Beyond the Stalwarts

As the Indian Test squad starts out on November 15 against England in Ahmedabad, how about trying out two of Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane for the opening slots?

Updated: October 22, 2012 14:44 IST
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As the Indian Test squad starts out on November 15 against England in Ahmedabad, how about trying out two of Shikhar Dhawan, M Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane for the opening slots?

India are going through a 'period of transition' - two senior players have retired - and this apparently explains the team's craven clinging to heroes from better times.

Right now, Virat Kohli is the only member of India's Test Top Six who fits into the team, whether playing at home or abroad. Cheteshwar Pujara does, too, though he is yet to prove himself in alien conditions. But with most of the current season to be played in India, Pujara will have the chance to settle down, get some big runs against his name, and prime himself for the tougher tests later.

Which is exactly what, in my opinion, India should be doing with the rest of the batting slots too. Try out batsmen in their mid-20s who have the potential, and the runs in domestic cricket to back their cause. Give them a run in home Tests and prime them for the long haul. And here's the imperative.

Virender Sehwag averages 35.68 in nine Tests in the last 12 months.

Gautam Gambhir averages 27.12 in nine Tests in the same period.

And Sachin Tendulkar - He who must not be named except in deference - averages 35.50 from the same number of Tests.

Considering how poorly India have performed in this period, and that most of the Tests have been played away from home, averages of 35-plus aren't unreasonably bad, but are they good enough? Are they good enough for batsmen No. 1, 2 and 4?

Interestingly, these are also three batsmen who, probably because of contractual obligations, are playing the Champions League Twenty20, instead of preparing for the upcoming Test series. Not ideal, but who will bell the cat? Besides, it's not like they would have played the Duleep Trophy if they had not gone to South Africa.

Look at Kohli. Yes, brilliant - but why was he not a part of the North Zone team? Yuvraj Singh was, but that's probably because he is on the comeback trail.

Indeed, our friendly neighbourhood statsman, Mohandas Menon, gives me the following data: Sehwag last played a domestic match in November 2008. Gambhir too played that match and, in 2011, played in the Challenger Series. Tendulkar last played a Ranji Trophy game in January 2009. Kohli last played a domestic game in December 2010. And MS Dhoni, whose position as captain looks a wee bit shaky these days, last played a Ranji Trophy game in March 2005 and the Challenger Series in October 2009.

This isn't news. We know that, once the Indian team spot is sealed, players usually don't bother with domestic cricket. Part of this is because of the hectic international schedule, and partly because the lower grade of cricket holds no interest for the top players. Unless, like Yuvraj, you need match practice after a layoff or, like Harbhajan Singh, you have been dropped from the team and need to claw back.

Coming to the England Test series, while wholesale changes might be unpopular, some tough calls do need to be taken. Perhaps it was a burden the previous selection panel should have carried, but there's little point in examining that, is there?

On paper, a Top Five that reads Sehwag, Gambhir, Pujara, Tendulkar and Kohli looks better than Dhawan, Vijay, Pujara, Badrinath/Rahane and Kohli. But I don't see results in the present there, or preparation for the future. So why not study the potential of players who are scoring runs by the sackful?

Dhawan, in the last couple of months, has played in the Challenger Series, where he had scores of 99 not out, 152 and 61 in his three innings, and then, in the Duleep Trophy, scored 101, 50, 121 and 37 in four innings. He has been somewhat stop-and-start in his domestic career, but is in the form of his life at the moment.

Vijay, who missed the Duleep game, had an innings of 266 in the Irani Cup in September, and then 15, 93 and 155 in the Challengers.

And, while we are at it, it would be useful to figure out if Suresh Raina is India's best long-term option for No. 6 in Tests or whether 32-year-old S Badrinath can be given a go. Or, maybe, Yuvraj can slot in for a while, health permitting.

If cricket is serious business - and yes, worth a lot of revenue - current form must be weighed against stature and past performance. I don't know if keeping some of the stalwarts in the team adds to the revenue (maybe it helps), but I'm sure poor performances don't send the cash registers jingling. It might be better then to make the call now and prepare, rather than wait until a decision is forced upon the team. Like it was when Dravid and Laxman decided enough was enough.

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