By Suresh Menon
Sometimes the future is upon us when we least expect it. Just the other day, there was no batting slot in the Indian team. The so-called Fab Four had locked up the middle order, and later the opening pair had settled themselves in. Now Ganguly is gone, Dravid and Laxman are injured, Yuvraj is yet to score a century after Ganguly’s retirement (although he averages 44 in his last ten Tests, as opposed to 36 overall), and suddenly there are all kinds of possibilities.
A Wridhiman Saha, who would have been mentally prepared for a five-day education from beyond the boundary during the Nagpur Test now finds himself at the deep end. Badrinath gets a chance to make the leap from domestic superstar to international star; Murali Vijay, already being spoken of as the long-term replacement for Dravid, can consolidate.
Of the two reasons for infusing fresh blood – injury and consistently poor team performance – India are dealing with the first. “In the last three or four months we have had someone or the other getting injured and dropping out of the team on a regular basis,” was the philosophical attitude of skipper M S Dhoni, who has said often enough in the past that one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.
It wasn’t so long ago – in 1996, in fact - that an injury to Sanjay Manjrekar brought in a young man who evolved into the backbone of Indian cricket. Rahul Dravid hasn’t looked back since.
Depending on whether you call the core of the Indian team in the past decade and more the Fab Four or the Big Five (with Kumble) or the Super Six (with Sehwag), it is becoming increasingly difficult for the surviving members of these exclusive clubs to play together in recent matches owing to injury.
The foursome of Kumble, Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar played together in a record 86 Tests; add Laxman to that list, and the world record is still theirs, with 65 Tests. Bring Sehwag into the equation, and that lot has played 36 Tests together. (the record for six players doing so is held by Australia, 40). These are impressive figures, and speak of a settled team over a long period. They speak of remarkable skill and consistency in all conditions, against all opponents. These are marks the next generation will be aiming at. It would be unfair, of course, to expect a whole new ready-made bunch to slip into the shoes of the masters and carry on as if there has been no transition.
Over the next year or two, the Indian team will be in transition, the famed middle order reduced to figures in record books. The current series, billed as the showdown between the two top sides in the world, has suddenly become the more interesting for giving us a sneak peak into what will be. Dravid and Laxman will return soon enough, but it is possible that we will be shown their replacements during this series. This is how teams evolve – some players making it as end products of long-term planning and others taking a short cut in an emergency.
And while the batting sorts itself out, the possibilities in the bowling too will get their chances. India are yet to recover from the loss of Kumble, who carried the bowling on his shoulders for nearly two decades. Harbhajan has been inconsistent, very good when he is good but awful when he is bad. The likes of Amit Misra and Pragyan Ojha need time to settle down – bowlers, especially spinners, take longer to get into the groove than middle order batsmen.