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By Suresh Menon
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Often a baton-exchange in cricket takes place in full public view, although sometimes its significance becomes clear only much later. When Vijay Merchant ended his career with 154 against England in Delhi, the batsman at No. 3 was run out for 21. This was Polly Umrigar, who was to carry the batting on his shoulders in the next generation.
Forty years ago, as Dilip Sardesai was moving towards the then record score of 642 in a series in the West Indies, he pointed to a younger man saying the latter was the future of Indian cricket. That 21-year-old, Sunil Gavaskar, went on to make 774 in the same series.
At Cardiff, as Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli batted together, putting on 170 in a one-day international, it was difficult to look beyond the obvious pattern. Another baton-exchange, this time in a one-day international, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to extend that to Test cricket.
It is not a peculiarly Indian thing – this imposition of order as a generation prepares to bid goodbye. Australia, looking at a No. 3 to succeed Ricky Ponting have a new candidate, the young Shaun Marsh, who made a century on Test debut against Sri Lanka recently. England’s bench strength in the series against India was so rich and varied that the senior players can feel the breath of the youngsters on their necks.
Much of the remainder of the cricket season in India will now be occupied with the thought of Who after the Biggies? or its variants. While it is generally accepted that Sachin Tendulkar, like Bhagwat Chandrasekhar before him, cannot have an exact replacement, India’s current lowly status in world cricket means that any hint that they might be able to squeeze in an occasional square peg into a round hole, will be welcomed.
Sport is a strange beast. You don’t lose if you can find your future in the loss. As William Blake said in another context, without contraries there is no progression.
A generation and more ago, when another Fab Four – the spinners Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan – retired, those who moved into their shoes had the extra pressure of not only taking wickets at the same rate but being aesthetically as pleasing and articulate to boot.
Virat Kohli, Cheteswar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Rohit Sharma and others will face a similar unforgiving attitude when the Tendulkars, Dravids and Laxmans move on. Their success will depend on how well they cope with this extra, and in some ways needless pressure.
It is particularly difficult when the team is doing badly. As England discovered once again in Cardiff, when a team is doing well, everything it touches turns into gold. When John Bairstow arrived at the crease during the chase, the match was still India’s, but the young man batted with the confidence and freedom that he had absorbed through some osmosis from a successful team. In 21 deliveries, he became a national hero.
Kohli brings to his game another aspect of team spirit – the ability to prevent through osmosis the frustration and depression that comes from defeat. His century was another reminder that he is ready for consideration as a front-runner to take over from the batting greats.
The Zaheer Khan saga might have, sadly come to an end. We will know soon enough. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for a team which lost ten players through injury on a miserable tour. Yet, should India soon climb back to the top spot in either form of the game, the magic moment will be traced to that magic partnership between Dravid and Kohli.