Port of Spain: There must be a big balloon of gloom descending on the television companies broadcasting India's tour of West Indies. How do you hype a series featuring an Indian team lacking its big stars and an opposition adamant about not including its star player(s)? The TV pundits always find an answer. This is being billed as a sign of the future. And this time, in the context of at least the Indian players, they may even be right.
There has been no recent Indian team with so many players so desperate to prove a point and stake a claim as this one. Until this series, the recent India story was about the ambitious march of a team to the top of the ladder: a Test series win in New Zealand, a series-levelling effort in South Africa, a World Cup triumph. This series against West Indies is about the young and the restless India. It's about assessing the hunger and the talent in these men. There are quite a few players an almost vital crossroads in their career.
Leading them is a man who encompasses so much about this brave new talented India, but Suresh Raina comes with qualifications: "There is talent but …" When the triumvirate of Tendulkar, Laxman and Dravid eventually go, can the Rainas of India fill that gaping hole?
For long Raina has been the antithesis of Rohit Sharma. Not many have criticised Raina's "attitude"; in fact Rahul Dravid hailed him as among the more hardworking youngsters he's seen in recent times. His short-ball woes put him in danger of being labelled as an ODI player, though. In that respect he is treading the path of Michael Bevan. While Raina would probably give a leg to own Bevan's ODI record, he will dread going Bevan's way in Tests. Bevan's Test career was derailed by his problems against the short ball and Raina has to do something very quickly if he wants to avert similar free fall.
For long Virat Kohli had been oscillating between Rohit and Raina. Attitude problems dogged him but he, like Raina, seemed determined to get himself out of the doghouse. Slowly, step by step, he has erased almost all his blots. His game has improved considerably and on current form he appears the best of the younger lot to seize a middle-order spot in Tests. And if Raina slips up, Kohli could well pounce on the captaincy as well.
For long Rohit Sharma has been the antithesis of S Badrinath. Opportunity and fame threatened to get the better of him and he wasn't perhaps mentally equipped to deal with them. Critics singled out his lack of hunger. No one raised a word about his talent despite his playing 61 ODIs for a below-par average of 27.13. His fans have pointed to this year's IPL to show the winds of change are blowing; that he looks fitter, hungrier and has mended his ways. This series will be the chance for him to offer some definitive proof.
For long S Badrinath has been ploughing a lone field in the domestic dust bowls. Anonymity is a luxurious cloak that superstars seek; Badrinath wants to be recognised. For him the IPL wasn't about money, it wasn't about thrilling the crowds; it was about the basic human urge to get recognised and find a tiny spot on the global cricket map. "When people say, 'that shot off Lee was good,' it's a little bit of recognition, and it's a little bit of happiness that gives you satisfaction," Badrinath said about playing in the IPL.
For long Sreesanth has been waging a battle against himself; he has been the biggest ever reality show featuring an Indian cricketer. His path to manhood played out on big flat plasma screens to billions of fans. Again, like Rohit, his talent has been scarcely questioned but everyone and his uncle have been hammering on his temperament.
For long Ishant Sharma has been living off that one demonic spell against Ricky Ponting. Unlike Sreesanth or Rohit, his attitude has never been questioned. Venkatesh Prasad, the former bowling coach, even nominated him as the most disciplined and hardworking aspirant. Perhaps, in his case, he tried too much. The left shoulder collapsed, the follow-through became a stutter, the wrists weren't behind the seam and the Indian fans were aghast and wary of another talent going the way of Irfan Pathan. Luckily, things seem to be on the mend; the IPL offered brief glimpses of a positive change.
For long Murali Vijay has flattered to deceive. He looks a million bucks when he plays one of his flamboyant on-the-up shots but leaves you tearing your hair when he mis-hits one to a fielder. And yet this is the same player who showed such restraint and sense of occasion on his debut Test against Australia, in which he rarely played a false shot. If he can marry that kind of discipline with his talent, he can progress. However, the jury is still out on his skill on tough pitches. It's not to say that he doesn't have the talent to cope, but that he hasn't been tested yet.
The West Indies is a place where even angels can be tempted to stray. It's here that the young and restless India will begin their path to sobriety. The sun is shining, the weather is sweet and the future is calling; are the boys listening?