Talent is fine, but scoring runs matters

Indian cricket now is at its tipping point. It is a strange context considering that M. S. Dhoni's men won the World Cup and India is also the number one Test team in the world. Old truths and the sands of time, however, wait for none, even for men like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. India needs its young batsmen to blend talent with longevity, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A batting conveyor belt of excellence and artistry has blessed Indian cricket with willow wielders of impeccable credentials. Be it Sunil Gavaskar, who inspired Lord Relator to compose a Calypso in his honour in 1971, or Sachin Tendulkar, an adolescent who became an adult against Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in 1989, the Indian fan had enough reasons for cheer.

It is not a list that just ends with Gavaskar and Tendulkar. It is indeed a chronicle made rich with the presence of many men with steely resolve, stout heart and strong bats. In the last 50 years, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid, V. V. S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh, to name a few, have all added immense value to the team.

Indian cricket now is at its tipping point. It is a strange context considering that M. S. Dhoni's men won the World Cup and India is also the number one Test team in the world. Old truths and the sands of time, however, wait for none, even for men like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. India needs its young batsmen to blend talent with longevity.

The limited overs squad has coped well with Ganguly's retirement, Dravid's omission and Tendulkar's periods of rest but in Tests, Dhoni requires candidates who will last the distance. The current West Indies tour is a pointer to India's batting evolution and in the ODI series which the World Champion won 3-2, a few signals emerged.

The biggest gain was Rohit Sharma's return to consistency as amplified by his 257 runs in the series and ‘Man of the Series' award. Rohit along with Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina offer hope, but the trio fused with talent and split by varying career paths have confounded analysts in the past.

Among the three, Rohit has been the most exasperating. His talent was never in doubt and that extra second he seemed to possess while playing his shots comes with the territory of the supremely gifted but the 24-year old frittered away his starts.

The Mumbaikar had to cope with high expectations engineered by twin forces — his obvious talent and the need to continue the great tradition of ‘Mumbai batsmanship'.

Rohit caught the eye during the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa and while the men in blue won the Cup in 2007, his unbeaten 50 against the Proteas and general sense of calm promised more. And then, the startling fade-out happened.

Rohit has played in 62 ODIs and has failed to get into the double-digit in 25 stints. The flip-flop forced the selectors to give him the cold stare at times. Whispers of attitude surfaced and in Indian cricket, the word ‘attitude' has a loaded meaning that borders on the negative.

Rohit resurfaced with two tons against host Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka respectively in May 2010 but on the tour of South Africa, he struggled with scores of 11, 9, 23, 1 and 5 and was axed.

The return was crafted the old-fashioned way through runs and sweat. He watched India win the World Cup and then a combination of factors helped him find his way back. Rohit scored 372 runs for Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League and that along with the absence of seniors for the tour of the West Indies paved the way for his comeback.

His unbeaten match-winning 86 at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua helped India seal the series 3-0 and also steadied his feet within the Indian team.

The manner in which he ran his singles, played some delectable shots, hustled the chase and shepherded the tail pointed to what he can truly deliver, and though India lost the last two matches, Rohit's form augurs well. Tougher tests lie ahead — like the tour of England — and now he is more aware about the need to make his opportunities count. “How much ever talented you are, at the end of the day you have to score runs,” he recently said.

After Rohit, Virat did reasonably well in the ODIs against the West Indies and it is part of a fine pattern that the Delhi lad has willingly embraced after he scored his maiden limited overs' hundred — a 107 against Sri Lanka in Kolkata in December 2009. Since that knock, he has been remarkably consistent and the old propensity to dominate the bowler from the first ball has been tempered down. Kohli scored 94 and 81 in the recent matches against the West Indies and his clarity of thinking hints at higher honours. If he keeps his head, Kohli will indeed be the first choice for the Indian captaincy in the years ahead.

Even in the Royal Challengers Bangalore stable, he has been marked out as the prince-in-waiting. The current status though has been earned through a redemptive journey. After he led the Indian under-19 team to a World Cup triumph in Malaysia in 2008, Kohli fell for the trappings of stardom.

Luckily for him and for India, the youngster realised the pitfalls of floating in the clouds. “Not everyone gets an opportunity to play for India. I have realised that massively in the last one and half years,” he recently said. The 22-year-old is indeed the brightest spark in Indian cricket and how he lives up to his talent and new-found maturity will determine how his career shapes up.

Rohit and Virat with their roots in Mumbai and Delhi respectively, had access to facilities and a rich vein of history, but for Raina, his evolution was hastened in the tough environs of the Sports Hostels in Uttar Pradesh. The 24-year-old made his ODI debut in 2005 and came in to his own with a sparkling unbeaten 81 against England in Faridabad. Soon Wisden profiled him and another talent had etched itself brightly on the Indian firmament. Raina's twin centuries in the Asia Cup in Karachi in 2008 helped him tide past an earlier injury-enforced absence but the journey became cumbersome as he got into a tangle against short-pitched deliveries.

Raina's reputation was on the line but he persevered, and often at camps in Bangalore a favourite vignette for photographers was the time he spent with former coach Gary Kirsten, Tendulkar and Dravid while trying to mend the chink against the bouncer. “I will have my answers to the bouncer,” he had vehemently said then.

Raina has tried everything at the crease — the hop-and-soft-hands-routine, the-hook-in-anger and the more assured pull. At times it worked and at times it did not and in the last tour of South Africa, he sulked with scores of 32, 11, 37, 20 and 11. Even his Test career that started with a century on debut — 120 in Colombo — unravelled in despair.

Raina found his way back with an unbeaten 34 in Ahmedabad against Australia in the World Cup quarterfinal. His knock and the 74-run sixth-wicket partnership with Yuvraj Singh gifted India a second wind in the tournament. Raina was also handed the Indian captaincy after Dhoni opted for rest but in the ODIs against the West Indies, the pressure weighed down on the youngster and he scored a mere 82 runs in the five-match series. Raina has the ability to find his answers and it is a predicament that also stares S. Badrinath in the eye.

Tamil Nadu's mainstay in the Ranji Trophy and Chennai Super Kings' go-to man, Badrinath may not be a callow youth at 30 but he is surely capable of performing far better than his meagre yield in the West Indies.

Shikhar Dhawan is another batsman who has failed to make an impression at the highest level. It has more to do with his temperament than talent. India needs its emerging batsmen to live up to a tradition of rich pedigree and in the likes of Rohit, Kohli, Raina, Murali Vijay, Badrinath and Pujara, there is much to hope for but the runs need to flow. For the time being, they could imbibe all the lessons they can from four men, who have a tremendous work ethic — Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag — and also from two gents who have fittingly restructured their careers — Yuvraj and Gautam Gambhir.