* This post was originally published on Backward Point on June 11 2012, during the fascinating and overlooked series between West Indies A and India A. It has not been edited to reflect the growth of Pujara into an accomplished international batsman.
One of the most fascinating and crucial series happening this year will also likely be one of the most overlooked. Currently, India A is 1-0 up over the West Indies A side, in a battle that could go a long way to shaping the test sides of both nations for many years. As you may have noticed, neither the West Indies, nor India, have particularly strong test sides at present. There are spots up for grabs, particularly if you are a hungry young batsman. There will be three unofficial tests played over the A series, and so far a few batsmen have put their noses in front.
The case of India’s test team is particularly pressing. Their next test series may be against lowly New Zealand in August, however, there is at least one spot that needs to be filled immediately. Actually, to call it a spot doesn’t quite do it justice. Somebody is going to have to step into the giant shoes of Rahul Dravid. Somehow, after being the only batsman to do anything of note in the dismal tour to England, he decided that it was him who had to retire. Laxman and Tendulkar though must be feeling the breath of Father Time on the backs of their necks, which means that the entire middle order is up for grabs to any Indian batsman willing to put in the work.
Who then are the contenders? So far on the A tour there have been two batsmen who have made their presence known. Firstly Rohit Sharma, who was shamefully overlooked for the entire Australian test series, bashed 94 in the first innings of the first match. That will go a long way towards nicking Laxman’s spot, as it was scored from number 5. He will need to keep the pressure on though, or else he might continue to be ignored. The other fellow in contention is Cheteshwar Pujara. He is the skipper of the A team, and more importantly, was the sole reason India A managed to win the first game. In the first innings he scored a creditable 50, but in the second he made 96 not out to drag his team over the line. India A won by 2 wickets, and the next highest score was 27. That shows the sort of mental toughness that the Indian batting lineup will lack in the post-Dravid world.
There are a few other contenders too, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane, even Subraminiam Badrinath could make a return. Raina has experience in Tests, however after 15 matches only averages 29.58. Rahane had a stunning IPL, often playing very technically good cricket. He is however yet to make his test debut, and has somewhat underachieved in his international outings. Badrinath is a sad case, a good player who will probably be considered on the wrong side of 30. While he might have a first class average of 60 over 104 matches, every outing in Indian blue, or white, has ended in disaster. He has probably lost his only chance after failing against South Africa in 2010. There is also the small possibility that Yuvraj Singh may return one day, provided his health improves.
So what path should India take? For my money, a huge cleanout needs to happen, and soon. Dravid is gone, Laxman has been awful in recent times and Tendulkar is just not the batsman he once was. If I were selecting the team to play against the Black Caps, I would have Pujara at 3, Kohli at 4, Sharma at 5 and Raina at 6. Out of those four batsmen, there also has to be a future captain emerging, as Dhoni cannot hang on forever if results don’t improve. Very few captains survive two whitewashes in a row.
The West Indies is also a very interesting case, partly because in almost every recent test, the batting has been disastrous. In this instance it is a case of no young players nailing down a spot, while the old guard (and by that I mean Chanderpaul) continue to grind out the runs. Marlon Samuels has been a revelation on his return, however he is known for inconsistency, so it may not last. Overall though, the next generation of Barath, Powell, Edwards, Braithwaite and Darren Bravo have failed to stamp their mark on the batting order. All play in the top 4, and while it may be great having Chanderpaul and Samuels scoring heavily from 5 and 6, it is somewhat pointless if they come in at 60-4.
In the first unofficial test, most of the runs for West Indies A came from the lower order, and not enough runs in general were scored. 19 year old Braithwaite may be just ahead of the pack, after he scored a torturously slow 50 in the first match. Moreover, he batted the entire first day of the second match to go to 66 overnight, off a titanic 292 balls. Such feats of endurance will endear him to the selectors, and he may well find himself partnering a certain IPL superstar at the top of the West Indies order in their next series. However, the only reason he is playing for the A team is because he got dropped from the Test team after averaging 21 from 9 games.
Each nation may have a problem the opposite of the other, with the Indian old guard failing to fire, and the West Indian seniors being the only ones firing. However, the roots of both problems are the same. Not enough runs are being scored by the batsmen for either side, and it is costing the team one Test after another. The losing streaks for both sides are starting to look very bad, especially for the former no.1, India. Batsmen who perform well in the A series should be given a shot at higher honours, because lets face it, they can’t do any worse than the current lot. Therefore, you should keep an eye on this series. It may tell you all you need to know about the future of each nation’s Test sides.