A race to break into the India Test XI
From Delhi to Bridgetown, it's a 22-hour journey by plane. Three days ago 15 young Indian men came together on that flight. By the time they take the return flight in early July, a few - at least two - of them will have done enough to be on many more flights, with the Indian Test team. The three first-class matches that India A will play in the West Indies will be the last any Indians play before they get into a long home season of 10 Tests. Rahul Dravid has retired, VVS Laxman not guaranteed to last the season and the Indian bowling is one window that never shuts, retirements or no retirements … what a strong whiff of opportunity would have existed on that flight.
Imagine the 15 exchanged notes on the 22-hour flight. Three of them, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Manoj Tiwary, would have similar stories. Rohit has the story of February 6, 2010. Laxman was not well then, the Indian selectors had not picked a back-up, and Rohit was produced out of nowhere for the Nagpur Test. Minutes before the toss, he injured himself during warm-ups. Laxman was fit by the next match, and the closest Rohit has come to a Test cap since then was the frustrating wait in Australia earlier this year, when he was not considered good enough for a side that lost eight straight Tests away from home.
Rohit has been criticised by many for being casual, but it is good to see he is not looking to rest despite having been on the road since the start of that Australian tour. He has been close to it, he wants to taste Test cricket. Pujara, his captain, has had a taste of Test cricket, and might tell his team-mates he loves what he has seen although it can get tough.
Pujara twinkle-toed to 72 on his debut against Australia, turning into a cake walk the kind of chase the India of old used to mess up. His next Test came on a green mamba in Durban, where he fought for 81 crucial minutes as Laxman batted India to a defendable target. In the next Test he got a vicious outswinger from Dale Steyn that swung late and alarmingly.
Pujara didn't do anything to play himself out of the role of first-choice Test back-up, except dive for a ball. On May 8, 2011, at the same Chinnaswamy Stadium where he debuted, during the IPL, Pujara went in for a slide at the extra-cover boundary, and his knee stuck in the outfield, injuring it badly enough to require a surgery. The recuperation period was long enough for Virat Kohli to come in and claim a place in the Test side.
Tiwary's fateful dive didn't come in a match. It was May 9, 2007, India's warm-up for their first game on the Bangladesh tour. Tiwary was coming off a Ranji season during which he broke long-standing Bengal records. He had impressed both captain and cricket manager on the tour, and was sure to debut in an ODI the next day. During fielding practice at the boundary, he dived, and didn't come up for minutes. The shoulder injury sent him home. More than four years of sporadic chances and finally an one-day century later, Tiwary has yet to become a certainty in ODIs. On that tour, in that form, given that uncertainty in India's batting line-up post the 2007 World Cup debacle, who knows what could have transpired?
Ajinkya Rahane might not have any such story of misfortune while on the brink, but he might tell them how despite 18 first-class centuries and an average of 60 over 50 games, it's one IPL century that has made him a box-office hit. He might also remember often being consigned to a corner in the nets in Australia, he and Rohit bowling to each other, not a chance in sight.
With Suresh Raina not part of this tour, it is almost certain two of these four batsmen - Tiwary being the least likely, unless this tour suggests otherwise - will be part of the squad against New Zealand in August. When Laxman retires, a third man will be picked. The four might have been kept from a Test spot for a while now, but they are all still young, and will now appreciate the struggles of the likes of Laxman before they became full-time India Test players. A Test spot is knocking at their doors, and they will all want to be the first one to open the door. Over to the West Indies, then.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo