September 25, 2008

The last tour

Why the Australia series marks the end of India's great middle order, and even, possibly, of the primacy of Test cricket

Last chapters: it's nearly curtains for India's legendary middle order, and much else besides © AFP

Australia's tour of India that begins with the first Test in Bangalore on the ninth of October brings with it a sense of an ending. It feels like a moment of transition between one cricketing era and the next.

This sense of an old order dissolving is reinforced by the dramatis personae. After he lost the Test series in Sri Lanka, Anil Kumble as captain seems more than ever part of an endangered old guard. Even when he was made captain in the wake of Rahul Dravid's resignation, the appointment was seen as an interim one. The Australian tour was considered too difficult a tour on which to blood a young captain like Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who already had the responsibility of captaining the one-day side. Kumble did a heroic job of leading the Test team through a controversial tour, but Dhoni's outstanding record as a captain in limited-overs cricket, and Kumble's poor form in the lost Test series in Sri Lanka, have heightened expectations that Dhoni will captain India in every form of the game sooner rather than later.

The dropping of Sourav Ganguly from consideration underlines the imminent change in personnel. Dravid will be dropped if he does as poorly as he did against Sri Lanka; he is now riding his resumé. VVS Laxman will, as always, be on trial, and while Sachin Tendulkar can still write his own retirement date, not even the most besotted loyalist will deny that the great batting phalanx that sustained Indian cricket for a dozen years is near the end of its collective existence.

Transitions like this happen in the life of every cricket team, so you could ask what's special about this one. After all, the Australians have lost Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn, and they're now rebuilding just as India will once the stalwarts leave.

But this time is different. First of all there are no obvious replacements for Kumble and the batsmen who are about to fade away. It's possible that Rohit Sharma or S Badrinath or Suresh Raina will come into their own once the giants depart but I doubt it. One generation of batsmen has already flattered to deceive: Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif promised much and they've played enough now for us to know that they'll never be much better than middling Test batsmen. And none of the other names I've mentioned have forced their way into contention in the way that Ganguly and Dravid did in 1996. The moment they made their joint debuts there was no doubt in anyone's mind that they were in the team to stay. With the new lot, all you hear is special pleading on account of their youth, which doesn't seem a good or pressing reason for their representing the country.

I'd be nearly as depressed on the spinning front were it not for Piyush Chawla. It's hard to know how he'll turn out in the long run, but there's a keenness and fearlessness about him in the field that leads middle-aged men to hope for greatness. Murali Kartik must be the Yuvraj Singh of Indian slow bowling; Bishan Singh Bedi's very keen on him, but though we must defer to the great man it needs to be said that the tradition of left-arm spin Kartik represents leads back to Bapu Nadkarni not Bedi himself.

You can't help feeling that at the very moment that Twenty20 cricket, in the shape of the second IPL season, threatens to take centre-stage in world cricket because of its showbiz potential, its silly money and its compressed excitement, the Indian Test team is about to lose the star quality that sustained it in recent times. Ganguly's gone; now think of the Test team without Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Kumble. You're left with one quality batsman, Virender Sehwag; one promising one who's yet to make his Test debut, Rohit Sharma; one spinner who occasionally runs through a side, Harbhajan Singh; and a bunch of interesting but injury-prone seamers. Not the best ingredients with which to sustain interest in Test cricket at a time when the long game is under siege.

If we're at the end of Australia's modern heyday, we might well be looking at the end not of Test cricket but of its reign as the hegemonic form of the game

In contrast the limited-overs teams are full of exciting young players made for that format: Dhoni, Yuvraj, Raina, Robin Uthappa, Praveen Kumar, Rohit, the brothers Pathan - the list seems endless. If I were a young boy excited about cricket today, why would I follow the fortunes of a middling Test team packed with players of moderate ability once our veterans have retired, taking their glorious careers with them?

Worse still, the Australians, who single-handedly kept interest in Test cricket alive by geeing up the Test game, upping the run-rate, forcing results (generally wins for themselves), and nearly making the draw extinct, are themselves entering a period of ordinariness and decline. It's typical of the times that the most celebrated new entrant into the Australian Test squad is Shane Watson, the quintessential Twenty20 player, who made such a huge impression on the first season of the IPL. And I don't think Jason Krejza and Bryce McGain are going to take the Test world by storm simply because Australia have been scraping the barrel in search of spinners to replace Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. It costs me to say it but this golden age of Australian cricket, from Mark Taylor to Ricky Ponting via Steve Waugh, through which they produced a whole regiment of modern greats, gave Test cricket a longer lease of the cricketing limelight than it might have had in the normal course of cricket history. If we're at the end of Australia's modern heyday, we might well be looking at the end, not of Test cricket, but of its reign as the hegemonic form of the game.

To anyone who followed cricket before one-day internationals became fixtures on the calendar, this Australian visit has a lovely old-fashioned air to it. It's a throwback to the old days when a tour meant a series of Test matches rather than a mix of Tests and one-day matches. The Australians are here to play Test matches alone: so for India, success or failure will hinge wholly on Test match performances. Unlike on our tour of Australia we won't be able to lose the Test series and console ourselves by winning a bunch of ODIs. After the tour ends on the 10th of November, India will return to playing truncated Test series made up of two or three matches, fitted in between limited-overs games. It's a sign of the times.

I hope I'm wrong about Test matches and their future, but I suspect I'm not. So I plan to squeeze this month of end-to-end Test cricket for all the juice the long game has to offer. I shall learn to love Ponting, cheer for Brett Lee, and applaud the enemy's centuries. They may be Aussies, but there's something about extinction that helps you love a game for its own sake.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • usman on October 1, 2008, 5:43 GMT

    Players like Rohit and Raina deserve an extended run in the team right now, but it is rather unfortunate that some in the old guard who are clearly crocks past their prime keep latching on to their positions and resting on their laurels, so much for the commercial enchantment of cricket nowadays. Not many historically have had the national pride and interest at heart, and have selfishly striven to elongate their fading careers at the expense of crucial years lost for the identified national superstars of the future.

  • Aditya on October 1, 2008, 1:14 GMT

    In my opinion, age should not be a criterion, because I have watched Sanath Jayasurya, play the best T20 innings in an international T20 fixture. Jayasurya, should be playing international cricket. To be frank, when I watched Saurav Ganguly, and Rahul Dravid, for the first time, I did not know, that they would become such great players. Rahul Dravid, was just an anxious youngster, and that is mainly how I remember him. Anil Kumble, showed a lot of promise, at the beginning of his career, but now his reputation speaks for itself. India, may have the better bowling attack, compared to Australia, in Indian bowling conditions. I am sure, that Ishant Sharma, will play, so will perhaps, Zaheer Khan, or R P Singh, along with Anil Kumble, and Harbhajan Singh. There is talk of a fifth bowler.

  • Ashok on September 30, 2008, 16:25 GMT

    It is not a doom & gloom time Mukul. We have excellent younger generation to replacethe aging cricketers. Indian batting will be strong with Gambhir and Sehwag representing one of the best opening pair in the world today. Raina, Kaif and Rohit Sharma are young and very promising middle order batsmen & excellent fielders too. Dhoni has done extremely well so far as a batsmen WK and easily ranks amongst the best in the world. Harbhajan, Ishant,Khan, Ojha,Kartik & Chawla provide good bowling support. We still need to work on Yuvraj, V.Kohli, Pathan brothers & Sreesanth to provide the back up. This is an excellent nucleaus of future Indian test Team which very few countries can match including Australia. I think these cricketers will fill the voids left by the Fab 4 + Kumble quite capably. Even in the current series with the Ausies, I predict a close contest which India should win with Gambhir, Sehwag, Raina, Kaif and Harbhajan showing their worth. Please think positively - Lets GO India!

  • Alastair on September 29, 2008, 22:23 GMT

    Cheer up fellas. Sure Sachin and co have been fantastic batsmen and great to watch, but it's not like they are the only talented cricketers in India. And besides, even with their enormous talent, India has still never been a consistently great test team (something which makes Tests all the more interesting). When was the last time they won a test series in New Zealand? So much more left for the Indian team to achieve! While the number of people actually going to test matches may be low, the number of people following test matches surreptitiously on Cricinfo or The Guardians's OBO (or both at the same time) while they should be working is not inconsiderable. I have noticed that every time India is playing a cricket match (test or otherwise), the internet runs slower. A sign that all forms of the game still hold great interest worldwide (and from a personal point of view, a lot more interest than a contrived money making league that still produces many dull results).

  • usman on September 29, 2008, 1:23 GMT

    Mina - for every success you are listing, there are a number of failures attached too in the last four years for SRT. Take for example, the recent total shambles in SL, his performnces in the last three Series V Pak especially in the Karachi and the Bangalore defeats etc.

  • Mina on September 28, 2008, 13:51 GMT

    This is my last-Sorcerer ! Sachin's test performances in the last four years speaks for itself - but I'll put in my bit as well ! Though dogged with injuries,during this period, this Great has always come back strongly and played series-defining roles in Tests, and one-dayers. Think back to the India-England Test Series in 2007, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy (2007-8), where he was the leading run scorer with 493 runs in four tests; and greatly instrumental in India winning the CB Series Down Under. Not to mention being dismissed seven times in 2007, when in the nineties. Forget the stats, this little master brings a unique 'Sachin' dimension to our team. Maybe, some Indians today, want to see him go. But so does the opposition! Any Team, playing against India, will be mighty pleased to see the last of him ! What better compliment can one get? I rest my case !!

  • usman on September 28, 2008, 3:18 GMT

    Well, having a single lean Test Series coupled with a minor run of low scores in a commercial-based 20/20 extravaganza does not lend Ponting liable to strident calls for retirement or claims of batting decline. Contrasting that of course to the mediocrity of Tendulkar's Test performances in the last four years which is an entirely different perspective altogether regardless of whether he is an Indian player and thus would be more under scrutiny.

  • Mina on September 27, 2008, 10:09 GMT

    This refers to Sorcerer and my 'incorrect Ponting average'....I should have clarified that I was referring to Ponting's woeful form during the 2007-8 India-Australia Test series Down Under, and his poor showing in the IPL as well. Going by current form, and a one-off poor test series, Ponting would have been under immense pressure, and public scrutiny - if he was an Indian !

  • usman on September 27, 2008, 0:12 GMT

    Indeed Mukul has picked up the trends accurately which are stark anyway when talking about the fading batting greats of Indian game. Also, Mina has incorrectly talked about the "dipping" average of Ponting - something which has to be put right as that is a wrong observation. In the last four years - 2005 - 2008, Ponting's batting averages have been mighty consistent and high......61,61,55 and 62! Ponting has reached the pinnacle of his batting might. Contrasting that to those of Tendulkar who has comparatives of 44,24,55,23. And then Dravid has 46,32,42 and 38. Quite a marked difference.

  • Vaidyanathan on September 26, 2008, 23:30 GMT

    The problem with great players when they retire is people start looking for someone to fill their boots and it does not happen overnight. It takes some time and loads of patience before people settle in. Sometimes it costs an entire generation of players to wipe out memories of the great ones so that someone could start afresh and redefine the benchmarks. After the spin quartet India took close to a decade to come up with the next great spinner in Anil Kumble. Australia is almost frantic trying to see a Shane Warne and McGrath in their domestic bowlers! The transition period will be tough for everyone: fans, the players who are asked to replace the great ones, the selectors, the team and the captains...What it needs is loads and loads of patience...after all great players don't happen overnight!

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