October 17, 2013

How soon can India find a new No. 4?

It is important for the game that India remain competitive at Test cricket. Their ability to find a replacement for Tendulkar will go a long way to determine if they succeed

Kohli looks the most likely candidate to succeed Tendulkar at No. 4, but his Test average overseas isn't much to shout about yet © BCCI

It's a cliché to say that a player's worth to his team is only fully appreciated in his absence. A cliché that's not always true.

India don't have to wait until they take to the field against South Africa in December for them to understand the difficulties their Test team will face in the post-Tendulkar era. After 24 years, 200 matches, 51 centuries and countless comparisons to Bradman, India's selectors are perfectly aware of the 5ft 5in chasm he will leave in the heart of their Test batting.

There are reasons to believe a smooth transition could be made. Other members of India's recent golden generation of batting have been deemed irreplaceable, yet it was the younger players who took their place who built the foundation of runs for last year's 4-0 hammering of Australia. Of them, Virat Kohli's performances are starting to match expectations - press expectations if not quite his own. Cheteshwar Pujara has the temperament of a genuine Test match opener and a cover drive that could make angels weep. Whilst Shikhar Dhawan arrived in international cricket with a mountain of runs and a moustache that hints at an outrageous degree of self-confidence. Clearly India's production line of batting talent is still rolling.

But if India need a warning of the difficulties they might face, they only have to look at England's squad for the coming Ashes series. It has been two and a half years since England last toured Australia. Two and a half years since Paul Collingwood retired from Test cricket, during which they have failed to find a replacement for him at No. 6 in their batting order.

You could point out that England don't quite have the depth of batting strength available to India, but then replacing Collingwood shouldn't quite be the same problem as finding the new Tendulkar.

Collingwood, of course, was an underrated player and one who does fit the cliché of only being fully appreciated after he was gone. A dependable presence at six, capable of economically bowling the half dozen overs that get you through to the second new ball, and a fantastic pair of hands at backward point. Perhaps not a CV that makes you a regular in the back-page headlines, but when taken together the sum of his parts add up to a whole that England have singularly failed to fill.

In the 32 Tests since Collingwood retired, Eoin Morgan, Matt Prior, Ravi Bopara, Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor, Samit Patel and Joe Root have all been shoved into and out of the No. 6 position by the national selectors. A succession of seaworthy batsmen have disappeared into English cricket's Bermuda Triangle, where, in over 50 innings, none of them has made a century.

The last player given a chance, Chris Woakes, made his Test debut in August but was left out of the Ashes squad only a month later. Instead, another candidate, Gary Ballance, has been included. It's hardly the continuity of selection that England pride themselves on.

India's problem is that Tendulkar leaves open the even more pivotal position of four just as they have to face Steyn, Morkel, Philander and Kallis in their own backyard. For all the quality of India's new generation of batsmen, their prolific run-making has mainly come in home conditions. Between them Kohli, Vijay and Pujara have played just 16 overseas Tests, with a combined average in the low twenties. Far from an ideal situation in which to introduce Ajinkya Rahane or Rohit Sharma as Tendulkar's replacement.

For all the hype that surrounds the Ashes, it's the Test series between South Africa and India - the on- and off-field powerhouses of cricket respectively - that is the more significant. It goes without saying that it is hugely important for the game that India remain both competitive in, and interested in, overseas Test tours. Their ability to find a new No. 4 quicker than England have replaced their No. 6 will go a long way to determine if they succeed.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses