February 3, 2012

The last we've seen of India's old middle order

Dravid and Laxman will know their time is up. And Tendulkar will go sooner than later too

The middle of a series is an inopportune time to call for someone's head. A tour selection is like a contract and you must wait to see the term through. Yes, players can be left out, they can be injured, but to ask them to be consigned forever midway through does nobody any good, especially when we talk of players who are part of the game's folklore.

We are not talking of scraps of paper, more like authoritative works of reference. These are players who have given much joy, made you proud to belong. You looked into the distance and imagined them playing for you. It is understandable that you want to linger a while in your assessment, look once more. It must not be so, for sport is meant to be tough, but with the very special, the heart rules. It is never easy to sit in judgement over those whose feet you sat by. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar are names that will bring a sigh in old age when even the first glass of wine is untouched.

But the series is over, a series that could mark the beginning of a resurgent Australia and an uncertain India. There is no Test cricket for India for a while. It is time to peer into their future, to wonder if a spring will indeed follow this autumn.

Dravid's finest stroke in Australia came in Canberra, where the gentleman, the romantic and the historian in him painted a wonderful canvas of Indian and world cricket. For an hour in Melbourne the bat willed him on. It allowed him the familiar crispness of strokeplay and the power of defence. Then all of a sudden it vanished, and in its place appeared something that looked like one of mine in school. The intent was still there, the work ethic was immaculate, and he practised as hard as before, and harder than some of those around him. But this bat deviated from the pad and those remarkable young Australian bowlers kept finding their way through. It was like they had discovered a pass in an impenetrable mountain.

A year ago Dravid had faced a similar situation and battled through. Five centuries and an astonishing 2011 happened - it was almost like the Dravid of 2002-03 again. You rejoiced for him but this is a relapse and the body is a year older. Thoughts of a life beyond cricket will have become stronger.

As they would have for another extraordinary gentleman and artist. I keep mentioning that for sport needs its performers and its statesmen too. Laxman is as gentle and courteous as they come, and he has done the game an honour by being in it. But the twinkle-toed fencer who could, from a yard and a half outside the crease, hit the same ball from Shane Warne either to midwicket or through cover had long given way to a heavier, more defensive jabber. In his new incarnation of a back-to-the-wall fighter he kept many games alive for India, won some when he was the only one who thought it possible. The ball still left his bat with politeness, but he was having to work harder. It's a cruel thing, sport, because that awareness comes earlier than in most professions.

Both Dravid and Laxman are proud individuals. They will listen to the voice within, for it never lies. It is a voice that is gently telling them to listen to the applause and keep the memories alive. It is showing them a path, not to the middle but to Indian cricket's hall of fame. It is a gallery they will embellish, a place they can take their children to with pride and notice other fathers pointing them out to their children. This is a good time for both, friends and artists, to sign off their final work and begin another chapter, where doubtlessly their contribution will be invaluable.

Soon it will be time too to ask one of the greatest of the modern era what his thoughts for the future are. Two batsmen, both answering to the name of Sachin Tendulkar, turned up for this series. The first was a free-scoring colossus who made you gasp with the purity of his strokeplay, the second was someone who carried a tent with him and chose to go within for long periods. The second frequently cannibalised the first and that was the pity of it all because it was the first who left you in awe, who had brought memories of another day to the Don. So which Tendulkar will the rest of 2012 showcase? If it is the second, there is an element of the finite to it all; if the first vanquishes its current captor, then who knows!

If there was another such tour coming up it would have been time for the selectors to invite Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni for a cup of coffee too. But with two years of international cricket on the subcontinent, maybe that meeting can be deferred for a while, but not for too much longer.

The next time India play a Test match, the middle order will have a different look to it. That is the way of the world. Another flower must bloom, another boy must become a man.

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