India no longer producing readymade talent - Dhoni
Indian domestic cricket is not throwing up the finished product as it used to previously, MS Dhoni has said. On the eve of India's five-ODI series against Australia, Dhoni was thankful he could use this time to groom the newcomers, but the noises were not very optimistic.
A case in point was his mention of the absence of a seaming allrounder in the squad, and then another that there was no point just making up numbers until a really good one was found. Some might wonder if Rishi Dhawan, the allrounder who opens the bowling for Himachal Pradesh and batted at No. 4 in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, needs to carry a placard to the nets to be spotted. Others might say Dhoni knows a thing or three about spotting talent, and that he has given Rishi chances in both the warm-up games.
It is a time of transition for Indian limited-overs cricket. Dhoni is himself nearing the end. Yuvraj Singh is not there. Suresh Raina has been dropped. There are only five established specialist batsmen in the squad. The lower middle order and the lack of a seaming allrounder remain problems. In analysing the Australian team, Dhoni gave away what he thought India were missing.
"If you see what makes life easy for an international team is the kind of domestic cricket… if you see the Australian first-class cricket, it is very good, which means the players who come up from the ranks of domestic cricket or first-class cricket have already got good exposure of playing cricketers who have played international cricket or are playing international cricket at that point of time. I feel that way Australian cricket is blessed."
The corollary came through when Dhoni was asked about how big a loss Mohammed Shami was, and if his replacement Barinder Sran was ready for international cricket. Sran has played only eight List A games, and not even a handful in the IPL. After expectedly praising Shami, Dhoni said: "As far as the newcomers are concerned, we will definitely feature them and see where they stand. Also we have to slightly get ahead of time. If you see Indian cricket, more often than not, we are used to getting the complete product. Right from the late '80s onwards we have got cricketers who were ready to play international cricket. Once they made their debut they were there for like 10 to 15 years.
"I think the trend is changing slowly. Even if you see the batsmen nowadays, they have been part of the side for quite some time and we have had to groom them. I feel the same applies to the bowlers. We may not have the luxury of just picking up the complete product to come into international cricket and start delivering from the very first game. It is important to identify talent and at the same time give them games quite quickly so that they get that exposure of international cricket. And we also see get to see how they handle pressure and the areas where they need to improve."
Rishi's presence was ignored when Dhoni was asked for a possible combination. "Most likely it will be three-two [quicks-spinners]," he said. "Because we don't really have a seaming allrounder so most likely it will be a three-two combination. Who are the players, we will wait and watch." That most likely means R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma, and a possible debut for Barinder Sran.
Australia, on the other hand, have announced their XI, and it includes five quick bowlers. Dhoni again felt they could do so because they had seaming allrounders. "It's not only about the pitch," Dhoni said. "That is their strength. When they come to the Test series in India, they actually went in with four proper fast bowlers in the first game. Their strength is fast bowling so no good reason why they will go in with two spinners. One part-time spinner is enough for them. Also not to forget they have got seaming allrounders. We don't really have… we are still looking for a seaming allrounder that can fit in that slot. Even when we are looking to play with four-fast-bowlers-and-a-spinner combination. Till we don't find a really good one, there is no point playing somebody for the sake of it."
Another problem Dhoni has is that he wants a flexible batting order, but he can't really play around with the top four. When Dhoni himself started out, he would bat anywhere between three and six. That was one of his main arguments against a fixed line-up. That you have batsmen ready to go out at any position in the batting order provided the number of overs left calls for their game. Yet the highest he can send a newcomer in is No. 5, which again leaves him playing at No. 6.
"Yes I admit a lot of batsmen find it very difficult to do it [move up and down the order] but at the end of the day if everyone becomes very rigid with their batting order it becomes very difficult for the team," Dhoni said. "If you see the success of the Indian team, a lot of it is down to batsmen who could bat at different numbers. If you see history, we have had batsmen who open in first-class but bat at 3 for us. They used to bat 4 or 5 for their first-class team but they end up being openers for the international side. That flexibility has to be there, and that adaptability has to be there.
"I feel it's very important that youngsters who get a chance get a good opportunity to bat. That's why I have always been in favour of giving the youngsters a chance to bat at 5 because that's the only place I have. That's the only place I can trade. If they consistently bat at 6, on a very good day they will score 30-odd runs. On a bad day they will score 10 runs. After 15 games, the media will be like, 'He averages only 15, get him out of the side.'"
Now is the time, though, to throw all these youngsters into the deep end, for better or for worse, whether they are the finished article or not. For the selectors have not left Dhoni many options. Either Gurkeerat Singh or Manish Pandey will get a taste of what it is like. Sran, and even Rishi, might need to be looked at at some point in the series. When Dhoni spoke glowingly of Australian domestic cricket, he also said the ability to handle pressure mattered more than the talent. He will hope that the raw youngsters he has been given have that quality.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo