The Indian cricket team has had a great festive season with discounted goodies from the Windies in the two Twenty20 (T20) international matches played over the last week. The first T20 at Kolkata saw a glimmer of what the West Indies used to throw up in the past with newbie Oshane Thomas crossing the 150 km barrier in a hostile spell which gave his team a minor hope of making a match of what was a losing game.
The One Day International (ODI) and the T20 series, as one writes this piece, has been a productive one for the Indian T20 captain Rohit Sharma. The 'hit-man,' as his fans call him, scored three centuries — two 150-plus scores in the ODI's and an unbeaten 111 in the T20 game held at the spanking new Ekana Stadium in Lucknow.
What must have made the past weeks sweeter for the dasher from Mumbai was his inclusion in the Test squad which will leave for Australia after the end of their series. This tour of Australia is one where Rohit will need to put his all in order to fulfil the promise that he normally shows, time and again, while playing white ball cricket.
Rohit does confound his admirers as well as his critics with his performances. When he is on song (quite often while facing the white ball) his batting pleases the purists who shun the swat-bat style of batting. The bat coming down in a perfect arch to execute a perfect cover drive. Or, the short arm pull that reminds one of 'Punter' Ricky Ponting at his best.
'He has so much time,' is one sentence often heard when Rohit is batting. Confound is the right word when one watches him struggle against the red ball as technically, there is nothing wrong with him. His Test average, 39.97, from 43 innings just does not to justice to the talent he possesses which often makes one wonder why Rohit is not the same batsman against the red ball.
Arguably, Rohit is one of the best technicians in the Indian team. Problem is the expectations from him, considering what he is capable of, are extremely high. Indian fans tend to expect the same output from Rohit what he is delivering in the shorter formats of the game. Maybe this expectation is what is bogging him down when he wears white flannels instead of the coloured clothing.
As we saw in England, it was a collective failure by the Indian batsmen, and bar superman Virat Kohli, the others floundered with no consistency. Yes, Cheteshwar Pujara did get a gritty and much expected hundred in one Test and so did Lokesh Rahul. Much was expected from Ajinkya Rahane but the Mumbai middle order batsman failed to live up to his promise and looked bereft of the solidity that he is known for.
The tour of Australia will be a crucial one for Rohit (from a Test match perspective), almost an 'acid test' to revive his Test career. He has the ability and the ammunition, in terms of technique, to score runs in the longer format. More importantly, India will stand to gain if their middle order strengthens to give Virat Kohli, so far the lone crusader, support to post big scores for the bowlers to attack the opposition.
Post the ill fated tour of England, India had one more Test series against the West Indies, not the best team in the world to test the skills of the batsmen in the longest format of the game. One of the points that come out during the postmortem of the English tour was India needed a few practice matches before they started their Test cricket campaign. Sadly, one understands that for the impeding tour Australia, India will play a solitary practice match before the first Test.
The single game, one believes, is due to the memorandum of understanding between the two cricket boards that was sealed way before the tour, the logistics, for now, cannot be changed. There are a lot of opinions, floating in the media, that the current Australian team is not at its best and that the absence of two key players - Steve Smith and David Warner - will help India steal a march over the Aussies and post their first Test series win down under.
Most of those who are predicting an Indian victory in Australia had similar projections before India toured England and slinked into the background after Kohli's team lost the Test series with a resounding margin. One also needs to take a look at history between the two teams to realise that the Australians cannot be taken for granted, irrespective of the current form of their team.
Playing Australia in their backyard is a different proposition as Bishen Bedi's Indians found out in 1977-78. Having lost almost all their top players to the circus conducted by ringmaster Kerry Packer, the Aussies resorted to the experience of former skipper Bob Simpson to lead them to a 3-2 win over a strong Indian team. This time too, the Indians will need to be wary of their hosts who are capable of pulling a rabbit or two out of their kit bag in home conditions.
With the Indian bowling looking (more or less) settled and capable of taking twenty wickets consistently, a lot will depend on the middle order numbers five, six and seven. If Rohit does manage to focus and tweak his game for the longer format the Indian team will be in a much better position to consolidate their number one position with more series' wins abroad.
In the last few weeks, there have been stories in the media about Indian players complaining about the quality of bananas served to them during the English tour. The media has also mentioned how the team wanted to travel by train instead of a bus during the impending International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup in 2019.
Another story mentions that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) are reviewing a request made by team members to allow spouses more time to accompany them on tours. It is also learnt, thorough the media (as usual) that the advance planning party for the Australia tour have asked the host country to avoid beef being served to the team while on their tour.
Considering the problems they had while switching from the white to the red ball in England, the BCCI could have restricted the Windies tour and given the Test team an extra game or more before the Test series to help them prepare better. At this point in time, it looks like the priorities for the BCCI and team management are not crucial practice matches before the series but Beef, Bananas and Biwis!
(The writer is a former Cricket Club of India captain and Bombay University cricketer)