Three men on a mission
MS Dhoni kneeled down and peered closely at the pitch. The dark clouds, which soon ruined the Indian practice session, were slowly descending on him. Gautam Gambhir soon followed his captain to the middle and not long after that the rains arrived. Before the drizzle turned into a downpour, Suresh Raina was still practising taking catches and was the last one to head for the dressing room. You wondered then what these three men, the ones who probably need runs the most in this Test, were feeling.
They may all have different styles of batting, but they are bound by a common thread. Gambhir had converted his old failing - the dab outside off stump - in to a strength, but in recent times it has been getting him in trouble again. Dhoni transformed his batting from an attacker to an accumulator, but is now stuttering to find a balance. Raina is where Gambhir and Dhoni were: his strength is to attack but he is being forced to learn the downsides of not tempering that instinct to the demands of different pitches and match situations.
Early in Gambhir's career, the glide to third man was a shot that gave observes to think he might struggle in Tests. Most players would have shelved the shot that brought them trouble, but Gambhir perfected it and went on a dream run in Tests. The perceived handicap had turned into an asset, or so it seemed. Today, the past has returned with vengeance and that shot, which symbolised his strong character in turning a weakness into strength, yet again appears to be his Achilles heel. It's a depressing sequence: Hesitant poke. Stab. Out.
The tentativeness outside off stump had sapped his confidence so much that his off drives have also started to look iffy. There was a poignant little moment in the second Test in Hyderabad that perfectly captured his inner demons. He had reached a scratchy 16, constantly edging or missing his drives. Until then Virender Sehwag would rush across for a chat - a reminder to focus perhaps or an encouraging word - at his every discretion. Gambhir then leaned across to connect with a cover drive and even as the ball fled past the fielder, he looked up at the skies and muttered what looked like thanks. It was the moment things turned around for him in that Test. Can he continue to turn around the corner in Nagpur?
Raina is just starting out in life and in cricket, and shows his age while batting - those skilful on-the-up shots and his attacking intent dazzles your senses. Already, however, the fast bowlers are aiming for his head with bouncers, and that weakness will be really exploited in South Africa. Additionally, even on slow tracks, he has shown a keenness not to change his style. In the first Test in Ahmedabad, the sluggish pitch demanded he cut out the on-the-up shots, but he kept going for them and perished, tamely pushing too early to one that stopped on him.
In the second Test, he rushed down the track and heaved straight to deep midwicket. He will need some runs in Nagpur ahead of the tour to South Africa as Cheteshwar Pujara is breathing down his neck. His captain offered support today. "Raina is a positive guy and at times he will get out playing the big shots," Dhoni said. "It's not a big botheration right now because the top five are scoring really well." The operative phrase being: "right now".
The same top order has been giving Dhoni adequate cover and breathing space for a while now. Captains earn their halo with their performances in crisis situations, but recently Dhoni the batsman has been floundering a bit in such situations. And he knows it. "I feel some of the decisions I am taking (in the middle) is leading to the collapses of the Indian team," he said today. "I am playing quite well in the nets. At times you get out because you choose to play a wrong shot. At times when you are batting at no. 7 with tailenders, you have to go take the initiative of playing big shots and you get out.
With the top order doing well, both of us [Raina and him] can capitalise on our batting and get big runs. We are hoping both of us will score in this game."
Three different men will enter the game with similar troubles and the same hopes. How they perform should make for fascinating viewing.