A new set of players gets ready to don the India blazer, fingers crossed, as their big chance comes calling. Adityaand Devendra Pandey look at the two upcoming tours that will fuel the dreams of more hopefuls
IT’S a 15-minute autorickshaw ride from Jaidev Unadkat’s house to the city market, but it takes him a few extra in the evening rush. The threewheeler snakes and slides its way through the bustling Porbandar traffic, just in time for Unadkat’s appointment with Solanki’s, the local tailors.
The measuring tape is out almost immediately, shaping up the length, breadth and girth of the Saurashtra cricketer. Not much is said in between, but the tailor realises the significance of the moment. He is told that the measurements marked at the back of his receipt book will soon result in a navy blue blazer—with an India A logo sewn on the breast pocket.
In January, Unadkat had his first coat stitched for the under-19World Cup. Just four months later, the India A jacket is on its way. For the 19-year-old cricketer, the rise has been rapid, almost exponential.
“My aim was to find a place in Saurashtra’s Ranji squad for the next season; India A wasn’t even in the scheme of things,” Unadkat says. “But the selectors are performance-oriented these days. Things have moved at such a rapid pace that I’m already there.”
Just like with Unadkat, things are changing at a rapid pace in Indian cricket.
Quick change of guard
The two tours—the national team going Zimbabwe and the India A side to England — scheduled for the coming month will witness the fierce speed with which the generations change hands.
First, Suresh Raina—an IndiaAregular till not too long ago — will lead a new-look Team India in the absence of most senior members. Though that is a temporary move lasting only the length of the tour, the selectors have shown faith in a talented set of youngsters who could eventually re-format the national side.
The other bold move has been the restructuring of the India A team. In an attempt to fast-track plenty of careers into the big league and form a reserve pool for national selection, the tried and tested fringe players have been given the boot, while players — mostly youngsters — have been given the nod based on performance rather than perceived ability.
Regulars like Parthiv Patel, Irfan Pathan, R P Singh, Mohammad Kaif and Munaf Patel, who used to find a refuge with the A side, have been overlooked.
From the last India A match, played back in October 2008, three have graduated to the senior team, while only two names have been repeated. Raina, Murali Vijay and Ashok Dinda are now key members of the national team’s Zimbabwe tour, while Wriddhiman Saha and Cheteshwar Pujara are India A’s current deputy and captain, respectively.
At 21, Pujara is seen as the next big hope. Rocking the domestic scene with two triple centuries in his debut season, Pujara put Saurashtra back on the cricketing map. With an insatiable hunger for runs and an ability to spend long hours at the crease, the batsman’s grooming for Test cricket recently rose by another notch.
“I have been in the reckoning for a while, so I am pleased to get the India A call-up,” he says. “But to be selected as captain is an even better feeling.”
The suddenness, though, doesn’t affect Pujara. “There is always immense pressure to perform, and whether you play for India A in England or domestic cricket in India, it’s the same,” he says.
“The aim is to enjoy it when they come. It (England tour as skipper) will be challenging because I haven’t been assigned a task like this before. It’s a big opportunity.”
Although the runs have flown thick and fast off his blade in Indian conditions, Pujara says the real challenge lies in alien settings. “I have been consistent on the domestic circuit for the last three seasons but the test lies ahead. The conditions will be a stark contrast to what we have here, and so will be the bowling attack. Scoring well in England will boost my confidence. The key is to adjust quickly and play my natural game.”
Age on their side
Like Pujara, Abhinav Mukund’s domestic scores have been closely followed by the selectors. But the long backlog of players on the fringe forced the Tamil Nadu opener to wait for his India A opportunity, until this sudden revamp.
“My under-19 World Cup batch was an extremely talented bunch,” Mukund, 20, says. “Players like Virat (Kohli) and (Ravindra) Jadeja were bound to get into the Indian team quickly. The others, like (Manish) Pandey, (Saurabh) Tiwary and I, had to wait longer. But with runs under our belt, it was bound to happen.”
Have the youngsters entered at the cost of some of the senior peripheral players? “I don’t think so,” Mukund says.
“Players who are past 25 or 26 have not been ignored; they are already established cricketers and some of them have
already made their Test debut. The selectors view this squad as the future generation. I’m happy age is on my side.” While the likes of Mukund and Pujara had the attention of the selectors because of consistent performances on the domestic circuit, others have shot to fame through the IPL. One such cricketer is Naman Ojha. A sterling IPL III season by the Madhya Pradesh wicketkeeper forced the selectors to take notice, and Naman now finds himself as the back-up to Dinesh Karthik in the national team.
However, he realises it will take more than just 377 runs for a franchise side to seal his India spot on a permanent basis.
“Playing for India is not a joke. The situation is simple—thosewhodo well will stay; those who don’t will go home,” Naman says. “Sheer dedication got us here.
It’s time to repay the selectors’ faith.”
The big reshuffle
While some familiar Team India names now form the core of the India A side, many who made their bones in the lower category, such as Naman, will go to Zimbabwe in national colours.
Naman will now rub shoulders with his surname-sake Pragyan Ojha. Having spent the better part of last year in and out of the national team, Pragyan believes opportunities like these come rarely. He says these are two of the most important tours in recent past.
“We will get to gauge how the youngsters perform at the biggest stage,” he says. “Personally, a good show will help me cement my place.”
The cement though was never laid for a few players, who now return from the oblivion. Having warmed TeamIndia benches on separate tours, Dhaval Kulkarni, Sudeep Tyagi, Manoj Tiwary, Abhimanyu Mithun and Wriddhiman Saha lace the India A side, while Pankaj Singh returns to the senior team after two years. It may seem like a demotion after having found space in the Indian dressing room but with one Test and five ODIs between the six of them, it is yet another chance to prove their mettle.
None of those ODIs belong to Mithun, while one belongs to Tiwary— who never played again after his miserable debut against Australia in 2007.
Back from the oblivion
“Opportunity has come knocking again and I’m sure there will be pressure on me to perform. I keep reminding myself that I’m just a step away from the senior side. I’m eager to make a comeback — it’s time to start afresh,” Tiwary says, with a slightly tragic drone in his voice.
Mithun, though, breaks the self-pity mould. Despite being dropped from the Indian side without a single appearance, the Karnataka fast bowler, who scalped 46 wickets in his debut Ranji season, feels it was for a good cause. “Being dropped from the Indian team was the best thing that happened to me because I learned the difference between the domestic and international levels,” he says.
So how does he plan to get better this time around? “I’m going to Australia on the Border-Gavaskar scholarship. My stint there will also help me understand foreign conditions better,” Mithun says.
But compared to some others, such as Kulkarni and Pankaj, Tiwary will feel blessed. The only time Kulkarni stepped on the field during India’s tour of New Zealand in 2009 was with a couple of water bottles. Ditto for Pankaj, but on the tour to Australia.
“Nothing substantial has happened after I was dropped without a game,” the Mumbai fast bowler says. “I even started missing the cut for the Board President’s XI. This is a small opening, and if I do well, there is a bright future.” Pankaj is more philosophical: “People used to ask me why I was dropped without being given a game. Back then, I didn’t have an answer. Now I can tell them with pride that I’m back. It will be an honour to wear the team jacket again.”
For the wide-eyed hopefuls, the measurements for the blazers will change as their young frames fill out with age. But what they would hope to retain is the stitch on the breast pocket with the national cricket emblem.
JUST A STEP AWAY
On the long ladder to the national team, a stint with India A is the final step. A look at a few of the fast-tracked careers.
ROBIN UTHAPPA (2006): On his India A debut, the Karnataka opener scores 116 against Netherlands A, destroying their bowling attack in the EurAsia Series in Abu Dhabi. In the next game against Pakistan A, he hammers 52.
A few weeks later, he gets 86 on his ODI debut against England in Indore.
MS DHONI (2004): The world gets its first glimpse of Dhoni’s savagery when he rips apart Kenya and Pakistan A in Nairobi. His scores read 70, 120, 119* and 78. Three months later, the senior Pakistan team are at the receiving end in Vishakapatnam, when Dhoni, in his second ODI, becomes the top-scorer for an Indian wicketkeeper with 148.
AAVISHKAR SALVI (2003): With an action notoriously similar to Glenn Mc- Grath, Salvi scalps two back-to-back five-wicket hauls against Guyana and Jamaica in March 2003. A couple of months later he debuts for India. Salvi is unable to recreate the same magic, though, as he plays only four ODIs.
AJIT AGARKAR (1998): The pacer sends shock waves through Pakistan as he picks up half-a-dozen wickets in an innings twice, and another five-for. He also gets a 109 against Peshawar in March 1998, in the same game as his 6/75. A week later, the Mumbai bowler makes his debut against Australia. He then goes on to become the fastest to snare 50 wickets in ODIs.
VINOD KAMBLI (1993): Although Kambli had already made it to the ODI team in 1991, a stint with the India A side at the SAARC quadrangular series gave him the required impetus to receive his first Test call. The stylish southpaw made both Pakistan A and Sri Lanka A pay at Dhaka, before doing the same to the England and Zimbabwe Test sides with back-to-back double centuries in his first three Tests.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
With the selectors shining the spotlight on the youth, the regulars have been left out in the cold.
The tried and tested may yet make a return to the A side, but their inconsistency has been punished. A look at players who have dominated India A over the last decade
Fast, tall and lethal was how Munaf was described during his India A days. A regular bowler in the side between 2004 and 2006, Munaf featured in almost all India A games played during the period.
However, the Baroda pacer never featured since, although he toggled in and out of the Indian team. India A continued to host and tour games until 2008, without the pacer.
Before the left-arm seamer—known in the domestic circuit for his immaculate swing—burst onto the international scene against Zimbabwe in 2005, he had played one India A game. After that, the Uttar Pradesh bowler featured in 10 of 11 matches that the A side played in 2006, before disappearing from the scene altogether.
The most regular feature of the India A side, the Gujarat wicket-keeper had played almost all India A matches since 2006. Parthiv’s constant run in the A side also directly coincided with a certain MS Dhoni in the national team. With Dinesh Karthik being preferred over Parthiv as the reserve stumper, India A had been Patel’s lone solace until the IPL.
Although he made his A debut back in 1998, Kaif had given Parthiv Patel company almost step-instep since 2006. The face of the India A side since falling out of favour with the national team the same year—he hasn’t played an ODI or a Test since ’06—the Kaif wall had stood sturdy in the A side all the way until the last A game in 2008.
The fall of Irfan Pathan has been a tragic one. Once considered the future of the Indian pace attack, Irfan had been a part of the A side since his form spiralled out of control. Although comebacks to the senior team were frequent in the beginning, the rate dropped quite drastically over the years.