August 9, 2013

Send Jadeja in higher

India will be best served in Test cricket if their two allrounders bat either side of Dhoni

Zimbabwe's series against India was, I'm afraid, a cry for help. Zimbabwe have been feisty in the past but now you pity them. Their cricketers have been, figuratively, beaten and bruised; they have been denied amenities, and now self-respect. Much like the land, its cricket has been abused, and even though many fine players and proud cricketers have emerged from there, they no longer will because a fight without resources can only accomplish so much. Sadly, by the time they take the field, they no longer possess the weapons to compete. It needn't have been like this and Zimbabwe cricket is an illustration of worries deeper than the DRS in our game.

And so as a cricketing contest, Zimbabwe v India was forgettable. At times like these you look beyond the scorecard, and I found myself following Virat Kohli - not so much his batting as his audition for captaincy. Having said that, a word on his batting.

When players drop a level below the one they should really be playing at, they must look invincible, they must look they belong elsewhere. Kohli did, and until he recused himself from the batting order, it had seemed an unequal contest, and in a peculiar way therefore, his reputation actually grew.

I liked the fact that he opted not to bat in the last two games. There was talk about a few records down the road, about becoming the fastest to get to a landmark, and while those are good and praiseworthy, India were in Zimbabwe for another reason. I liked, too, that batsmen who were picked were given a number that did them some justice.

Far too often players are picked, get an appearance against their name but not the opportunity they seek. Here, Ambati Rayudu, so long in the wilderness and a talent in danger of being enveloped by rust, was sent in at No. 4. It could easily have been Dinesh Karthik or Suresh Raina, but Kohli, or maybe Duncan Fletcher, realised they needed to do justice to the man picked. It was a generous move.

In the course of time Raina got to bat at No. 3, Cheteshwar Pujara opened the batting, Ajinkya Rahane got his preferred position, and I particularly liked the fact that Ravindra Jadeja batted at No. 4 in the last game.

These have been a wonderful few months for the young spinner, even if they were preceded by much armchair ridicule. Jadeja is now No. 1 on the ODI rankings for bowlers, and his challenge will lie in staying among the top three, but his future is not as a bowling allrounder, not as someone coming in and slogging at the end. Jadeja made it to the Indian team on the strength of the runs he made, and he is far too exciting a batting talent to be lost in the batting order, living somewhere in the suburbs. Sending him at No. 4 was an acknowledgement that he is a batsman too, and he justified it by finishing the game. It might seem like a small event but it tells a story.

In fact, India's future - more in Test cricket, really - will be best served by Jadeja, the batting allrounder, and R Ashwin, the bowling allrounder, batting either side of MS Dhoni (in fact, I really do hope Ashwin seeks to bat at No. 6 or 7 himself). It will allow India to play five bowlers consistently, and in an era where pitches are getting slower and drier, having two spinners who can bat will be a luxury that few teams have.

Indeed, while Jadeja already bats at No. 4 for Saurashtra, I have no doubt that Ashwin must be in the top six for Tamil Nadu. There is an old theory proved right ever so often. Players tend to bat in a manner that the batting number dictates. If you push a batsman to No. 8 or 9, he will start batting like a No. 8 or 9. Conversely, move a player up the order and he starts building an innings and leaving balls that he might have fancied a swish at.

So Jadeja at four was another tick for Kohli the captain. As indeed was his explanation for not playing Parvez Rasool. There were many of us who thought it might be a good idea to give the young man a chance, but Kohli's suggestion that those on the bench for a long time must play longer has merit. Amit Mishra had to play all five, and if Jadeja had to bat too, there wasn't room for Rasool. Now he must use the opportunity in South Africa and that is what good players do: not sulk about missing out but get excited by what lies ahead.

Over the next month, while the top stars get the break they so need (and one they must enjoy because there isn't another in sight till June 2015!), the best young talent is playing for India A, both in South Africa and in India. That is how it must be. On the field, Indian cricket is looking okay for now. Off the field, well, not quite.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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