December 25, 2012

Where are India's next Test openers?

The domestic circuit isn't producing batsmen with the skills and temperament for five-day cricket. A certain T20 league is to blame, though not entirely

Indian cricket has become a strange beast of late. Confused, condemned and quite incomprehensible - much like Frankenstein's monster. While the selectors fumble for answers and the board finds itself in a tight spot, the average Indian fan is left bemused. What happens to Indian cricket from here on is the question that looms large in everyone's mind. There's an obvious dearth of quality spinners, the fast bowlers on offer are unappealing, and the opening combination has been spiritless for far too long.

Let's start at the top. The crisis of a consistent and sound opening partnership. Why has it been so poor? More importantly, why haven't India found replacements?

Take the curious case of M Vijay, now known as a T20 specialist. He's the only Indian to have scored two centuries in the IPL, both thoroughly entertaining and enterprising. When on song, especially in the shortest format and while playing for Chennai Super Kings, Vijay seems to be one of the most gifted cricketers around. His comfort against pace and bounce, his ability to stay balanced even while playing outrageous shots, and his relentless aggression make you feel he is cut out for T20.

Was Vijay always this sort of a player? Far from it. He started as a sedate opener who possessed a decent defensive technique and the patience needed to bat time. On his first-class debut, against Delhi, on a good batting surface, he consumed 192 balls to score 59 runs. It wasn't just his patience that stood out; he showed the ability to blunt Delhi's new-ball attack of Ashish Nehra and Ishant Sharma. He looked special, and had he progressed in the right direction, he would have been a sure-shot Test player in the making.

Some players give you that impression. Vijay did. When I saw him next, in another Ranji game, he had developed horizontal strokes off the back foot and found another gear in his batting without compromising on his technical foundations. He remained an orthodox opener essentially - cautious at the beginning, seeing the shine off, playing late, close to his body and accelerating only once set.

The last time I saw him was in the Ranji final in January this year, where Tamil Nadu were chasing a mammoth total on a very dull pitch with no bounce or pace. The pitch wasn't ideal for strokemaking, but if you put your mind to it and decided to be patient, it wasn't difficult to stay put.

The new, but not necessarily upgraded, version of Vijay surprised me. He played a shot a ball and perished soon after. He had changed completely from a solid and somewhat placid batsman to a flashy and over-the-top aggressive one. A few successful seasons in the IPL had transformed this potential Test opener to a T20 batsman.

Now, if Vijay tries to go back to being his old self, it will probably take only a couple of failures in the long format for him to give up and decide to pursue the skills necessary to succeed in T20.

The IPL has inadvertently become the fall guy for everything that has gone or will go wrong with Indian cricket. Much of that blame, though, from a purist's point of view, is not misplaced. It is not just Vijay who has changed his game to suit the demands of the IPL; an entire generation of openers in Indian domestic cricket have changed their style of batting.

No longer do you find young Indian openers spending hours in the nets to get acquainted with their off stump, and to master the art of leaving balls alone. No longer do they allow the ball to come to them and play close to their body. Their style is mostly about hitting boundaries. It doesn't really matter how the runs come as long as they come. You see a lot of flashing through or over the slip cordon, and high-risk shots like playing on the up even when the ball is darting around. Rarely do you see someone dropping anchor and playing the waiting game.

Why should Haryana's Rahul Dewan or Punjab's Jiwanjot Singh continue to bat in the way best suited for the longer format when the IPL scouts look past them?

So how did the whole fabric of Indian cricket change? Merely blaming the IPL is looking at the problem without its proper context.

Firstly, the stability of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag at the top for six to seven years left little hope for second-rung openers. No matter how well these batsmen did on the domestic circuit, there was no place at the top in the national side. In the ideal world, it was a good problem for India to have. But once the IPL arrived, these second-rung players had an option. Playing for the country was no longer the be-all and end-all of a cricketer's existence.

Secondly, T20 recognised and valued a radically different set of skills amongst openers. The new ball, instead of being left alone, was to be butchered. The harder and more often you could hit the ball, the more valuable you became in the eyes of the franchises. The money on offer was also significantly higher than that on the first-class circuit.

Why should Haryana's Rahul Dewan or Punjab's Jiwanjot Singh continue to bat in the way best suited to the longer format while the IPL's scouts look through them and offer these players' peers lucrative IPL contracts instead? It's wonderful to preach the importance of playing the game for the love of it but it's difficult to console a youngster who is missing out on fame and money.

The custodians of the game, the pundits, the media, and the people of this country, we all seem obsessed with IPL success. Ajinkya Rahane's average of 60 in first-class cricket over five seasons didn't create a ripple, but one good IPL season was enough to make him an exceptional talent to watch out for.

We need to realise that openers and spinners need to radically change their techniques to suit the demands of the various formats of the game. While the more experienced players know how to make that switch, the younger lot aren't equipped to strike that balance. Which is why there aren't enough openers and spinners on the domestic circuit who can make it to Test level.

Who do you then replace Gambhir and Sehwag with? The way out of this muddle is to identify young openers from the first-class teams who still have the skills and the temperament to succeed in Test cricket. Bring them in for further development of talent and monitor their progress, compensate them for their efforts (so that they don't feel insecure when their peers make serious money in the IPL), and send them to England for more practice during the summer.

This period of restoration might take time but it is sure to reap results. Merely changing a few players in the current Indian squad won't change the team's fortunes. Unless India makes these radical systemic changes with a vision, it's unlikely they will climb the Test summit again.

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

  • jb633 on December 27, 2012, 13:29 GMT

    @CurrentPresident- Maybe you think that is the case but you should try and get tickets for the Ashes test match at Lord's. Let me put it this way, you will find it 30 times easier to get a ticket for any T20 game. T20 is not entertaining whatsoever. In fact it is barely even sport. In any given sport the only thing that should matter is winning. In T20 cricket nobody really cares about the results. How is this good sport or even remotley entertaining? T20 cricket is like having half a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice with a half a pint of water. Test cricket is the full pint of freshly squeezed juice.

  • CurrentPresident on December 27, 2012, 1:48 GMT

    What's the big deal about Test Cricket. It's like people complaining that travelling on trains was so much more romantic than flying in planes. Or claiming that posting a handwritten letter is the right way to communicate with others.

    Those days are gone. People need to be more productive and that means a lack of time in general.

    Let's not forget what this is. Entertainment. To some people it may seem like a religion, but they don't/can't pay the bills. So the game will be played the way the large majority likes to consume it. 20/20 has come to stay because that's what people have time for. It has its own intricacies and skill set requirements.

    Why is it correct to use up 400 deliveries to make 80 runs? Are you curing cancer? or doing surgery? That you need to take the time to slice the cells just right no matter how long it takes. Come on! It's an optional entertainment activity competing with movies, TV, Xbox and others. For the general public, excitement beats nuances.

  • Nampally on December 27, 2012, 0:29 GMT

    @itsthewayuplay:I have been commenting on lack of short or long term plan for player development in Cricinfo columns for the past 4 years. The Selectors have no vision for Team development. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? It is the BCCI. Firstly they select one set of guys for 2 or 3 matches. Bench 3 players consistently. Then they are totally forgotten without ever getting a chance to play in the XI. No Selectors in the World has such aimless fancy selection without any basis! The XI selection by Dhoni is even worse. Why on earth did they select Harbhajan & Chawla in the squad with Zero performance in any format of the game for past 12 months? Why were Mukund & Vijay included & forgotten? Where are guys who warmed the bench for 20 games like Rahul Sharma, Tiwary & Rahane - still no test cap. Countless seamers discarded uncermoniously. Who controls these guys from behaving like cowboys instead of sensible Selectors?

  • itsthewayuplay on December 26, 2012, 20:39 GMT

    As Aakash has identified, Sehwag and Gambhir albeit for a shorter period are the automatic first choice openers regardless of their form. Cook however showed recently the value of application and consistency is much better than fast and furious such as Sehwag who at best is a 1 in 20 performer scoring a century in 1st test on a flat wicket and then did nothing in the next 3 more challenging pitches. Secondly other openers are only given a chance when one of these 2 are injured eg Mukund played the first 2 tests in England and then a clearly unfit Sehwag was recalled for the 3rd and 4th tests without having fully recovered from surgery. Thirdly there's no long term planning. Sometimes you've got to pick players purely for the experience and benefit in the long run and be prepared to accept that you may lose games in the meantime. This creates competition for places which ensures players always have to give their best every time unlike the don't care attitude of Sehwag and Gambir.

  • Nampally on December 26, 2012, 16:45 GMT

    @3Cents: Much as I sympathise with your disdain for IPL, the reality is IPL is in India to stay. It has to be accepted & Indian Test + ODI teams developed. The irony is even the outstanding players from IPL do not get a chance in the Indian T20 team. So why not establish a basis for the IndianTeam Selection first. India is never short of Cricketers of all categories. The real issue is finding them early & developing them into Stars. Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid did not appear out of thin air. They were born & bred in India & learnt cricket in Indian system as well. The cream always rises to the top. India needs active scouting staff from school to college to Ranji level. In American baseball, Hockey & Basketball there are scouts who discover talent. What has BCCI done of this kind for Cricket with its huge $40 Million+ annual profits? BCCI has to play a more prominent role in development of Cricket in India - currently non existent.Even Sahara has done more for Indian Cricket than BCCI!

  • S2A2 on December 26, 2012, 11:28 GMT

    I think so the selectors themselves are looking for flamboyance! ( what wud u expect when Srikant is the chief selector!) People like Wasim Jaffer are not considered any more inspite being a prolific scorer. I know he failed in Australia but that does not mean he shud nt b given a chance again! i think so he is still the best in Indian conditions! Akash - even u got a raw deal from the selectors!

  • tintin1409 on December 26, 2012, 10:44 GMT

    Aakash Chopra has very aptly put forward points ailing Indian test cricket. Whether we like it or not, IPL has played a role to our declining standards in test matches. Perfect example being Murali Vijay, who has lost all credentials to becoming a test prospect post his success in IPL. While Rahane kept scoring huge runs in Ranji, no one noticed him till the time he succeeded in IPL. Isn't it logical for the player then to focus on T20 to forward his career. Firstly, different team setups have to be made for Test as well as T20 cricket. Like Australia does, good test prospects have to be completely kept away from T20. Secondly test cricketers need to be rewarded & compensated handsomely, in line with what he would earn by playing such leagues, this will serve as a great motivation to not divert his attention. Thirdly, BCCI should look into addign a bit of glamour and media attention for test cricket for cricketers to earn fame and popularity, 2 important things for today's youth.

  • Cricinfouser on December 26, 2012, 4:22 GMT

    What chance do we realistically have of discovering a Dravid or a Laxman in such a system (both IPL laggards, one an outright failure and the other was famously discarded by its owner, branding him and his team as "test players", the most derogatory term ever to be used in a IPL set up)? Can the Indian cricket really do anything about this? Don't mistake the IPL fans to be Indian cricket fans. They are purely a bunch of entertainment seekers. This is just an outing for them (atleast the ones in the stadium) and an alternative to a cinema , a visit to a mall or a carnival or just a pub. They have no loyalty to IPL or to the sport itself. Unfortunately, given the tragic state of TV entertainment, IPL offers a better alternative to those at home seeking a drama with average performers. 2012 the world didn't end, but I think it certainly ended the hopes of serious Indian cricket fans!! Long live the golden generation that gave us those beautiful memories that we can cherish now!