India's 2012-13 Test cricket season starts in a couple of months' time. Ten Test matches - all at home and therefore perhaps not as tricky as the season gone by - are lined up for India. And for the first time in over a decade-and-a-half, there will be no Rahul Dravid to fall back on. More middle-order spots in the Test team might open up by the end of the season, but straightaway, there's the Dravid vacancy that needs filling.
In line to stake their claims are Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Manoj Tiwary and Cheteshwar Pujara.
The four of them, along with Abhinav Mukund, Shikhar Dhawan and Robin Bist, are currently with the India A squad, ready to take on West Indies A in three four-day games, three 50-over matches and two Twenty20s. Mukund, Dhawan and Bist too are on the selectors' radar, but the other four are the real contenders. At least one of them, if not more, should figure in the squad come August, and the two-Test series against New Zealand.
Until recently, Pujara was the front-runner after Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina fluffed their lines. But a series of injuries forced him back, allowing Virat Kohli to edge ahead and seal his berth. Pujara spent this April and May travelling with Royal Challengers Bangalore, playing just three games and doing little of note. But despite not having played much cricket competitively, the India A captain spent that time usefully.
"Facing the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan, Daniel Vettori, Zaheer Khan, and even Anil Kumble in the nets has been ideal for me ahead of the tour of the Caribbean," Pujara said. "It has helped me assess my footwork and work on my deficiencies."
Training almost every day with the big boys has certainly upped the confidence of all the contenders. As Rohit remarked, "Facing up to Lasith Malinga and Harbhajan (Singh) in the nets was amazing. You also speak to people like Sachin Tendulkar, Shaun Pollock and Jonty Rhodes... all of them are legends. It's almost like a two-month crash course in understanding what is needed at the top level. And you understand that talent and ability are not everything. A lot of it is in the mind."
During the Indian Premier League, Rahane caught the eye with his class, technique and temperament. His Rajasthan Royals team-mate Owais Shah told Wisden India, "Keep an eye on Rahane; he is someone who can play for India for ten to 15 years."
The best part of Rahane's IPL success was that most of his 560 runs were scored through orthodox strokes, the ball often travelling along the ground in the 'V'. The fours (73) far outnumbered the sixes (10). By his own admission, that was a conscious effort. "I am trying to chart the path set by people like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid," he said. "They have shown again and again that the calmer you are on the field, the better it is. I've seen how they play proper cricket strokes to score their runs, even in Twenty20s. I have scored runs in the domestic circuit with the same brand of batting, so shifting back to the longer format won't be difficult at all."
The last member of the four-man race, Tiwary, made a century in his last international innings, against the West Indies in a one-dayer in Chennai. He hasn't been a part of the playing XI since then, despite travelling with the team. "It's frustrating at times," Tiwary admitted. "But the competition is so tough that there is no time to sit back and complain. I just want to be as consistent as I can be and be a permanent member of the Indian side - whether it's Tests, ODIs or T20s."
The important thing, of course, is to make the most of the India A opportunity. The IPL is in the past, and this tour should provide cues to the selectors ahead of the New Zealand series. "I will use this tour as a launch pad to make a comeback to the Indian team," Pujara said. "Most of the frontline batsmen in the squad will be looking to do the same. We all need to score runs to be in the reckoning."
Between them, Pujara, Rohit, Tiwary and Rahane will want as many opportunities as possible in the Caribbean to strengthen their case. One slot, four contenders, and as always, the best man should win.