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Wanted: New villains for Indian cricket

Last updated on 12 Jun 2023 | 11:57 AM
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Wanted: New villains for Indian cricket

And from them, who knows, new heroes could emerge

There was a common belief doing the rounds before the World Test Championship Final: It’s Australia’s for the taking. Whether this had percolated into the Indian team is hard to call. Or maybe not. 

Rohit Sharma won the toss and put Australia into bat. Conditions were such, overcast, rather English and all that. But for barely two hours. This has been well documented. The next few hours saw the sun beat down and Australia beat India’s bowling into the ground. 

Australia batted India out of the match. Or did India bowl themselves out of the match?

Two years ago, in the WTC Final vs. New Zealand, India remained in the fray for much of the first two innings. Both Bumrah and Ashwin played that Test. Bumrah did not take a wicket in that match. India managed only two in the second innings. Ashwin took both. He took two in the first innings as well. 

Neither Bumrah nor Ashwin made it to the WTC 2023 Final. But such is their legend, that it often draws us into the ‘what if’ debate. 

In this final, none of India’s top four scored a half-century. Test discard, Rahane did. In that 2021 final too, none of India’s top four scored a half-century. Give it to English conditions or whatever else, but India’s top four have been repeat offenders in two WTC finals across two years. Rahane top scored in the first innings with 49 at five then. Pant in the second with 41 at six. 

A somewhat strange set of events have seen the movable pieces in the batting order, Pujara and Rahane return. One has played over 100 Tests, the other over 80. The other top-order batsmen, regardless of form, tend to be a given: that’s the captain, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli. 

Rohit’s deputy, Rahul did not play in either WTC Finals. He captained India in Tests, in Rohit’s absence. His Test form, much like Kohli’s, Pujara’s, and Rahane's, has been abysmal in the last few years. The captain has had some of his best Test years with runs, but his fitness remains dodgy. He was unavailable for the South Africa Test series that India lost. 

Much of India’s recent overseas Test success has been largely due to Rishabh Pant’s bat. 

Shubman Gill appeared in both WTC finals, his returns remained meagre. Gill’s recent form has been on the up. As too his Twitter form. He tweeted a photograph of the Cameron Green catch that led to his much-debated dismissal. Gill’s white ball numbers are first-rate, he’s the toast of the town, his Test batting average is not yet 33. Yet in him, Indian cricket believes it has found a successor to Virat Kohli. KL Rahul made his Test debut in 2014, he has played 47 Tests so far, his batting average is not too different from Gill’s after 16 Tests.

The WTC Final was Rohit’s 50th Test match. He made his Test debut in 2013. Daresay but no Test batsman has been given as much leeway as him. Rohit has 9 Test tons to Rahul’s 7. The last two years have seen Rohit’s returns gallop, his batting average is now 45+. 

Both Rohit and Rahul are IPL captains, iconic white ball players. 

Is that what India is looking for? Successors? The next big face? A player who plays all formats or a cricketer who can do the job?

While in Gill they may well have found a cricketer who fits the bill, it does beg the question – when will Indian cricket look beyond sucking every drop out of its best across formats? Or when will its top cricketers accept that playing all three formats and the IPL is not doable anymore. 

Already the previous T20 World Cup, regardless of Kohli’s magic vs. Pakistan, was one too many for a few of the greats – England’s 10-wicket win against India in the semifinals, was more than an anomaly, it was a pointer at the gap between two brands of T20 cricket – one seeped in the leagues with four overseas players and the other, a fearless Mad Max approach – isn’t that what T20 at its best should be? 

Yet India preferred to look back again – in the T20 World Cup, they picked Dinesh Karthik and Ravichandran Ashwin. They continued to be seeped in nostalgia and one last brush with what-if – it’s a wonder India matches aren’t played in sepia. 

Is this what prompted them to pick the great Yuvraj Singh for one T20 World Cup too many? 

Yet in 2014 as in 2016, as yet again in 2022, what mattered most was, India had defeated Pakistan – that was the narrative, not that India had gone yet another World Cup without winning it? 

Commentators that control the great Indian narrative are serving us a set menu on India greats – branded as King and Hitman, as if Indian cricket was a monarchy, and those that are not its loyal subjects are infidels. 

The 50-over World Cup will be played this October in India. The usual suspects, barring injury will be there. In the 2019 semi-final, India’s top three made exactly that – 3 runs between themselves. 1, 1 and 1. That’s Rohit, Rahul and Kohli. Dinesh Karthik was there too. As were Dhoni, Pandya and Pant. As too, Vijay Shankar, the surprise inclusion that year. 

India did beat Pakistan in that World Cup. As also in the 2015 edition. Where they once again went down in the semifinals. 

After a while, it gets predictable: blaming the same bunch, in every ICC knockout match. Why not look beyond? 

There once was a batsman called Hanuma Vihari. He was good enough for 13 overseas Tests. He was there in Adelaide, when India went down for 36, he was there in Melbourne, when India went up, and he was there in Sydney, when India drew. He stood there for close to 4 hours, 161 balls. With him, was Ashwin who battled for over 3 hours, 128 balls. 

Did India miss these two at the WTC Final the other day? Not really. Planning to win ICC trophies isn’t a thing. 

It’s only in hindsight that the captain feels that “20-25 days” are needed to prep for a World Test Championship Final in England. 

Over to the IPL bashers: From The Ultimate Test to the ultimate detest. 

(Hanuma Vihari’s Test batting average after playing 16 Test matches (13 overseas) is 33.56. KL Rahul’s after 47 Tests is 33.44, after 16 Tests, Gill’s is 32.94. Vihari is yet to make his white ball debut for India. He last played an IPL match in 2019. In all likelihood, he will remain a one-format player. And in that too, picked only for overseas Tests. Because home-track bully and minnow basher is a thing.) 

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