With a slew of young, talented and extremely confident cricketers coming through the ranks, the future of Indian cricket appears to be in safe hands.
It was not long ago that the Indian fan was in serious self-doubt. Brought up on a steady diet of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman and later Virender Sehwag, even while Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh were doing their thing with the ball, there was never a shortage of confidence. These kind of riches, all at once (not merely in talent or potential, but time and tested quality that consistently translated into performances) generally come once in a lifetime in any country’s sporting fortunes. It was therefore only natural that fans had a sense that tough times were to follow when this group moved on.
In India, where the obsession with individuals and personalities reaches fever pitch in cricket and Bollywood, it was only a matter of time before the search for the next Tendulkar or Dravid began. Fortunately, though, there was a Mahendra Singh Dhoni to preside over the transition, a singular cricketer with a unique style and clear, firm ideas about the kind of cricket he wanted his team to play. Equally relevant was the fact that Dhoni gave up the Test captaincy, and with it his spot in the team, as soon as he realised the time was right, instead of trying to prolong his career or tick some milestone boxes.
In that light, the current Indian team, and its players, have been handed an opportunity and a set of circumstances that others before them did not always have the luxury of falling back on. Virat Kohli, initially with Ravi Shastri and now with Anil Kumble, has been given a chance to create a unit in his own image. He chops and changes the team based on conditions and hunches, showing the kind of f lexibility that is a rarity in Indian cricket. And, while the accent has been on youth, and allowing a young group to play the kind of cricket they want, India have not closed the doors on more experienced players, as the recall of Gautam Gambhir, when circumstances and injuries warranted it, showed.
That Kohli changes his team for virtually every Test match, tinkering with the bowling mostly, but occasionally also tweaking the batting order, had the potential to create insecurity within the group, to leave players in a position where they were unsure of where they stood in the eyes of the captain or the plans of the coach. The opposite has happened, though. “The key to this is clear communication between the think-tank, management, whatever you call it, and the player who is either being selected or, more importantly, left out,” says Kumble. “Each player knows his role, and also what the team is trying to achieve in any given Test. When that happens, these players are mature enough to understand what the captain is attempting to do.”
What the captain has managed to do is go through 2016 without losing a single Test. Not only did India win nine of the 12 Tests played, they reached the semifinals of the ICC World Twenty20, winning 15 of 20 games in that format in the year. This success has ensured that several young players have managed to make the transition from domestic cricket to the next level without breaking stride, allowing the team to build momentum and sustain it.
The first player to have a breakthrough year was KL Rahul. Once thought of as too proper and conservative a batsman to prosper in the shorter formats, Rahul used the Indian Premier League to show a different side to himself, and once that confidence became a permanent feature of his play, success in ODIs and an opening up of his game followed naturally.
“I spent time with Virat and AB [de Villiers] and asked them questions about what they thought I should do to improve my cricket and be successful in the shortest format. Their ideas and feedback did help me in improving my batting,” said Rahul of his time at the Royal Challengers Bangalore. “Kohli is such an inspiration. We feel lucky that we don’t have to look too far. The guy who inspires you is sitting right next to you in the dressing room. The level of commitment that he has shown, the discipline and work ethic, the way he has been so disciplined with his fitness, nutrition and diet — that is something that has inspired all of us.” This translated into Rahul cementing his place as India’s first choice opening partner to M Vijay, and scores of 158 against West Indies in Kingston and 199 against England in Chennai. And, though he is only 24, and a stripling with just 12 Tests under the belt, Rahul has already played a part in helping a junior from his state come good.
Karun Nair’s first hit at Test level was less than auspicious. Punching the ball to point, he set off down the pitch, only to be foiled by a bit of brilliance from Jos Buttler, who dived full length and threw the stumps down at the non-striker’s end in one action. The 4 in the first hit was only nominally bettered in the next Test, when Nair made it to 13 before missing one from Moeen Ali and being trapped in front of the stumps. Nair, who has made a reputation for scoring big when Karnataka are struggling, might well have been wondering if he would even get another go, but Kohli kept the faith.
Walking out to bat at 211 for 3, India wobbling just a touch after England had put 477 on the board, Karun had his old mate Rahul for company. The two added 161, Rahul falling short of a well-deserved double-hundred. Karun soldiered on, completely at ease, nervelessly bringing up his hundred, double-hundred and, incredibly, his triple. Only the second Indian batsman to notch up the score, Karun won the praise of Virender Sehwag, the other member of this ultra-exclusive club.
“Karun Nair had a fantastic Test match and is an incredible scorer. To score your first hundred and also go on to score a triple hundred speaks volumes for his ability and his hunger and desire. I am really happy for him, and happy for Indian cricket to see boys coming through. He can go and build on from here,” said Rahul Dravid, whose ability to bat long and score big are the stuff of legend. “He has the ability and has got talent, along with guys like KL Rahul, Jayant Yadav and Hardik Pandya, who got an opportunity in the ODIs. It is unfortunate he (Jayant) got injured. It’s nice to see the boys coming through from the India A setup.”
Dravid, typically, underplayed his own role in the development of these cricketers. He has kept an eye on his namesake since the time he arrived in Bengaluru as a scrawny boy from Mangalore. At the Rajasthan Royals, Dravid worked closely with Nair, with repeated one-on-one net sessions fine-tuning and upgrading his batting.
Hardik Pandya is another player who has benefitted hugely through his time with India A. While he became a sensation with his fierce hitting and canny variations in medium-pace in the IPL, Pandya also attracted plenty of criticism for his over-the-top celebrations and propensity to get carried away and not play a match situation. Put through the hard yards with India A, Pandya reinvented his game, growing into a bowler who could generate and sustain pace, allowing his batting to be a welcome bonus. A year ago, it would have been inconceivable that Pandya was considered for any format other than the shortest one, where his novelty catches the eye, but in 2016, he not only made his ODI debut, he impressed enough to be drafted into the Test squad.
If 2016 was the year of R Ashwin, who mopped up Man of the Match awards and International Cricket Council gongs, it was also a rum period for Jayant Yadav. A steady, consistent bowler for Haryana, but not one who boasts dramatic turn or mystery deliveries, Yadav was never going to be an obvious choice for the Test squad, with Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra also in the mix. Yet Kohli saw enough in him to press him into service. Staying firmly in the shadow of his mentor, Yadav provided fantastic support to Ashwin, building pressure and giving the captain control. If he was nervous, he did not show it once, scoring 35, 27* and 55, all valuable runs, in his first three attempts. In Mumbai, India found themselves at 364 for 7, still short of England’s first-innings score and in serious danger of allowing the visitors to wrest the initiative. By the time Yadav was dismissed for 104, India had 605 on the board and went on to reach 631, enough to wrap the match up by an innings. Indian fans may miss their old favourites, for there is no replacing the likes of Tendulkar or Laxman, but they can take heart in the fact that the immediate future is in safe hands.