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Kapil Dev is arguably the most magical player India ever produced - even ahead of Sachin Tendulkar and Gavaskar - partly because it was always so unlikely that a country like India would produce a fast-bowling allrounder. Gideon Haigh explains this quite eloquently here. In some ways though Kapil is also the worst thing that could have happened to modern Indian cricket, kicking off as it did an eternal hunt for a seaming allrounder that's gone on for about 20 years and counting. Whenever India begins to do badly it feels like the solution to all problems would be to find a new Kapil. The list of players who have been branded 'the next Kapil' on the basis of promise is endless.
First there were the 1983 World Cup men, Madan Lal and Roger Binny, who despite their stellar efforts in that tournament and ample opportunities in Tests (39 and 27 caps respectively) never quite cut it as international allrounders. Then came Manoj Prabhakar who with his banana swing and doughty opening batting was more effective than the earlier two, until Sanath Jayasuriya and the match-fixing controversy brought an end to his hopes. After a brief lull came the man whose credentials for the label bordered on the inexplicable. Ajit Agarkar's first-class record when he got picked for India in April 1998 had nothing to suggest that he was anything more than a quick bowler. Yet, the flashes of incredibly good cricket he managed to produce amidst longer patches of incredibly bad cricket, meant he was branded something he could never really be. And finally, there was Irfan Pathan who came closest of all to fulfilling the role. Debuting in the match that featured Agarkar's best moment, Irfan came close to being a left-handed clone of Kapil. Prodigious swing at a decent clip allied with a smooth batting technique and big-hitting ability meant that he was quickly anointed India's new hope till injuries and a dip in form stymied his career.
Such has been India's obsession with finding a seaming allrounder that you'd believe their spinners never learn to bat. The truth though is that they never got the right sort of backing or assistance. Ravi Shastri was not as gifted as Kapil but would have ended up with much better figures if he had not been forced to play the role of stock bowler and "crisis-batsmen-anywhere-in-the-order" through much of his career. Anil Kumble scored three hundreds and three fifties in his first three Ranji seasons and was good enough to score a Test match ton abroad aged 37. But, barring injuries to other players, he batted as high as No. 7 only eight times in 173 Test innings. Harbhajan Singh was always capable with the bat as his back-to-back Test hundreds in testing circumstances prove, but he got the chance to bat at No. 7 only twice in 101 Tests. Sunil Joshi and Ashish Kapoor had promise but never the confidence of the selectors or their captains.
So it's ironic that now, the two men pinned down as the next all-round hopes for India are also their first-choice spinners across formats. Ravindra Jadeja has had a lot to live up to ever since Shane Warne christened him a rockstar, and R Ashwin also rose to fame through the IPL despite having a solid first-class record. A quick look at their first class records shows that they both have solid credentials, and so far at the international level they have demonstrated enough all-round ability. Jadeja in particular has come on in leaps and bounds, and has just made it to the top spot in the ODI bowling rankings. However, it's in Test cricket that they should demonstrate whether they are the Real McCoy or not. As Harsha Bhogle summarises here a lower middle order that reads Jadeja, Dhoni and Ashwin at 6, 7, and 8 could be central to India's Test success. Given that Jadeja averages over 50 in first-class cricket, he should surely be batting ahead of Dhoni and allowing the captain to play his natural game at No. 7. In that light, Jadeja's absence in the India A side touring South Africa is a missed opportunity. Playing Jadeja in place of Ajinkya Rahane, who is a misfit at No. 6, would have given him a chance to at least get a taste for the role. Ashwin already has the highest batting average among India bowlers with atleast 50 Test wickets. The next year or two will tell us whether these two can go on to bigger things and it'll be an interesting journey to follow. If they succeed, it might just put an end to the search for the next Kapil Dev.
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