Rahul Dravid left cricket assuring everyone that India had an abundance of batting talent which could easily fill in the No. 3 slot he has left vacant. The pundits however find it hard to arrive at a consensus over the most likely candidate capable of filling the void created by Dravid's departure. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, S Badrinath, Ajinkya Rahane and even VVS Laxman were all the names that came up as men well-equipped in both mind and with bat in hand to tackle the various hurdles faced by a one-down batsman.
"The first and obvious choices would be some of the guys who were already there in the reserves in Australia," a BCCI official told ESPNcricinfo. He said even the likes of Manoj Tiwary and Punjab youngster Mandeep Singh were on the selectors' roster along with the above names. "People who are performing at the domestic level would be in the fray. Finally it depends on who clicks at the right time," the source said.
The chief parameter the selectors would look out for, the board insider said, was the player's ability to perform on the overseas tours especially in Australia, England and South Africa. "One of the most important things is batsman needs to be a good player of fast and short bowling on overseas wickets. At home it is easy. Except for Sachin [Tendulkar] and Rahul, nobody averages above 50 overseas," he said.
Pujara, after his determined 72 on debut against Australia in the Bangalore Test that India won, would seem to be a readymade replacement for Dravid. Again though, not everyone was in agreement. "He has not scored runs in the Ranji Trophy matches after he came back from injury. Also, he has had two surgeries, so with regards to fitness, he could be a concern," the board official said. Pujara played four Ranji Trophy matches for Saurashtra this season and scored just 200 runs with two fifties. Subsequently, he led West Zone in the Duleep Trophy quarterfinals, but scored just 57 runs in the two innings with 55 in the first.
VB Chandrasekhar, the former national selector, said it would not be a bad idea to reinstate Laxman to the No.3 spot. "If they are going to still continue with Laxman, he should be the No.3 for the short term," he said. But the board official disagreed, saying a more healthy approach would be to think long-term. With India playing their next three Test series (against New Zealand, England and Australia) at home, the selectors had a good opportunity to blood a young talent.
What also does not help Laxman's cause is that he has a weaker away record compared to batting at the No. 3 spot at home. Overall, Laxman has made 1611 runs across 23 Tests in that position at an average of 44.75 with four centuries. But in 28 away innings, he averages only 34.40 with a tally of 929 runs compared to 682 runs at 75.77 in nine innings in India, including his highest Test score of 281 in 2001 against Australia at Kolkata. And outside Asia, in 24 innings he has just 797 runs at 33.20 with two hundreds.
If he has to look beyond Laxman, Chandrasekhar said he cannot see too many choices beyond Kohli or Rohit. Chandrasekhar qualified his answer by citing the parameters necessary to be a one-down batsman. "Dravid was successful for two reasons primarily. Considering India had a host of top-order batsmen who were aggressive and if there was an early loss of a wicket, it (situation) required him to come and stonewall. Also, if India had a good start, the team needed someone to sustain the momentum and Dravid did the job successfully again."
Aakash Chopra, the former Indian Test opener, said the selectors had the right opportunity now to actually hit upon a long-term No.3 batsman. Though he is a fan of Pujara, Chopra said his other choice would be Badrinath, who played two Tests in the homes series against South Africa in 2010 but never played again. "He has been the prolific batsman on the domestic circuit," Chopra said. "Allow him to be there for a while and see how it goes."
Chopra said even if age was not exactly on his side, Badrinath had the right fitness, attitude and experience to compete with the youth. "He might be on the wrong side of 30s so to speak, but he is as fit as, or even fitter, than anybody else. And he knows how to score big runs."
Badrinath's case inside the board, however, does not have much support. "Not only is he 30-plus, but he has been tested already. He is a good player at domestic level but unfortunately does not seem to fit at the highest level." The official said the selectors would not be bothered even if the player was inexperienced as long as they felt he had the X-factor. He even cited the example of the Rahul Sharma, the Punjab legspinner, who was criticised as a gamble.
"Some have that and some don't. When the selectors picked Rahul Sharma, they were criticised because he had only played a handful of first-class matches and hardly got any wickets. But he has bowled well in whatever matches he has played. It was a gamble but the selectors had faith in him," the official said.
Asked if Kohli was not being groomed for the No.4 slot once Sachin Tendulkar retires, the board source said the selectors would have to keep their options open. "Depends. Three to six are slots where a lot of places would open up as the selectors would have to look beyond the seniors."