The charge of the young brigade

The roles have been reversed. India, which had a wretched tour of England recently, has turned the tables on its biggest rival of recent times, winning the one-day series in thumping fashion. And at the forefront of India's resurgence is a bunch of young men who are dreaming big. By K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Press conferences are often a blend of bluster, diffidence and cliches. At times, they are also pointers to a few home truths. In England, when India was reeling from a series of knock-out punches that emanated from the host's supremacy and the weird ways of damp clouds, scribes from various newspapers in the United Kingdom often asked M. S. Dhoni and Alastair Cook about the way the series unravelled.

Dhoni spoke about trying to get the ‘process right' while Cook and even other key England players like Jonathan Trott, interestingly, kept repeating that though it felt good to be winning comprehensively, they were well aware that India is a good team. There was no ‘yes-we-thumped-them-and-we-are-ready-to-dish-it-out-again-in-India' line which lends itself to rousing headlines. It was almost as though England was well aware that India in India is a very formidable rival.

This has turned out to be true for England, and that too in a bitter way, as at the time of going to press, India leads the five-match ODI series 4-0. This could be the biggest role-reversal in the enmeshed fortunes of the two major rivals in recent times. And at the forefront of India's revival is a bunch of young men who are dreaming big.

Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja and R. Ashwin to name a few, have added weight to a team that hinges on its senior duo of Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir to make up for the absence of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh. The seamers, ranging from the wily Kumars — Praveen and Vinay — to the pacy Varun Aaron, have also done their part to briefly stop that collective yearning — ‘Where is Zaheer Khan?'

Playing at home in familiar conditions amidst a swirl of pleasant memories — the greatest being Dhoni's six off Nuwan Kulasekara in Mumbai on April 2 — helped India turn the tide and the post-1983 children have been the brightest sparks. Among them, Kohli is the one meant for higher honours. In the Royal Challengers Bangalore ranks, he is spoken of as future captain. Kohli is also in the reckoning for the hottest seat in India, which is next only to the Prime Minister's chair in terms of sheer pressure and the bewildering expectations it carries with it.

The Indian cricket team's captaincy is still a distant signpost, but if Kohli hastens his metamorphosis from a glitzy talent to a proven match-winner, the position that demands gravitas and a gambler's instinct should be his in the long run. So far, he has shaped up well despite the blip (76 runs) during the three Tests in the West Indies. He warmed up slowly in England during the limited-over jousts and the steady progress was visible to all as he finally slammed a century in Cardiff. However, the knock, unfortunately, ended up on a losing note, mirroring India's wretched tour.

In the ODI series at home against England, Kohli has been remarkably consistent. He also played the lead act to perfection in Delhi (112 not out) and Mumbai (86 not out). The earlier propensity to impose his ego on the bowler has made way for a measured approach where respect is equally given to the humble single and the expansive four. At 22, Kohli is far from being a finished product, but he is aware of his game and has also shrugged away that brief distracted phase of the past when the pitfalls of fame seemed to engulf him.

If Kohli made rapid strides into the Indian team, Rahane's was a measured tread backed by a pile of 4838 first-class runs. The absence of Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir helped Rahane stride out as an opener along with Parthiv Patel in England and the Mumbai player proved that he has the ability to prosper under intense scrutiny. “I don't think that I am a Test player or ODI player. I just want to score runs and help India win,” he said in England.

Against the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan, Rahane didn't hesitate to step out and slam over the in-field. He revealed traits of solidity and innovation that an opener needs in the cut and thrust of ODIs. However, he seemed diffident in Hyderabad and Delhi before expressing himself with a 91 in Mohali. Rahane (23) has age on his side and he knows that when Sehwag returns, his position in the line-up will depend on the team's demands. Right now he is an unknown proposition for rival teams in the international arena, but soon they will begin studying his videos and bowlers will start chipping away at his perceived flaws. How the youngster strengthens his nascent reputation from here on will determine his career.

Kohli's ascent and Rahane's promise may right now fit into a straight career-graph but for Raina, it has been a zig-zag path littered with injuries and slumps in form. His inexplicable freeze-in-the-headlights tendency against Graeme Swann in the Tests was partially exorcised when he, along with Dhoni, forced England bowlers to lose their radars and the British scribes to run out of words while describing improbable shots. Back home, Raina harassed England with his 61 in Hyderabad and 80 in Mumbai that nudged matches India's way.

Raina is yet to sort out his weakness against the short ball directed at his rib-cage and his inability to seal a Test spot will gnaw at him. However, there is no mistaking the talent that resides within the 24-year-old's frame. It also helps that Raina enjoys Dhoni's confidence, and the added zest that he brings to the inner ring as a fielder means that he is one of the first names to be pencilled in for India's limited overs games.

Raina, Kohli and Rahane are all flag-bearers of an Indian cricketing tradition that is reflected in a rich vein of batting talent, but Ravindra Jadeja is part of a stop-start conveyor belt that has the word ‘all-rounder' inscribed on it. To get a player of Kapil Dev's calibre is a tough proposition, and in the past cricketers like Ajit Agarkar, Irfan Pathan and briefly even Laxmi Ratan Shukla struggled to fill the Haryana Hurricane's boots.

Jadeja, 22, is expected to lend flexibility to the playing XI. “We never had any problems with his bowling, but we felt that he had to score more runs,” Dhoni said in England while discussing Jadeja's hiatus from the highest level and his subsequent return with a 78 and two for 42 at the Oval. The left-arm spinner has struck a nice tandem with off-spinner Ashwin and the tigerish zeal that he reflects as a fielder, besides the strength to clout sixes, augur well for the Men in Blue though it is very premature to expect him to have the larger-than-life swagger that Kapil possessed.

Meanwhile Ashwin has coped well with the role of a lead spinner that was bequeathed to him once the selectors decided to give Harbhajan Singh a wake-up call. “Let us not forget that we won the World Cup in April and we are building a team, and if a few battles are lost but the war (World Cup) is won again, then it is good,” Ashwin said during the England tour when he and the rest of the bowlers struggled with wet balls, damp outfields and the resultant Duckworth-Lewis numbers. With an economy rate of 4.89 in ODIs, Ashwin has done well and his ability to absorb pressure has stood him in good stead. After seeing 25 summers and being hardened in the fiercely competitive world of Chennai league cricket, the off-spinner seems set for the long haul. And he is no mug with the bat and does have a good throwing arm. For further clarifications ask Kevin Pietersen, who was stunned as he was left stranded in the Hyderabad match.

Varun Aaron's toe-crushers in Mumbai are another volley of approval for the charge of the young brigade, but the story is not complete. India needs to replicate its winning ways overseas. Once England departs, the West Indies will land, but the toughest test for the youngsters will come in Australia post-Christmas.

During the period of depression that followed the thrashing that India suffered in England, Vinod Kambli's retirement was lost as a snippet. Kambli once said: “Sachin Tendulkar took the elevator and I took the stair-case.” Just that Kambli immediately took the elevator down, blinded by party lights and a world of page three illusions. His is a cautionary tale and irrespective of whether they prefer the elevator or stairs, India's generation-next players need to stay grounded and ensure cricketing longevity. Victories at home are par for the course but a corner will be turned if the team in transition emerges on top in Australia.

In 2008 India won the Commonwealth Bank Series in Brisbane but men like Rohit Sharma (now injured), Robin Uthappa, Irfan and Piyush Chawla from that team lost their way. Dhoni needs victories as well as a stable young unit and the Australian tour will reveal where India stands. However, for now the team can savour its victory against England.