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