India v New Zealand, 1st Test, Hyderabad August 22, 2012

Time to take the plunge

India's new middle order has the ideal opportunity to test itself - against New Zealand at home ahead of tougher challenges

Imagine you are teaching a bunch of young swimmers how to dive from the highest ladder in a pool. All of them can swim; some have dived before on a couple of occasions from creditable heights, some from lesser heights, some have no experience of diving but are excellent swimmers, and so on. Do you throw them in off the high end and find out in some days who has it in him? Or, assured of their talent, do you have them dive from lower down first to build their confidence?

India's selectors had both paths available to them to build a new Test middle order. They opted for neither and maintained the status quo but the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman - the latter five days before the New Zealand series begins - has forced them into the second option.

India's great middle order has disbanded itself and has handed its successors the most ideal situation to take their first steps in Test cricket - a home Test series against New Zealand. Were it England or Australia, the next two visitors, the first dive would have been from too steep a height; were it Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, the first dive would have been insignificant. New Zealand will compete, but they aren't a ruthless top Test side. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, and now, S Badrinath, couldn't have asked for a better situation to form India's new middle order.

All but Rahane have played Tests, and had the comforting presence of a senior at the other end while batting. Two of those seniors, Dravid and Laxman, won't be available now. Even allowing for the presence of Sachin Tendulkar, there will be times when two inexperienced Test batsmen will have to work things out for themselves in a match situation. They will have to learn how to wear down attacks, or go after them, and defend one of the most precious things in the game - a Test specialist batsman's wicket - when needed to.

All that is for the medium-term; for the moment, from the new middle order's point of view, there are only positives. They are men who have been around the dressing room for some time. Kohli and Raina are already among the finest limited-overs batsmen in the world. Kohli even has a Test hundred in Australia. Before Raina started expecting the short ball every delivery, he had half-centuries in the first innings of all three Tests in the West Indies last year.

Pujara arrived with a reputation for a calm head, and enhanced it with a half-century on Test debut in a tense chase against Australia. Though injury has eaten up the majority of his time since then, he scored three successive fifties against West Indies A in the Caribbean recently. Rahane is untested at the Test level, but is among the finest talents on the domestic circuit, and there are few young Indian batsmen who can match him for sincerity of effort and eagerness to learn.

Badrinath has been handed a lifeline with Laxman's retirement. He turns 32 during the second Test, which means he can easily play for another six-odd years. That is a lot of time, and will mean a much younger batsman stays out. However, to write off someone who averages nearly 61 over 104 first-class games after just two Tests and seven ODIs is injustice not only to him but to the domestic system.

The biggest positive for all these batsmen is that they are getting their first collective opportunity at home against New Zealand. Their predecessors weren't so lucky. All but one of Tendulkar, Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Laxman and Virender Sehwag debuted overseas against tough opposition. Moreover, they never had this sort of extended home run to try and settle in at the start of their careers.

Tendulkar played his first ten Tests overseas, Dravid 12 of his first 16, Ganguly 11 of his first 14, Laxman six of his first eight, and Sehwag six of his first nine. In contrast, ten successive home Tests await the new middle order.

So much was written and said about Laxman's original selection for the New Zealand Tests. Some said it was a backward step, some others said a young batsman should have been given the opportunity instead against a relatively weaker New Zealand side, ahead of much tougher series against England and Australia.

It might not have happened in the manner intended but after all the agonising over 0-8, India probably have what they wanted. A spanking new Test middle order in a home series against New Zealand. Now is the time for them to dive in. The height is just right.

Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo

Comments