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By Suresh Menon
The home series against England and Australia will be as much about youngsters making a name for themselves as about the established stars reinventing themselves in the new order. It will be about Cheteswar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane attempting to make themselves indispensable (at least in the short term) while Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar act as shock absorbers.
The role played by the experienced in nurturing the newcomers is crucial. But first the stalwarts have to work out their own priorities and feel comfortable in their new avatar. No team in transition can afford to fight a dual battle – with fiercely competitive youngsters on the one hand and an uncertain experienced lot dealing with their devils on the other, each with its own unique set of problems both mental and physical.
Tendulkar will continue to be a part of the equation but the question is, how best will he serve India? One possibility, given his dismissals against New Zealand, is a shift to No. 5 in the batting order. It will mean a longer period of rest, welcome especially if India field first. But more importantly, it will mean a slightly different mental approach to batting where the burden is shared more equitably. At No. 4, the responsibilities are greater; to lead the charge as it were, while at No. 5 the focus is on consolidation.
The only hurdle in the way is usually the batsman's pride. But this is about sinking personal egos in the greater cause of the team. Great batsmen have always dropped a notch or two over long careers – Viv Richards did so, and so did Allan Border, Javed Miandad, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Ricky Ponting. Sunil Gavaskar made his highest Test score batting at No. 4. Don Bradman continued to bat at No. 3, making an unbeatan 173 in his penultimate Test in his 40th year. But he only played a fraction of the amount of international cricket that Tendulkar has over 23 years. And even he was willing to drop down the order if it meant avoiding a drying wicket in the age of uncovered tracks.
The retirement of Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman brings into sharper focus the role of Sehwag. Sehwag at 34 has many more years left if he handles the transition well. Over the years in a batting line-up which was one of the best the world has seen, Sehwag was allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility. He could play the occasional unthinking shot or make the uncultured swing to be bowled, for he could always point to his record of demoralising the bowlers.
Now, with greater responsibility not only expected but having become a need, the equation has changed. There are whispers of him coming into the middle order, but there are good cricketing reasons for leaving him at the top where he can take advantage of the harder, faster-travelling ball. He hasn't hit a century in nearly two years, and his record outside India in that period has been poor.
If he (or his captain) believes that he could be more effective in the middle order, then it is a move that should be made with conviction. The home series give Sehwag a chance to experiment both as a batsman and as far as his slot in the batting line-up goes. It is difficult to see Sehwag making a change to his approach, however, and that is reason enough to leave him where he is to sort out his problem rather put him under added pressure of moving to the middle.
The recent successes of Virat Kohli – dubbed the best batsman in the team by Dravid himself – and Pujara mean that the pressure on Sehwag and Tendulkar will not be as great as it might have been when India take on England.
Success, however, will depend on how the old wine fits into new bottles and vice versa.