It was a dream debut for Suresh Raina.
He toiled for over 250 balls to get his maiden test ton, on a flat wicket against Sri Lanka in the summer of 2010. With this he joined an elite class of cricketers who had gone past a hundred in their very first innings of a test match, much like another middle-order southpaw, Sourav Ganguly. That summer was special for Dhoni and Co. as they recorded a series win over the Lankas after quite some time, much unlike an out-of-favour Yuvraj Singh. The Punjab da puttar was having a difficult phase, lacking the temperament for the longer version, critics claimed. How stark was his comparison to Raina, who himself was going to suffer from indifferent form in the same format.
The selectors had pondered over the coveted number ‘6’ position in the Indian batting middle-order ever since the retirement of former captain Ganguly. Now back in 2008, Dada was forced to concede into hanging his boots after a fair share of pressure and a genuine show of disrespect towards him. Quoting India’s most successful test captain, “Just one last thing lads, before I leave. I just want to say that this is going to be my last series. I've decided to quit. I told my team-mates before coming here. These four Test matches are going to be my last and hopefully we'll go on a winning note.” He was of course mentioning the Border-Gavaskar series of 2008 (which is also noted as the last series of Anil Kumble, and which India famously won 2-0). Well, Dada did end on a high, scoring a century in the series as well earning a deserved winners medal. Dhoni was even august enough to let Ganguly captain the final overs of his last test match. Besides all the ostensible fan-fare, the BCCI’s persistent hanker to breed youngsters was the prime cause of the predicament. The use of the word predicament is no show of fancy vocabulary. The sorry state stands visible to all. No player has averaged 40 in that batting position ever since Dada retired. The Bengalis are very superstitious, and would resort to peevish explanations that its a jinx. “You do bad things, and bad things happen to you,” they would say. Well, I wouldn’t take advice from people who offer fish as ‘prasaad’ (I’m not stereotyping!), but the statistics speak for themselves. Yuvraj had displayed he could bat 5o overs with a superlative knock against Pakistan the previous autumn. Adding to his resume, was his handy left-armers that was quintessential on Indian terrains. He obviously deserved a place in the team and for no reason, Ganguly was the one who had to be scrapped. That was an easy decision, after all he had been dropped before, and the Board was all up for it again. Yuvraj came, hardly saw and definitely didn’t conquer. His might have swash buckled in the shorter versions but Test cricket was not his glass of lassi.
Enter Suresh Raina. Same promise, ironically same result, which was sheer disappointment. Though the team stuck with him for a year or so, the telling scores was a story of “we-told-you-so.” Indeed the game was a great leveller. Well Raina is indeed a very talented batsman, but a talented shorter-version batsman. Some people may ask for more time, but as Sunil Gavaskar once said, if a batsman wants to pull, he can never duck. He should want to leave the ball more, respect the good deliveries and dispatch the bad ones. With a monumental increase in T20 matches, the original Little Master’s words fade in to bare whispers. T20 requires you to hit everything; short or full, off or leg, and unfortunately, good or bad. It was supposed to be a game dominated by youngsters, but good players, good test players showed that if you could bat for 10 hours, you could definitely bat for 10 overs.
Recently Virat Kohli has been taking giant strides in world cricket. The past two years or so, had laid a platform that has suited him ideally. It was the under-21 World Cup where he was first noticed, the IPL-1 was where he took centre stage and has never looked back since. India has a plethora of genuine batsmen, who time the ball well and can very much fill in the gaps of the Indian batting line-up. There will come a time in the near future where we will desperately need more Kohli’s. Its almost curtain-call for India’s three aging gladiators, and the time has come that they pass on the mantle to the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara or Rohit Sharma.
What the BCCI has to follow, is that Test matches are a different ball game from the IPL. It is important to recognise talent from this popular, cash-rich format. But the likes of Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman didn’t have an extravagant stage to highlight their talents, 15-20 years ago. They churned out performances against good bowlers in domestic cricket, and were selected on those grounds. Taking a hat trick, or scoring a meaty century in the IPL shouldn’t be sole criteria for recruitment. If a bowler manages to dig out six yorkers in a T20 game, it isn’t compulsory that he might succeed in the same manner in a test match. A batsmen will just defend all those deliveries and eventually dispatch a bad one to the boundary.
Selection, rather proper selection, should be the base of Indian cricket as we look forward to a Test World Cup in the coming years. Australia, Pakistan and even England are posting gallant teams that look and play mean cricket. It is no time for us to be meek. But putting a brave team is not the only answer. A player who can hit a 100 metre six in 20 overs, may get bounced out in Tests. This is fact. If you expect him to duck the next time, that’s fiction, for he will not. We need ideal replacements, and quick. Or else Virat Kohli may end up like a Brian Lara, a batsman capable of distinction in a fairly average team.