June 25, 2012

Who can step into Dravid's giant shoes?

Three young batsmen stand out from the pack, but they need time and guidance before they can become the backbone of India's middle order

Rahul Dravid's retirement from international cricket has posed India a serious question: have they figured out which players are most likely to fill the void?

The decision to end your career may be a personal one, but the impact is felt by the entire set-up, especially when the player is of Dravid's stature. India could have prepared for life after Dravid during last year's home Tests against West Indies by accommodating Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma or Virat Kohli at Nos. 3 and 6 through the series. It would have given us insights into Kohli's technique to counter the new ball when the pitch and bowlers are fresh, and into Rohit's temperament to play the waiting game.

Sadly, in India we seem to act only when inaction ceases to be an option. Now we are compelled to identify talent and give them a long-enough rope.

Dravid's retirement raised a question about the role of senior players in the Test team. Since he had been India's most successful Test batsman over the 12 months before he retired, he could well have continued for a few more home series before calling it quits. But in his retirement speech he said that since he didn't expect to tour South Africa in 2013-14, it was only fair to allow youngsters an extended run on home soil before they were tested abroad.

The selectors must now sit VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag down to draw a blueprint for India's future. Will Laxman and Tendulkar commit to be on that tour to South Africa and beyond? If not, what should the course of action be? Will Sehwag consider batting in the middle order?

While there was a lot of emphasis on India's openers performing poorly away from home in the last 18 months, the middle order (barring Tendulkar and Dravid, who averaged in the mid-40s) performed below par too. Hence, as important as it is to find Dravid's replacement, it is equally important to identify players in the middle order who can take Indian cricket forward after the Tendulkar and Laxman eras.

Who are the available options?

Virat Kohli
Since he bats at No. 3 in ODIs, Kohli is the most logical replacement for Dravid. He has the appetite for scoring big hundreds, a fact borne out by his one-day and first-class statistics.

To fill Dravid's shoes, especially outside the subcontinent, the new No. 3 should have the technique and temperament of an opener, because he'll often walk in to bat with very few runs on the board. Kohli's temperament passed the test in Australia - where he got his maiden Test hundred - but his technique didn't. His short-and-very-across front-foot movement makes him a candidate for leg-before decisions if there's lateral movement in the air or off the pitch, especially to fuller length deliveries. He makes up for it by allowing the ball to come to him and playing it late, but while that works when the ball is older, it's much harder to do when it's new. Kohli doesn't have this problem in ODIs because bowlers rarely try to swing or pitch it up in the shorter formats.

Still, there's enough going for him. He has been the most-improved Indian batsman of recent times. He had a problem against the short ball in his first few Test matches but he overcame it, so it's fair to assume he will be able to remedy his footwork too.

Cheteshwar Pujara
The Saurashtra batsman seems stuck in a different era from his peers. While several of them play an aggressive and uninhibited brand of cricket, Pujara is the quintessential Test match player, who works at making his technique water-tight and who, in times of trouble, will choose to grind the opposition down over hitting to get out of jail. While he possesses a wide array of strokes, innovative shots like the reverse sweep and switch hit aren't for him.

If the yardstick to judge a Test batsman is how he handles bouncers and plays off the back foot, Pujara passes with flying colours. Along with a sound technique, he has the patience to spend time at the crease and score big hundreds. But as I can tell from personal experience, succeeding at the highest level isn't only about technique and patience. Pujara is a good investment, but we'll only know in time whether he will be a successful Test player.

Rohit Sharma
Rohit, like Yuvraj Singh, is a prime example of the fact that talent can take you only so far, beyond which it's strength of character that determines the duration and the direction of your journey. I've seen Rohit play two nearly identical innings in first-class cricket in which he hit breathtaking shots but also displayed a tendency of getting too far ahead of himself. Even after nicking a delivery through slips while playing the swinging ball on the up, he didn't think twice before attempting the same shot off the following ball. The standard of cricket in India's domestic set-up allows him to get away with it but the chances of surviving with the same approach in Test cricket are negligible. His talent will ensure the selectors keep him in the scheme of things but he must make radical changes to the way he constructs his innings to warrant a place in the Test side.

I would have included S Badrinath too, for he could be a short-tem option, but he seems to have fallen off the selectors' radar since he isn't in the India A squad touring West Indies currently.

It will take a herculean effort for Yuvraj to make it back to competitive cricket, so to expect him to work at turning over a new leaf in Test cricket is a bit too ambitious.

Suresh Raina is fighting to fix his technical shortcomings - like knowing where his off stump is - and to get over the mental block which compels him to believe that every ball bowled by a fast bowler is a bouncer. Like Yuvraj, it will take a miraculous effort for him to pull his Test career together. But he is a hard-working cricketer so we can hope he will.

Manoj Tiwary is not in the same league yet but can be kept in mind for the future provided he continues churning out big runs in domestic and A level cricket.

For the next 16 months India will play all their Tests in the subcontinent. They may face tough choices with regard to priorities - should they focus on becoming the No. 1 Test side in the world, which is realistic considering India's engagements in this period, or should they try to identify cricketers who are most likely to succeed overseas and give those players enough opportunities to cement their places in the side?

I would go with the latter. India may lose a few games in the bargain but that is a small price to pay for avoiding a 0-8 result in future.

We shall discuss the spin resources in the next column.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Srinivas on June 28, 2012, 21:46 GMT

    I don't think there's any player in India who can step into Dravid's giant shoes. So, let's not add pressure on the in-coming youngster. Having said that, I think Pujara is definitely cut for bigger things in our senior team. Nohit errrmm...Rohit Sharma has flattered to deceive. Hope Rahane is not getting too engrossed with his IPL exploits and comparisons with Dravid and the subsequent pressure. We have more than a few fine youngsters - Pujara>Rahane>Kohli>Nohit errrmmm..Rohit....

  • Dummy4 on June 28, 2012, 12:30 GMT

    Well said Akash.. I feel one can't written off these young cricketers. until they have given enough chance...Off course Dravid ,Sachin, laxman, Ganguly great batsman remember they also came as these cricketers... for ex. Laxman made his debut in 1996 but he is only came to reckoning when we scored 281 against Aussis. even after he was dropped many times from the playing eleven and he wasn't batted at 3 in consistent basis, so Virat, Pujar,Rohit, Rahane etc may fail in couple of innings if you persist with him they defiantly turn it on ... Look at dravid in 99-00 Australian series, 1996-97 tour of SA where first two test matches he did nothing. Give chance and don't expect them to turn the things in one or two test matches

  • Dummy4 on June 28, 2012, 7:52 GMT

    Nice article, in my view its time we give a fair chance to someone like Pujara because he seems to have the technique& temprament of a no.3 batsman, Virat is the brightest of the current lot, lets not forget Badrinath because he has tons of experience in domestic cricket& is a very hard working cricketer. It is high time to reward Rohit with a test cap& likes of Raina, Rahane should be kept an eye on. We must not forget onething that apart from looking for batsmen we need to look for 2-3 good fast bowlers & some spinners, then only India will be a force to reckon with when we travel overseas.

  • Dummy4 on June 28, 2012, 6:45 GMT

    Add Mandeep and Ashok Meneria with the list...They may overtake the above mentioned players one day!

  • aravamuthan on June 28, 2012, 3:58 GMT

    Why people are always asking Laxman to quit and not talk about the man who is 2 years older than him. These legends should be allowed to take their own decisions and it is expected they would take it sooner.

  • aravamuthan on June 28, 2012, 3:46 GMT

    Rahane is much better batsman than Rohit to be tried in Tests. Let us not carried away by the popularity. Rohit, at best is an exciting ODI/T20 kind of player and at times better than Kohli. It is time Sachin hangs his boot to pave way for the next generation. This will enhance his legendary image.

  • Sudhir on June 27, 2012, 18:14 GMT

    The roadmap leading to 2015 shld be involving the pool of Shewag+Gauti as regular openers with Ajinkya , SRT/Virat, Laxman/Pujara & Rohit/Manoj as d top 6 followed by Dhoni ,Irfan pathan, Ashwin/Ojha, Umesh Yadav, Ishant/Sreeshant....Gudluk India...

  • Dummy4 on June 27, 2012, 9:43 GMT

    Fully agreed with Anand Palwankar. Now there is no point in wasting NZ tour for send off function for VVS. At 39 like Dravid, he himself should announce retirement to make way for Rohit & Pujara. Cse now we have no time left in our hand to keep Rohit / Pujara out of playing 11. If Laxman remains in team, Rohit or Pujara has to sit as 12th man. Really no point. Laxman is not going to play onwards any overseas tour here on. So lets try Rohit & Pujara at right time.

  • Dummy4 on June 27, 2012, 6:17 GMT

    The mighty WI found themselves nowhere after Lloyed, Richards, Holding, Marshal & co. Till today they are suffering. So BCCI has to make way for Rohit & Pujara immediately. We can say Virat is settled. Sachin is already there. Viru, Gautam, Pujara, Virat, Rohit, MS & 5 bowlers, should be the test team for coming NZ tour. Just follow the example of Allen Border. He took brave decisions and built a fresh world class Aussie team after Lilly, Thompson, Marsh, Chappel & co. Laxman has to make way for Rohit and Pujara. No point in keeping these players out of playing 11 again. Rohit suffered lot in Aussie as in the beggining he was among the runs in 2 practice matches. But after waiting 45 days without a match he lost his form. Let Pujara & Rohit play in funal 11. I am sure India will get nice fruitful result out of it. Laxman played enough cricket. Nothing is wrong for him too to say Good Bye for test cricket. We always salute him for his contribution for Indian Cricket.

  • Dummy4 on June 27, 2012, 6:06 GMT

    Nice article and nice subject to discuss. First lets talk about Badrinath. It is simply case of bad luck that Badri took birth in the ear of Sachin, Saurabh, Dravid & Laxman. In last dacade no Indian batsmen could make entry in Indian team cse of these 4 mighty batsmen. But you cant blame anybody. There are so many such cases. Badrinath, Amol Muzumdar, Mohd Kaif etc etc. Even Rohit Sharma is somehow on the same path. He started his cr at the age of 20 and now he is 25. He should have his test debue much before but unless the spot gets empty. Now the time has come to take some take nessessory decisions for BCCI. Make way for both Rohit & Pujara immediately. Prepare Pujara for no 3 and Rohit / Virat anywhere in middle. Coming NZ tour will be the perfect platform for these player to settle themseves before big SA tour later. Laxman has to retire as he is 39. No way to waste this NZ tour making send off for Laxman. Otherwise we may suffer in future like WI..... Cont......

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