India's freshmen pose uneasy questions
"Ultimately it's only about situations. Put me in a situation and I'll adapt," Robin Uthappa explained in an interview to Cricinfo last year when talking about maturity on the field. On Sunday, he had a perfect situation lined up when he walked in with India hanging perilously at 94 for 5, a point from which he could have helped them claw back to safety. He had shown the character and spirit to be the guiding light on a few occasions last year but this time he disappointed, failing to deal with one that kicked on him, giving Ashley Noffke, the debutant, his first wicket.
Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma and the first-timer Manoj Tiwary too failed to trouble the Australians long enough. Add these four to the bunch of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik and Suresh Raina, and you are looking at what is likely to be the core of India's batting in the future. So how ready are these freshers to assume the senior role once the remnants of the last generation - Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid - step down?
The lack of large sample for most of the youngsters doesn't allow a ready conclusion. So let's look at the evidence from today. The exit of the experienced opening pair of Sehwag and Tendulkar prompted fears of a collapse. But Gambhir and Sharma picked up the momentum in a manner that was reminiscent of their batting during the ICC World Twenty20. Except that this was a 50-over format, which required more patience. Gambhir was trapped by one that angled in, while Sharma, trying to push the pedal, could only feather an edge to Adam Gilchrist.
India had been in the driver's seat courtesy the 65-run partnership between the pair but in the matter of a few overs they were pushed on to the back foot when three wickets fell for as many runs. Dhoni was pleased, though, with the performances of Gambhir and Sharma. "I was happy with the way Gauthi [Gambhir] and Rohit [Sharma] played. I would like them to get in, stick around and play till the end and leave the fireworks for Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh], Robin [Uthappa] and myself."
Gambhir has been around for enough time now to understand that responsibility but, despite being prolific on the domestic circuit this season, he has often failed to kick on after getting starts - in 13 out of 38 ODI innings he has fallen between scores of 20 and 60. Sharma has only played a handful of ODIs but, after a superb World Twenty20 tournament, the highlight of which was a well-paced half-century in the must-win game against South Africa, he fell away in the domestic season: in five games for Mumbai he had a tally of 150 runs.
Today, though, Sharma revealed his potential yet again. Even though he made 29, his innings had an unmistakeable aura to it and reinforced the pundits' view that he can slip into the number four slot in Tests whenever Tendulkar leaves the arena. At the Gabba he took eight balls to get off the mark but the first runs came with a flourish: a free-flowing cover drive on the up off Nathan Bracken. In the next over, from Noffke, he picked one on the up easily and dispatched it between cover and point, and followed that with a cut shot for successive boundaries. Sharma is only 20 and unencumbered by the rigidities of technique and discipline. Yet the cloak of casualness he wears might hinder him from taking the next step - some of the senior cricketers feel he is yet to move beyond Twenty20 cricket. The advantage for him is he still has plenty of time to learn and grow.
It's impossible not to sympathise with Manoj Tiwary, who made an unceremonious debut within a day of setting foot in Australia. Understandably, he seemed overwhelmed as much by the occasion as by the pressure of facing an in-form Brett Lee. Lee had the newcomer's pulse immediately and set him up with some short deliveries before coming up with a scorching yorker that breached Tiwary's defences. Like Sharma, Tiwary isn't coming on this tour on the back of a bagful of domestic runs: he was the top run-maker in the Ranji Trophy in 2006-07, but failed to maintain that level in the present season and couldn't help Bengal avoid relegation. The story is the same with Uthappa, who piled on 188 in the four Ranji games he played for Karnataka.
Tiwary's selection, ahead of Suresh Raina and Dinesh Karthik, two players who were part of the original ODI squad, was in itself a surprise. Dhoni said that he went by his "instincts", and indicated that he had decided on Tiwary on Saturday evening. Acclimatisation is the key when one arrives in a new country, and Dhoni agreed that most current cricketers didn't get much time to settle in. "It's tough and I understand but in international cricket you can't complain. You have to adapt quickly and make the most of the situation."
When Sourav Ganguly was dropped from the one-day squad for the CB Series, there was concern that an overly pro-youth balance could harm the side. Dhoni made it clear, though, that if the board was serious about planning for the 2011 World Cup, it needed to start now. "If I'm still the captain then I would like a bunch that has played at least 80-100 ODIs and it is very important to start thinking from now onwards."
Dhoni has always been his own man, and has trusted his instincts. He now wants his players to step up and take charge. "It's up to them to show courage and perform and rise to the occasion in the face of a challenge." The next month will provide ample opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo