The settled middle order
The second in our series of articles examining how the Indian team is shaping up for the coming 2003-04 season. This one focusses on middle-order batsman.
Of all the issues that the Indian team management need to address before the season begins, the middle order is the one which will worry them the least. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly take care of the three slots from Nos. 3 to 5, but No. 6 isn't quite such an open-and-shut case. VVS Laxman is the most likely to take that place, but Virender Sehwag has evinced an interest to move down the order, while a clutch of others have staked their claims with strong performances in the domestic season and with the A team. Moreover, with a tough tour of Australia coming up, India require not only a strong playing XI but also reliable bench-strength. Wisden CricInfo examines the cases for batsmen who are contenders - but not quite certainties - for the middle-order slots, while three former cricketers give their opinions.
Class, ability, temperament and runs against quality bowling attacks - Laxman has all these attributes in ample measure and is undoubtedly the frontrunner to take the No. 6 slot in the Indian Test line-up. Much has been made of his inability to live up to expectations post his 281 two seasons back, but an average of nearly 54 in his last 14 Tests brooks little argument. Also, he averages 56 against Australia, against whom India clash seven times over the next 15 months. Recently, though, Laxman's fortune has suffered a bit of a blip. He was left out of India's World Cup campaign, and had a miserable tour as captain of the A team in the West Indies, scoring 126 runs at 15.75. A side strain cut short that tour and scuppered his chances of touring with the A team to England - a series in which a few of the other contenders for India's middle-order berth staked their claim with a bagful of runs. Laxman should make it to the Test side against New Zealand, but he will need to consistently be among the runs to ensure that he keeps his spot through the rest of the season.
After missing out on international cricket in the last couple of years, Badani is on the comeback trail. Not only did he score plenty of runs in the last domestic season, he made them in testing conditions. Especially impressive was a classy 109 against Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy final, when the rest of the batting succumbed to the pressure. He followed that up with consistent performances on the A tour to England. Badani has the defensive technique, strokes and the temperament to be a success at Test level. With Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh having poor county seasons in England, Badani might well be the first among the reserves to get a look-in if one of the regular middle-order batsmen is laid off due to injury or loss of form.
Kaif last got an opportunity at the Test level more than two years back, and though he didn't quite grab that opportunity, he has grown in stature since then. His five-star performances have all been in one-day internationals, but Kaif's organised technique lends credence to the fact that he would be able to make a successful transition to Test cricket. Best of all, Kaif is part of a young brigade which refuses to be overawed by reputations. Against the hard-nosed, all-conquering Australians, that trait could be invaluable. Despite a mediocre season with Derbyshire - a first-class average of 22 with one fifty in eight matches - Kaif is a fair bet to make it to the Indian Test squad this season.
Yuvraj has firmly established himself as a key member of India's ODI side, but a Test call-up might take a bit longer. Yuvraj's credentials in the longer version of the game have been questioned - primarily due to a technique which revolves around static footwork and exceptional hand-eye coordination. However, he has proved in the past that he is not just a one-day specialist - on the A tour to South Africa in 2001-02, Yuvraj averaged 62, scoring a century against an attack which included Andre Nel, Dewald Pretorius and David Terbrugge. A wretched county season for Yorkshire - 145 runs at 14.50 - spoils his case somewhat, though.
Sehwag started off with a sensational century on debut against South Africa at No. 6, but over the last year he has been thrust into the opener's slot. He hasn't done too badly, but Sehwag opened the debate over his batting position by suggesting that he'd prefer to bat in the middle order. In the six Tests when Sehwag's batted down the order, he averages close to 48, nearly ten more than his average as an opener. If the team management does decide to move him down the order, there'll be room for only one out of Sehwag or Laxman.
Touted as the next big hope for Indian middle-order batting, Rayudu has had the critics gushing about his scintillating strokeplay and his composure under pressure. Not yet 18, Rayudu has already been on two A tours with varying degrees of success: he wasn't prolific in the West Indies, but averaged 87 in England. Experts reckon he is sure to play for India in the near future; if he gets among the runs in the domestic matches early this season, he could well find himself playing in the big league sooner than most people expect.
Mongia got an extended run with the Indian one-day line-up, but failed to make the most of it. His technical failings around the off stump will be exposed far more ruthlessly in Test cricket, especially by the likes of Glenn McGrath and Co. Mongia might yet be in contention, but chances are he will have to go back to domestic cricket, work on his technique, score more runs, and stake his claim all over again.
WV Raman: It's straightforward - it has to be Laxman at No. 6. With his past record and his ability, Laxman picks himself. Among the others, I would pick Kaif and Yuvraj over the rest of the contenders. Both have plenty of international experience and won't be overawed - they have both played against the Australian fast bowlers, even if only in one-day internationals. Both are young, and Kaif, especially, is capable of playing long innings as well. These two I would rate just over Badani, who should also enjoy Australian tracks as he is a good striker of the ball. Rayudu probably needs a bit more time, in his own interest. There's no point in trying to thrust someone into the limelight, expect the world out of him, and then dump him when he doesn't quite deliver.
Jatin Paranjpe: I would play Sehwag at No. 6. However, if the selectors decide to keep Sehwag at the top of the order, then Laxman would be my next pick at No. 6. Looking at India's calendar over the next 18 months - apart from touring Australia, India is hosting Australia and South Africa - we need a batting line-up which can put up runs on the board against quality bowling attacks. As back-ups, I would pick Rayudu for the Australian tour. I would rather blood a young batsman as a reserve than pick an experienced player and have him sit out. I believe he is ready to play top-class cricket - he has been on a couple of A tours and knows what to expect. Kaif would be my second back-up. I would not hold his county failure against him: he played at Derby, which is a very seamer-friendly venue.
Ashok Malhotra: Undoubtedly, Laxman should bat at No. 6. He is a world class player. He is young, and has proved himself in the past. I would prefer to keep Sehwag at the top of the order. That's the only way both can play in the XI. Both Kaif and Yuvraj have done their chances more harm than good with failures in the English county season, but I would pick Kaif as a back-up as he is a better prospect for Tests. I wouldn't give too much credit to the runs scored by the India A batsmen in England: almost all the matches were played against second-string county teams against poor attacks on good tracks.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden CricInfo in India.