December 2, 2013

All hail India's new order

The likes of Dhawan, Kohli and Pujara are a study in contrasts and similarities to the men they hope to replace in India's Test line-up

Pujara and Kohli: who shall we compare them to? © AFP

India is fortunate they have managed to rebuild their batting order so quickly. While it's too early to predict how the new order will do in conditions that favour fast bowling, the rapidity with which a new set of good batsmen - who have at the very least shown the hunger to bat for long - has been found is remarkable.

In a way, this desire to bat long is the biggest tribute to the men who have stepped aside. Batting was always India's strong suit, but the magnificence of the band of five, especially outside India, has ensured their deeds will be a wellspring of inspiration for years to come. The ability to pass the baton is not India's strength as a society, and Indian cricket must consider itself a lucky exception to be witness to a fairly seamless transition.

The greatness of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly was that they built large and crucial partnerships, and the first four loved making big hundreds. Giving us an appreciation of the value and impact of the match-turning big hundred in a large partnership is their lasting legacy, and it seems to have made an early impact on Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. I believe there is another sort of effect that this batting order has had and will have on India's current and future batsmen. And I've come around to the topic at hand.

The playing styles of the five senior former batsmen reflect a richness of texture that will find echoes in Indian batting orders to come. And the same variety will serve as a model, untrammelled by convention yet respectful of the fundamentals of technique, a batting template that is a reminder of body balance, alignment of head position, and the virtues of playing the ball late, but not restrictive of the wristy flourish and of playing beside the line of the ball when the occasion allows for it.

The more technically sound three in the old order, apart from sharing personality traits (has there ever been a softer-spoken, nicer middle order I wonder), complemented each other beautifully: the stoic artistry of Dravid at one-drop, the science and art of Tendulkar's experiments with cricket at two-down, and the wispy, dreamy rhythms of VVS. The scene for this middle-order serenity was often perfectly set up by the remorseless aggression of Sehwag's playmaking, and frequently the battle felt truly joined with the moody, feisty left-handed grace of Ganguly.

While judgement of ability can prudently wait, a stylistic comparison of the old order with the new can be attempted. At the top, Dhawan makes the by-most-standards minimalist Sehwag look a merciless ball-beater in comparison. If Sehwag was known to hum a tune to keep his spirits up and mind fresh, Dhawan might well be singing multiple songs all at once. Sehwag looked like he wished to submit the bowler to a real flogging; Dhawan resembles a high-spirited swordsman who chanced upon a cricket ground on one of his jolly jaunts; having found himself there, he seems to be laughing out loud with every twirl of his moustache - at the fielding team's obvious discomfiture at not just having fluffed their lines but seemingly completely forgotten them. There is a bit of the ambush about his batting: bowlers aren't entirely sure what to expect next. He is a combination of Ganguly and Sehwag on the off side, with an ability to put the short, fast ball on leg away that was missing in both.

In batting manner, Kohli is more Ponting than Tendulkar, wristy flourish coupled with a dismissive, combative abrasiveness evident most in his hooking and pulling

Murali Vijay camps on his back foot generally, and has tremendous hands. Through the off side and to full balls on the leg, he oozes grace with every caressed drive and flick. It is almost as if it was VVS all over again, except he had now developed a bit of a swagger, didn't have a dodgy back and knees, and didn't mind hitting the occasional ball in anger. Will that silken brushstroke pull be unfurled at some point? Or does that require an exposure to matting pitches in your early cricket?

Pujara's presence at one-drop is a throwback to an earlier age. Monk-like in batting manner, he is the least excitable of India's new order. He tends to use his feet versus spin more than his predecessor at No. 3 did. His footwork is decisive against spin and pace alike, and speaks of a clear, methodical approach to his cricket. He reminds me of a young Sanjay Manjrekar in his square-of-the wicket off-side play and his straight-batted flicks through leg. There's a minimum of flourish, very rarely the intent to hit the ball in the air, and the use of a light bat. Everything is focused on scoring runs and by the heap. A kind of Indian Mr Cricket.

Kohli, Tendulkar's heir at No. 4, is the most flamboyant of the new order and possibly the most complete, versatile player of the current lot, at the moment. In being the leader of the bunch, ability-wise, he's like Sachin. If Vijay and Rohit Sharma exude effortless grace and rely on touch play, Kohli's timing is explosive. In batting manner, he's more Ponting than Tendulkar, wristy flourish coupled with a dismissive, combative abrasiveness evident most in his hooking and pulling. The slightest lapse in length will be punished, and he will not hesitate to dominate. Already he has played the most difficult bowlers well, albeit in one-dayers, notably looking remarkably sure of himself against Malinga and Saeed Ajmal.

Rohit Sharma, a wristier version of Mark Waugh in style, is well-suited to No. 5 or 6 now, because he is equipped to bat well with the tail. Although perfectly capable of flamboyance, he seems to prefer the smooth build-up to an innings, tucking the ball in the gaps and not getting bogged down, a bit like VVS. Having batted against the new ball in one-dayers, he plays the short ball with time to spare, and can accelerate if required against the second new ball in Tests. Before you know it, he might get to 30 or 40, and this can be handy when batting with the tail.

Stylistically then, this young bunch is just as varied as the old one. Dhawan can counter-punch, a sigh might escape you as you watch Vijay ease into a cover drive, Pujara can calm us and his compatriots, Kohli can set your pulse racing, and Rohit will glide his way about. It will take a bit of time for this new order to work out a successful method on pitches away from home; a longer tour than the one to South Africa would have given them more breathing space. As we wait for Sehwag and Gambhir to regain their form, it will be fascinating to watch these young men find their feet. The series ahead might herald a new batting dawn. Cricket awaits its breaking light.

Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala