The secret behind India's endless supply of 'Test-ready' cricketers

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24 Dec 2021 | 01:50 PM
authorAnirudh Suresh

The secret behind India's endless supply of 'Test-ready' cricketers

We decode how team India keeps churning out players who are ready to succeed at the Test level

In sport, there are few things tougher than integrating new players into the set-up, no matter how experienced they might be. The challenge is compounded in a format like Test cricket, where the nature of the game is such that even the smallest of flaws will be brutally exposed and laid bare for the world to see. 

Throwing green, younger players into the line of fire usually backfires, while there are no guarantees that those who are veterans in the domestic circuit will succeed either, for such is the gulf in quality between the two levels. 

A team like England, which has found it impossible to find a newer crop of players good enough to sustain excellence at the highest level, knows this fact very well. 

So how, then, have team India, over the course of the past four years, continued to produce an endless stream of cricketers who are ‘Test ready’?

How is it that while teams across the world are busy deciding how many matches they need to give a particular individual before deeming them ‘not good enough’, India are able to consistently bring in cricketers who not only start making a significant impact from game one, but also look like they belong?

The domination of Indian debutants since 2018

Since the start of 2018, India have handed maiden Test caps to 14 players. This figure, no doubt, has been skewed by the injury mishaps in Australia but even if you exclude unlikely candidates such as Natarajan and Sundar, the figure stands at a dozen. 

And of the dozen, there have been a handful of major hits - such as Bumrah, Pant and Siraj - who have gone on to become the nucleus of the Test side. 

Many, such as Gill, Shaw and Iyer, have made an instant impact and have proved that they can be future superstars if nurtured properly, while others, such as Agarwal, Vihari, Gill and Axar continue to remain an integral part of the Test set-up.

In general there are more unsuccessful newcomers than successful ones, but India, of late, have produced one blockbuster hit after another. 

Consider this crazy statistic: since 2018, Indian debutants have scored 5200 runs at an average of 40.31 with the bat, while they have taken 205 wickets with the ball at an average of 23.53.

Importance given to grind at the first-class level

Almost every Indian debutant, even the youngsters who are barely 20, has tended to arrive to international cricket ‘Test ready’ and one of the primary reasons behind the same is the grinding they’ve done at the domestic level. With the exception of unforeseen circumstances, the only players deemed fit for Test selection are those who have slogged it out and shown their worth at the domestic level.

In the last three years, outside of Natarajan and Sundar, only four players - Shaw, Gill, Pant and Bumrah - have made their Test debuts having played fewer than 30 first-class games. But notably, all three are generational young cricketers who, by the time they made their Test debut, had eaten the domestic circuit alive. 

Shaw, Gil and Pant, prior to their Test debut, averaged 56.7, 68.7 and 54.5 at the first-class level respectively. Even Bumrah, who is rather falsely seen as an ‘IPL pick’, averaged 25 in first-class cricket and was one of the fastest-rising pacers in the country prior to his Test debut versus South Africa. 

To date, this continues to be an area the selectors give importance to. The latest member of the Indian Test squad, Priyank Panchal, for one, has already played 100 first-class matches, while Srikar Bharat at just the age of 28 has 78 first-class games under his belt.  

Grinding it out at the first-class level before entering the Test scene ultimately benefits the players as by the time they play for the country, they endure every hardship and challenge there is. Most importantly, they know how to deal with the same. 

This, of course, is common sense and is employed by most teams. India’s endless supply of Test-ready cricketers is down to a lot more.

An ‘A’ system that’s the best in the world 

Having the biggest pool of talent in the world is pretty much of no use if you cannot find a way to filter the players and groom those who have been shortlisted. Luckily, though, India can proudly say that it has an ‘A’ system that is the best in the world. Nothing has contributed to India’s strength in depth as much as the robust ‘A’ system.

Six years ago Rahul Dravid was appointed the coach of the India A and U19 teams, and under his leadership efforts were ramped up to add structure and relevance to the ‘A’ system that had served little purpose for a long time.

To this very moment, the country is reaping the benefits thanks to the groundwork that was done years ago.

Between 2017 and 2019, India ‘A’ played a total of 24 first-class matches. This number is significant because in the preceding five years combined, the ‘A’ team had played a total of just 23 games. 

But it is not the number that is important here. It is the significance of these ‘A’ games that has essentially transformed Indian Test cricket. 

The current system in place has ensured that India ‘A’ has become the pathway for players into the Test side. The best domestic performers go into the India ‘A’ pool, from where their path to the national side is straightforward. 

Former chief selector MSK Prasad, earlier this year in an interview to ESPN Cricinfo, explained how the structure works. 

"Through India A cricket, we shortlisted some 60 to 80 players that we wanted to follow in domestic cricket," Prasad said.

"We posted ourselves for all those matches where these 60 players were playing. Otherwise, you have 15-16 first-class matches going on every day. You can't keep running here and there.

"How did we identify those 60 players?. [We looked for] consistent performers over the last two years in different formats, who will be the ideal successors for players who, four years down the line, might get superannuated in the senior team. For example, Murali Vijay. We had Mayank Agarwal and Priyank Panchal ready."

It is one thing plucking the best performers in domestic cricket and directly thrusting them into the international scene, but by letting them go through the ‘A’ team door, what the system is doing is essentially making them better prepared; turning them into better cricketers. A kind of moulding, you can say.

For in these ‘A’ matches, particularly the away ones, the players come up against high-quality opponents, sometimes even established internationals.

Take the recently concluded India ‘A’ tour of South Africa, for instance. The South Africa A team consisted of the likes of Pieter Malan, Lutho Sipamla and Beuran Hendricks, all of whom have played Test cricket, and players such as Sarel Erwee, George Linde, Marco Jansen and Glenton Stuurman, who are all on the verge of Test debuts. 

By testing their skills against tough opponents, all the India ‘A’ players will only benefit. It is a level of competition they simply won’t encounter at the domestic level.

Paras Mhambrey, the current Indian bowling coach who was working with Dravid at the NCA, explained why and how playing in tougher environments makes younger players more disciplined.

"In domestic cricket, unless you're playing a top side, you're going to get away with a bad ball," Mhambrey told ESPN Cricinfo.

"But when you are playing A teams and international-quality players, you aren't going to get away with that. You will be punished. So I think that helps you as a bowler: you know you have to be on top of your game, every time, every spell, every ball that you bowl. And that's what you see right now with the younger lot - you see very few bad balls in domestic cricket as well."

Almost every single player from the recent crop of debutants has come through the ‘A’ system. The likes of Gill, Vihari, Pant, Siraj, Shardul and Saini have all been outstanding performers in the ‘A’ set-up in the past four years. 

The past three years have also seen India ‘A’ teams go on shadow tours prior to major away tours and this has not only allowed the next crop of players to gain experience, but the incumbents to get acclimatized to the conditions. Rahane, Pujara, Vihari, Mayank Agarwal have all played India ‘A’ matches prior to away tours to set themselves up for the main tour.

Another major advantage of these shadow tours is that you get ready-made replacements who already know the ins and outs of the conditions. 

When Rishabh Pant and Hanuma Vihari made their Test debuts in England in 2018, they’d already spent significant time in the country playing for India A.

Priyank Panchal is now a part of the Test squad for the South Africa tour but he has already spent close to a month playing in those conditions.

An overwhelming number of pros. Not a single con. 

The IPL has played its part too - in certain cases

Contrary to the notion that ‘T20 is killing Test cricket’, the IPL, in fact, has played a key part in the moulding of several players. The exposure it provides has helped multiple players feel at home when they made their Test debuts, unintimidated by the intensity and level of competition.

Bumrah, Pant, Gill, Siraj, Axar are all inherently world-class red-ball cricketers, but spending years locking horns and rubbing shoulders with the best players in the world, competing in tense situations in high-stakes matches, meant that they were already used to the high-intensity that is present in Test cricket. This is a luxury that is almost exclusive to the Indian players. 

"At IPL, young players learn the game and the way to handle pressure. IPL has filled the gap between the Ranji Trophy and the Indian cricket team,” Mandeep Singh told Indian Express in 2019.

"Because of this platform, players now get a chance to show their talent and an opportunity to play and train with great players.

"Indian cricket team is doing well in all formats of the game and ruling in the world of cricket. IPL has played a great role in that."

In hindsight, it can be said that the Gabba heist could never have been possible without the IPL. India, in the eleventh hour, had to assemble a team filled with rookies and partial white-ball specialists, but every individual was up to the task. A part of why the young and inexperienced side had the belief that Australia could be toppled in their fortress is because of the self-confidence individuals had garnered in the IPL. 

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IndiaMohammed SirajShubman GillRishabh PantJasprit BumrahShreyas IyerWashington SundarT NatarajanPriyank Panchal

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