India get a taste of the future
India have got a glimpse of the future, and it's not a pretty sight. When, sometime over the next couple of years, VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar - in no particular order - finally call it a day, all those with a stake in Indian cricket will hope that a succession plan is in place, and a better one than the shambles that is the Nagpur Test XI.
The folly of picking merely seven batsmen in a 15-man squad for this Test was brutally exposed on Monday by one of the most devastating spells of swing bowling ever seen in India. Take nothing away from Dale Steyn but at least part of his effectiveness was down to the lack of experience in the batting order.
Remove Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni from the line-up and you are left with M Vijay, S Badrinath and Wriddhiman Saha - the last two Test debutants, Vijay playing his fourth Test, Badrinath the oldest Indian debutant at 29 and Saha not a specialist Test batsman.
So when Sehwag lost the company of Gambhir and Tendulkar inside the first hour, he and India found themselves in an uncertain and unfamiliar position. There was no reassuring Dravid, no nonchalant Laxman to hold things together while he accelerated. Today he had to simultaneously settle down and calm Badrinath's nerves.
Typically, his comments after the day's play were direct. "We are very angry with the way we batted," Sehwag said. He was more critical of the fact that except for his solitary 100-plus partnership for the fourth-wicket with Badri, the other batsmen did not last long enough to tire the opposition. "It was not a pitch where you could get out so easily. If there were a couple of more partnerships their bowlers might have got tired. But you have to give the credit to the bowlers led by Steyn."
Increasingly, Sehwag is piloting most of India's surges; the Sri Lanka series was only the latest instance where his bludgeoning performances in the final two Tests allowed India to stun the Lankans and claim the top Test ranking. Even late Sunday evening, when India had four overs to negotiate, Sehwag set the tone with some positive batting and India went in at 25 for no loss.
It was the same positive intent that allowed him to take charge and help his partner to cut his teeth successfully on the Test mat. His first move was to shield Badri from Steyn. Incidentally, of all the opposition bowlers, Sehwag scored the maximum runs against Steyn in the first innings: 34 runs off 38 balls but crucially there were just 14 scoring shots. Another key part to his improvisation was to resist the short balls from the South African fast men.
"I am not a good puller or hooker of the ball so I decided to be patient for the ball in my areas which I could hit for fours and I did that," Sehwag said without any false modesty. That statement is a fantastic example of Sehwag's straightforward and simple approach to success. He understands his game and doesn't shy from talking about his weaknesses. Sadly, once Sehwag lost his concentration, chasing a widish delivery just before tea, the rest of the Indian batting failed to stand strong and fell in quick succession immediately into the final session.
Nonetheless, Sehwag was probably the best partner Badri could have hoped for in these conditions. The debutant had prepared for his innings with a spell of short balls from coach Gary Kirsten during the morning throwdowns but it required much more than that to deal with the real-time danger of Steyn & Co.
Badri survived a fierce first over from Steyn, then steadily found his own groove and notched his maiden half-century in the process, earning the vice-captain's praise. "Badri's debut was very good. He fought with me very well. I asked him to enjoy his game and score runs off all the given opportunities," Sehwag said.
Sehwag's contribution with the bat to this match is now over but he is still bullish on India's chances. He refused to accept that India stood on the brink of disaster, saying the hosts had the firepower to stage a fight back. "They need to play their own shots but they need to exercise patience."
He referred, of course, to the historic Test of the 2001 in Kolkata where India escaped to victory against Australia at the Eden Gardens. There is one crucial difference: that side had Laxman and Dravid. There is still an opportunity for their replacements in this game to script a similar miracle. Do Vijay, Badrinath and Saha have it in them? The next day or two could reveal some more interesting facts about the future.