Who’s Next?

*This column is cross-posted at my column in CricAges*

If for one fleeting moment, we can push the hullabaloo from India’ disappointing T20 world cup campaign and the debacle of the second unit in Zimbabwe aside, we can actually see a team that is sitting atop the world Test rankings. The long, winding and arduous climb to the top has been a product in the making for almost a decade, riding on the backs of some of the finest cricketers the game has ever seen: Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman. Two of the five have already said sayonara to the international game and the others, being on the wrong side of 35, are not far away either.

Of the five senior statesmen of Indian cricket, four – the Fab Four – are middle-order batsmen. This brings up the more important question concerning the health of the game in India: Who do we have next?

There have been pretenders masquerading as contenders, showing glimpses here and there of their promise and potential – That’s right, I am talking to you, Yuvraj Singh – but not many are waiting in the wings, ready to assume the roles. Ganguly has quit the longer version of the game more than a year ago and we are yet to settle on a capable #6 to replace him (VVS Laxman has moved from #6 to #5). M. Vijay took advantage of his limited opportunities and seems to be a potential replacement. Rohit Sharma was anointed to that vaunted middle order spot but his work ethic, which seems to be following in the footsteps of Yuvraj Singh (All Party, No Play), has at least temporarily, taken him out of contention.

The squads represented in Duleep Trophy 2010 for the various zones could probably be a good indicator of who could potentially be stepping in to some XXL sized shoes. The squad information can be obtained here: North, South, East, West and Central. A cursory glance at the various squads reminds you of all the talent that is available in India. Some of these have played Test cricket and some have got a taste of international cricket. There are a few more, who are striving to be the next great one.

However, for this analysis (or the quest to unearth the next middle order batsman, if you will), I am going to lay some ground rules.

The player cannot be more than 26 years of age, as of today. Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman have at least 2 really good years in them. In the case of Tendulkar, who really knows? It could be 5 years before all is said and done! The next batting hope will be 28-29 years of age by the time he hits the big stage and that will give him 6-7 years to get established and shine before we set about another quest to replace him. We are also going to be looking for someone with pretty good technique and a sound temperament to build big innings. The other condition is that the player’s first class average needs to be above 50. (If you can’t average 50 runs against domestic bowlers on Indian pitches, you don’t have a chance against Dale Steyn at the Centurion, champ!). The different candidates from the various zones are as follows:

North: Virat Kohli, Rahul Dewan

East: Saurabh Tiwary, Manoj Tiwary

Central: None

West: Chirag Pathak, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma (*sigh*)

South: Abhinav Mukund, Manish Pandey

And that is it. A grand total of 10 batsmen for four middle order spots. If you relax the cut-off to 44.0 runs, you get a few more. Ganesh Satish (South), Shikhar Dhawan (North), Abhishek Nayar (West), and Suresh Raina (Central). This shows why in spite of a real up and down career, with flashes of brilliance thrown in occasionally, Yuvraj Singh is still persisted with and one Mr. Wriddhiman Saha made Test debut! It is besides the point that a foot injury to Rohit Sharma got him there, but the fact that he even had a sniff of the Indian test team shows the paucity of high quality batsmen.

Pujara has also been selected to lead the India “A” tour of England and the team also includes Manoj Tiwary, Dhawan, Saurabh Tiwary, Rahane and Pandey. Perhaps, this provides some degree of validity to my metric (first class average of 50 runs) to identify the potential middle order replacements.

Out of this 10 batsmen who satisfy my original condition, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma have been highly thought of as capable replacements in the Team India Test squad for a while. Kohli had his stint with Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and got carried away initially with all the glitz, seems to have gotten his head screwed back on straight. This is real good sign for India as he has the potential of leading the country in the future in all formats of the game.

Personally, besides Kohli, Pujara and Manoj Tiwary are my favorites if they continue their domestic run making and keep their heads down and take advantage of all the opportunities. The above three and M. Vijay are my middle order of the future. Rohit Sharma needs to get his act together soon and stop being page 3 material, if he wants to get back in the discussion. At least we can hope. As Andy Dufresne wrote to Red, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

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