It is time to accept it. The core of Indian cricket has finally changed. For all its ills, IPL II gave them the stage to prove themselves
IN THE World T20 In 2007, Rohit Sharma scored a 40-ball 50 not out to rescue India in a must-win match against South Africa (SA). This January, he became only the sixth batsman to hit centuries in both innings of a Ranji Trophy final. At the IPL, he scored 362 runs, took a hat trick and was named the under-23 player of the tournament. But the stat that makes his coach, Dinesh Lad, chuckle in disbelief is this: Rohit and five of his friends ate 48 half-fried eggs at Lad’s home after they returned from the World T20. Coach and protégé are neighbours in Starline Colony in Mumbai’s Borivali suburb.
“He belongs to a Brahmin family. They don’t cook non-vegetarian food at home,” Lad says. “He enjoys the half-fried eggs my wife cooks. He had just returned from the World T20 and sent word that he was hungry. Forty-eight eggs. Between five or six of them. My wife couldn’t believe it.”
As a hazardous activity, prediction is second only to marriage. But there is little risk in saying that a bunch of young cricketers will play a crucial role for India. Of these, five stand out, all of whom are below 25. Suresh Raina, Ishant Sharma, Pragyan Ojha, Cheteshwar Pujara and of course, Rohit, who, save for earning a Test cap, has been a consistent force. Raina, Ojha and Rohit also had an excellent IPL. Ishant, of the Kolkata Knight Riders, did not. Pujara, belonging to the same team, suffered an injury in the prep camp. But Ishant remains India’s premier young fast bowler. Pujara cannot be discounted for the volume of runs he scored the last couple of seasons.
The 22-year-old Rohit is chubby and moves slowly. But when fielding, he is transformed. His fielding skill and ability to bowl off spin raise his value. Because, ironically for a game thought to be a batsman’s, cricket today covets men who can bowl and field well too. “Many thought Rohit was lazy. He wasn’t. It’s just his body language,” says Lad, who has coached Rohit since age 11. “Being that way has advantages. He never takes pressure. He did not have a good time in Sri Lanka. I asked him about it. He said, “Aap tension mat lo. (Please don’t get stressed)” Like Sachin Tendulkar, who took a trial at the MRF Pace Academy, Rohit was headed towards becoming a bowler. Lad drafted him into the Swami Vivekananda School team as an off spinner. But when the boy had a ‘knock’, the coach noticed that he stroked well and with a straight bat. He decided to focus on his batting.
The straight bat and an unhurried grace are hallmarks of Rohit’s game. It is fascinating to watch him in tense situations, where the crowd is hyper and the asking rate is rising. The moment is excitable, the man is not. In pandemonium, Rohit manages to remain collected. He doesn’t take tension. He wins, often. Against SA in the World T20, when India were 61 for four. Against Kolkata Knight Riders, when the Deccan Chargers needed 21 from the last over by Mashrafe Mortaza. Against UP in the Ranji Trophy final, when Mumbai were 55 for 4, though he was the beneficiary of dropped catches on that occasion.
Most agree, Test cricket remains unexplored territory for Rohit due to lack of a vacancy in the middle order and not lack of ability. It is a matter of time. “With his straight bat, he is ideal for Tests,” says Lad. “Even in 50-over or T20 cricket, he does better when he plays with a straight bat.” Rohit has not played an international game on English soil, though he has a bit in Ireland. But he has proven himself in Australia and South Africa and should fancy his chances in the World T20.
This would be a safe time for Greg Chappell to visit Orissa. In 2007, he was assaulted by a man at Bhubaneshwar airport because no players from the state were being picked for the Indian team. The rise of Pragyan, Rohit’s Deccan Chargers teammate, has soothed tempers. The left-arm spinner belongs to Hyderabad now, but is originally from Orissa. Not only has he gained prominence but has also made it to the Indian team, for whom he will be in action at the World T20 next.
In South Africa, a smile was never far away for Ojha. Neither was a charged up F-bomb after a wicket-taking delivery. In last year’s IPL, though the Chargers finished last, Ojha had eleven scalps. He took 18 this year, including those of Bangalore’s Manish Pandey and Roelof van der Merwe in the final at the Wanderers. A 4 for 38 against Sri Lanka last year was the tipping point for Ojha’s confidence. One of the wickets was of Kumar Sangakkara. “I realised that I belonged to the bigger league and can be successful,” he says.
Vivek Jaisimha, the former Hyderabad coach under whom Ojha played some domestic cricket, says, “Ojha is a rhythm bowler. In my time, if he took an early wicket, he would go on to take five. If he didn’t, he would go wicketless. He needs to be more consistent.” Jaisimha, speaking to Open before the IPL final, feels Ojha would do better in England. “In the IPL, partly because of the schedule, players had no time to think things through. It also got cold later. In England, the wickets might offer him more turn.” Jaisimha feels, “He needs to drop some weight.” And adds, “But he has improved. On a scale of ten his fitness was about four earlier, now it’s eight.”
In the final, Ojha beat the feisty van der Merwe with a classic left-arm spinner’s delivery. The right-hander stepped out and was beaten as the ball turned away into the hands of wicket-keeper and captain Adam Gilchrist, who executed an easy stumping. Ojha feels gratitude for Gilchrist. “He is a captain who gives us a lot of liberties, lets you set your own field and backs you. He knows my strengths and has told me to bowl the way I am doing now; not try too many things and, when in doubt, to fall back on senior players like him or Laxman or the coach.” Harbhajan is the only specialist spinner in India’s World T20 squad; Ojha will land at Heathrow with itching fingers.
On the field you see Ishant Sharma as a six-feet-four-inch destroyer with flying black hair that makes a sightscreen unnecessary. From up close you see him as a boy of 20 with smooth skin, soft stubble and a tendency to snack on fingernails. In Durban, as the Knight Riders held a contrived press conference, Ishant sat at the right end of the table, looking uncomfortable, crossing and uncrossing his long legs, nibbling on nails. He took eleven wickets in the IPL, but got little support from batsmen. Speed wise, it wasn’t like the heady summer of 2008 in Australia, where he scaled the prized peak of 150 kmph. In South Africa he did around 135. It could be because he was coming off a shoulder injury that he suffered while fielding in New Zealand just before the IPL.
But failure is a spur. Though upstaged by RP Singh’s 23-wicket performance in the IPL, Ishant will lead India’s pace challenge in the World T20. He is motivated, more so as the tournament takes place in England, which is to fast bowling what rain is to romance. “Conditions in England will be helpful for bowlers and I want to make it memorable for myself,” he says. “In Twenty20, you need to have a good yorker and different kinds of slower balls. Also, I am looking to become an impact bowler because nothing else sets the opposing team back like losing early wickets.”
“Usse udhar bowling karne ka mazaa aayega, (He will enjoy bowling there)” Manoj Prabhakar says. Few could move the ball the way he did. His tips helped Ishant succeed in Australia. But Prabhakar feels Ishant needs to straighten some things out. “The left shoulder steers a right arm bowler. In Ishant’s case, it is dropping early,” Prabhakar says. “The ball is coming in from off to middle or leg stump instead of from outside the off stump to off stump.” Ishant is going to be important for India in all versions of the game, including Tests. “Without the over limits and field restrictions of Twenty20, he will be even better,” says Dilip Vengsarkar.
“He has speed and has developed variations,” says Prabhakar. “He needs to take care of his body. This applies to all cricketers today, kyunki cricket bahut zyaada ho gayee hai (there’s too much cricket these days). If it means going to the gym after returning to the hotel room, they need to do it.”
Ask Prabhakar about Ishant’s attitude and you suspect he transports himself to a church and wears a white robe before saying, “They are young men, some things are bound to happen. I say this with hindsight. We too made mistakes when young. Lekin galatee ki toh usse jurm naa samjhein. (But mistakes are not a crime.)”
The 22-year-old Raina emerged as a potential star in 2005, a rare bright dawn in the otherwise stormy reign of Greg Chappell. He was a prolific
and strokeful batsman, an energetic fielder and a competent bowler. But he went off the boil for almost two years. Last June, after 18 months out of the team, an opportunity at redemption knocked. He did not squander it. Since then he has scored two hundreds (against Hong Kong and Bangladesh, though) and seven fifties in 50-over cricket. In T20, he registered a 61 against New Zealand in Christchurch before the IPL, in which he was the fourth-highest scorer. If not for an error on the scoreboard, he, not Manish Pandey, could have been the IPL’s first Indian centurion. Raina also took seven wickets in the tournament.
“Raina gives you another option. If I am playing with four fast bowlers and two spinners then I know that I have Raina who can bowl a full quota of four overs,” said MS Dhoni, Raina’s Chennai Super Kings and Team India captain.
These 12 months have seen Raina bat well in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa. ‘Sanu’, as friends call him, will be confident going into the World T20. A man who likes to dress well, Raina is opening a designer clothes store in his hometown of Ghaziabad. His success on the field should reflect on the cash register.
In the immediate aftermath of the IPL, where new stars formed and old ones rediscovered their sparkle, you have to remind yourself that a few months ago, the most prolific and talked about new cricketer in India was Cheteshwar Pujara. Who knows, had the 21-year-old not torn his left knee ligament in a practice match, the Kolkata Knight Riders would have won a few more matches. Pujara is convalescing for now. For a while, he will have to face obscurity. As the quiet type, he will not mind it. In any case, going by his performances (three triple hundreds for Saurashtra last season, the BCCI best domestic player award for 2007-08), it is a matter of time before he is back in the arclights. Rahul Dravid is the standard Pujara is often held to for his textbook style of play and temperament. Like Dravid, Pujara too can step it up if he so desires. While his mammoth scores in domestic cricket create an image of an old-fashioned run-gatherer, Pujara was also the highest scorer in the under-19 limited overs World Cup in 2006. This, though, will be a testing time for the youngster. As a former great says, “He has stagnated. He needs to improve his technique to play at the top level.” But Pujara is young and has done far too much for us to fear that he wouldn’t do more.
We may love to hate Lalit Modi. But there are some good things about the IPL. It exposes all sorts of players, from the experienced Anil Kumble and RP Singh to the young Manish Pandey and Ravindra Jadeja, to challenges whose profile and pressure are high. When they weather these, Indian cricket gets a wider pool of players primed for further battles. It is not all about cheerleaders and actor-owners, after all.
Next week, A tribute to the original FAB FIVE by Steve Waugh