Middle-order transition

Tours of South Africa, England, Australia and West Indies beckon: how India handles its young batsmen during this period, how they grow under the mentorship of Dravid, Tendulkar, and Laxman, will determine if India remains a main-event contender, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Heartening as it may be, it's nonetheless surprising that young Indian batsmen have, in the recent past, shown the stomach for Test cricket. Surprising for a variety of reasons. The development of batsmen chases the development of bowlers just as reaction follows creation — bowling, which remains cricket's only act of formation, dictates the batting that counters it, and there has been nothing by way of empirical evidence to suggest India's bowling, domestically, has improved in the 2000s, the period of incubation for the current batting generation.

The wickets haven't helped. Matting wickets, which sharpen backfoot play in young batsmen, aren't as prevalent (no surprise then that younger batsmen rarely use crease space with the felicity of the old masters — the evolution of bats, which now have overlarge sweet spots, have played a part in this as well); a vast majority of the turf wickets in India are batting beauties, the others, often in matches of consequence, underdone turners — neither is germane to the maturation of wholesome, all-round batsmen.

Not too far back, those who know — and are seen to know — were adamant that India would sink after Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman. That opinions are being reviewed, even nuanced, proves the effect Suresh Raina, M. Vijay, and Cheteshwar Pujara have had recently, and in the proving, reveals the fickleness of memory. It's therefore all the more important to take a considered view of matters.

Talk of a middle-order transition has done the rounds for some time now. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, merely articulated it most recently, after the Bangalore Test, when he said he would watch with interest the fortunes of India's next generation. “What I know about the Indian team is that all their batsmen are very experienced,” said Ponting. “It's all about how they maintain their standards they have kept over the last couple of years.

“They have to move on. That has been the biggest challenge for Australian cricketers as well. Once those very experienced players moved on, you need the young crop to stand up and play the way the guys before them have played. It will be interesting to see how India copes with that in the next couple of years.”

Without a doubt, the middle-order needs a succession plan. While we must be grateful for Dravid (37), Tendulkar (37), and Laxman (36), and hope that they continue for as long as is possible, it's crucial the next generation isn't condemned by comparison. It's just as crucial we don't portray the young men as batting practitioners they aren't yet only to tear them down at the first intimations of failure.

While these three men have shown the stomach for Test cricket (add to them a fourth, Virat Kohli, who surely must play Tests soon), they haven't been exempt from the laws that govern the development of batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar might have made a century the first time he batted at the WACA — in all, he made four centuries in his first tours of England, Australia, and South Africa, as a teenager — but he's a one-off. The rest need time to develop; they need experience that seasons skills.

This generation of India's young batsmen have vulnerabilities against both the short ball and the moving ball. How can they not when they hardly experience such things growing up? These weaknesses have been seen most often in the shorter forms, and although the demands of run-getting confuses matters — these deliveries have to be scored off, not merely negotiated — it is an issue that needs attention.

But while this perspective is needed in assessing their talents, Raina, Vijay, Pujara and Kohli can't be blamed for succeeding in conditions they are familiar with, against an Australia side that has neither the aura nor the out-cricket of old. Each of these four men has an individual style of play, and this more than anything else most fascinates the batting connoisseur — how will each advance?

Raina, 23, has already had two careers in international cricket. He was the generously gifted teenager, waiting to become India's next batting superstar, when Greg Chappell was coach. Chappell's assessment appears remarkable in hindsight, for Raina's is a talent that doesn't appeal immediately. The stiff front leg when driving through cover, causing the hands to force themselves at the ball, often resulted in the bat passing the perpendicular when making contact. So he rarely kept such strokes to ground. When there was movement for the bowlers, either in the air or off the track, he looked inadequate.

But Raina has refined his instincts within the framework of his natural ability. As a result, the cover-drive is now a sounder stroke, the transfer of balance better. He's an ideal number-six: he's left-handed, he plays spin well, his nature is to attack, and he is ever aware of the short single. But he has yet to prove himself against the bouncer; he will have greater challenges against the second new ball abroad.

Vijay, 26, is the oldest of the four, and the most stylish. The century in Bangalore was a defining innings for him not just because it came under great pressure, but also because he rectified the tendency to lose concentration after getting set. Just as impressive as his first-innings century was his second-innings cameo in which he attacked, ensuring India didn't yield the momentum after Virender Sehwag got out.

W.V. Raman, who has had a big influence on Vijay's batting, picked him out as one who will play for India. Vijay, Raman said, had an uncommon ability to think about and incorporate subtle technical changes even during the course of an innings. Just as vitally, he didn't over-complicate matters. Vijay has shown a willingness to work on his game, and while he's insecure against the full, swerving ball when he starts his innings, it's not a chronic problem — his footwork improves as his innings progresses. With Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir difficult to displace, Vijay can replace Dravid at ‘first-drop' when the time comes.

Another contender for ‘three' is Pujara, 22, who looks the best among his peers at tackling the short ball. This appears a recently acquired ability, for Zaheer Khan and Ajit Agarkar troubled the youngster with the bouncer in the Ranji semifinal in Chennai early last year. He has developed the pull and the hook, both of which he tested on tours to England and Australia. He showed good control of both strokes on debut (admittedly on a fifth-day track). He also plays the cut, such a useful ally abroad. Pujara knows the value of his place having earned it the hard way, tallying 595, 807, 906, and 554 runs in the last four seasons of first-class cricket. His will is as iron, and such men often find ways to succeed where others don't.

Kohli, 21, can look outrageously good and outrageously bad, the dominance of the bottom-hand sometimes a strength, sometimes a liability. He has an incredible eye for length and impressive bat-speed — qualities that help in playing bounce. He also has that elusive quality about him that makes you want to have him by your side in a fight. He has yet to be considered for the classical format — perhaps not giving it to him too soon will stoke his ambition.

Intriguingly, all four men have benefited — in varying degrees — from playing in the IPL. The breathlessness of Twenty20 cricket encourages among the callow a method of batsmanship that is at cross purposes with innings-building; its lucre, the availability of easy money, deadens the desire needed to become a top-class Test batsman.

But it also allows a young batsman to pit himself against world-class bowlers in difficult circumstances. There are better ways of developing batsmen; the reality of the situation can't be ignored however. It must be worked around.

Thanks to the No. 1 ranking, the Indian board has concentrated some of its attention on Test cricket. Tours of South Africa, England, Australia, and West Indies beckon: how India handles its young batsmen during this period, how they grow under the mentorship of Dravid, Tendulkar, and Laxman, will determine if India remains a main-event contender. As significant will be the handing of the bowlers, but that's a story for another time.