful captains have one of two things going for them — tactical nous and the ability to seize the moment is one. The gift of getting the men in their charge to play above themselves is another. Root’s inability to seize the moment seems to be overlapping with Cummins’s gift for having his men play for their captain.

This second attribute is a speciality of Kohli’s too. Some players are in awe of him, others respond to him well; the result is a team that plays as one.

The catch

At the year-end, Indian cricket is in a good place. Key players are in their twenties. Or 33 like the captain himself, Ishant Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteswar Pujara. Ravi Ashwin is older at 35. The catch in having a set of players all of the same age is that they tend to leave at around the same time too. This was the case with the Sachin Tendulkar generation, with Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman calling it a day after a tour of Australia, Sourav Ganguly having left a little earlier. Tendulkar went on for a couple of years more.

With India’s opening slots admitting of a wide range of choices (Rohit Sharma, K L Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Shubhman Gill), many of whom have been successful too, perhaps it is time to groom someone for the No. 3 slot. In his debut match, Pujara made a brilliant 72 at No. 3 as India chased 207 against Australia to win. He was thus given an opportunity to play alongside regular No. 3 Rahul Dravid who later said that at the same age, Pujara was the better batsman than he was. It set Pujara on the road to 100 Tests (the Centurion Test is his 93rd).

A natural fit at No. 3 might be Shubhman Gill who has opened with both flair and solidity. He is 22, the same age when Pujara made his debut. Gill has already played ten Tests, and can make that slot his own. He is too gifted a player to wait for an opening at the top.

The same planning can see the careers of the middle order, the fast bowlers and the spinners overlapping with the next generation. That guarantees a smooth transition, something that India planned for and enjoyed the fruits of with the Kohli generation.

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