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

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