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