October 22, 2010

Three for tomorrow

Raina, Kohli and Pujara still have rough edges, but in Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, they have some of the best teachers and guides around

A young trio has been sighted, riding into Indian cricket with confidence and self-belief that would do their illustrious senior team-mates proud. They seem to belong, a state of existence that has thwarted many, and indeed have revelled in the pressure and attention that is part of the job description of playing for India. They are all batsmen, a fact that says as much about the aspirations of the young as it does about the pitches and the box office in Indian cricket. Or maybe those are related.

Suresh Raina leads the pack as the most exciting young player in India today. He is also probably the calmest, a fact not unrelated to his success. Often the person off the field has a considerable bearing on the performance of the person on it, and young Raina seems grounded, eager to learn, and has a wonderful habit of celebrating landmarks without seeming to be possessed by a demon. And like most people of his generation, he backs himself in attack; in a 50-50 situation he will prefer to go for it rather than wait. In the last couple of months, admittedly in conditions he thrives in, his confidence has shone through.

There is still a question mark over how he plays the short ball but his education isn't complete yet. It is a chapter that isn't yet on the syllabus for young Indian players, for year after year cricket is played on slow pitches and against medium-pacers. Raina is playing in an era where it is possible to be successful without really mastering the ball that is aimed at your throat, but whether or not he seeks to overcome that will be a pointer to his ambition.

There is little doubt that he has benefitted from playing in the IPL, for he has had to walk into situations that require him to take control. It is easy to malign the influence of the IPL, and indeed of all Twenty20, on the development of young cricketers, but never underestimate the lessons it can teach in handling pressure. Raina has learnt those, as indeed has Virat Kohli, who grows more impressive by the day.

There was a time when a violent temper and an ego unbecoming of someone so tender in years served as his identity. In recent times he has shown unmistakable signs of maturity, of becoming more versatile: happy to bat at No. 3 in a large run-chase, comfortable at No. 6 as a finisher in a Twenty20 match. His temperament seems a lot more solid now and he paces an innings really well, a sign of someone who is good at reading situations. It is generally perceived that the IPL, and other differently named but similar tournaments, encourage sloggers. The perception is only partly correct. Those tournaments are also throwing young men into high-pressure situations, and good players like Kohli are growing as a result.

However, Kohli is yet to recognise that scoring a century, or hitting the stumps from square of the wicket, is a happy occasion, not a moment to show off the range of expletives you possess. In course of time, like with the more level-headed Raina, he will treat victory with dignity, realise that aggression is a state of mind, not of body. There is little doubt that Kohli will soon play Test cricket, as indeed it is inevitable that Cheteshwar Pujara will one-day internationals.

Pujara has but one substantial innings behind him in international cricket, but more impressive than even the runs he scored in Bangalore was the manner in which he assessed the situation. The scoreboard was moving but there seemed a calmness around him. Unlike Kohli or Raina, he has chosen the more traditional - some might say the harder - route to the national team. For three years he has scored runs everywhere he has gone, and that means he has played on benign and spiteful wickets, in happy times and more demanding ones. He is as ready to play international cricket as anybody that our system can throw up. And if he does well, we will have a young man who reads scripture to motivate himself.

Each of these three will benefit, not suffer from, the presence of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. It will be the best finishing school they could ask for, and hopefully it will help smoothen the passing of the baton.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here