After grappling for more than half-a-decade with the seemingly impossible task of replacing its “golden generation” of batsmen, Indian cricket will soon be posed another huge question: How do you handle life after Mahendra Singh Dhoni?
While finding understudies for the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid was daunting, it pales in comparison to the issue of Dhoni’s replacement.
Before the then 23-year-old brown-haired maverick debuted in 2004, India were struggling to cope with the abrupt exit of wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia. Rahul Dravid was forced to improvise behind the stumps in order to plug the gap in ODIs, while a host of ‘keepers (Samir Dighe, Vijay Dahiya, Ajay Ratra, Deep Dasgupta, Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik) were tried in Tests without success.
Not only has Dhoni stamped his authority on the role of wicket-keeper batsman across all formats, he has also led his nation to widespread success during a time when India’s most experienced men were shying away from the captaincy. Sourav Ganguly was out of the picture; Tendulkar didn’t want anything to do with it; Dravid, reluctantly and briefly, took up the role and Anil Kumble was installed more by default than design.
Dhoni stepped up to the plate in 2007 and has never looked back. Under his astute captaincy, India won the inaugural World T20 in 2007, climbed to the top of the Test rankings in 2009 and lifted the ODI World Cup in 2011. Not only that, in a country where cricketers are worshipped like gods and milked for their marketability, he has done so under the most immense of pressure, while also performing on the pitch and regularly rescuing his team in their hour of need.
In Dhoni, India were gifted a wicketkeeper, a batsman and a leader capable of shepherding the herd during a potentially turbulent transition between two generations of players. In one go, he helped rid India of multiple headaches that had previously spanned almost a decade. While Kohli – who is already Test captain – is a shoo-in to lead India in all forms of the game, what isn’t clear is the identity of the man to keep wicket for the country once the Ranchi helicopter decides to ground itself permanently.
And a look at the options to replace Dhoni makes for a sombre read. Here are the options that the BCCI and Indian cricket currently have to choose from.
Saha had long been India’s reserve wicketkeeper and back-up to Dhoni before the latter’s retirement from Tests finally cleared his path. A natural behind the stumps, Saha boasts a first-class average in the mid-40s and a track record that shows consistency. However, he has been involved in only 14 international matches since entering the Indian setup in 2010 without producing any performances of note.
At nearly 31, time is not on Saha’s side but his direct rivals aren’t particularly young either. What works for him is a long-standing relationship with the senior team and a lack of spectacular alternatives to replace him. What doesn’t – and this is crucial in shaping Indian public’s opinion – is a batting technique which isn’t easy on the eye, despite proving time and again to be both effective and destructive on the domestic scene.
In Test cricket, Saha is India’s clear first choice at the moment. It’s the shorter formats of the game in which his place is far from secure.
The stylish Uthappa returned to the national fold in 2014 on the back of some remarkable performances for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the Indian Premier League (IPL), particularly the tournament’s UAE leg. Uthappa narrowly missed out on a World Cup berth this year and would have felt hard done by being overlooked.
However, for the recently concluded tour of Zimbabwe, the selectors picked Uthappa as the sole wicketkeeper in the squad. It provided him with a fine opportunity to stake his claim as India’s No. 1 in ODIs, but the Karnataka batsman did himself more harm than good. An average of just 14.67 in three matches (along with a couple of errors behind the stumps) was not the return either selectors or player had hoped for.
Part of the problem was that Uthappa wasn’t playing in his preferred role as opener, initially making 13 and zero at number five before being bumped up to three, where he improved with scores of 31, 39 and 42 (the latter two coming in the T20Is). Owing to his batting acumen and flexibility, Uthappa is better placed than Saha to succeed Dhoni in ODIs and T20s.
At 32, Ojha is a bit of a wildcard across all formats. Although he is second to Saha in Tests, he is well placed to push hard for a spot in the first XI. This is due to his tremendous first-class record over the course of the last two years.
Nearly 1,000 runs in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy season were followed by three consecutive centuries in testing conditions Down Under for India ‘A’.
Clean-hitting cameos in the IPL also caught the attention and – time and age permitting – Ojha will be there or thereabouts in the senior team for shorter formats of the game as well.
At only 20, Samson is already carrying the weight of being dubbed the flag-bearer of cricket in the state of Kerala and of India’s long-term future. His popularity rose with eye-catching performances in the IPL for the Rajasthan Royals but Samson also has a fantastic first-class record, especially for a player his age.
It may be too early to blood him into the senior side but the young Keralite will be groomed in the coming years to take over from the current batch of 30-somethings.
A place in and around the squad and an exposure to what it takes to become an international cricketer may help his development.
THE OTHERS: AMBATI RAYUDU & KEDAR JADHAV
Like Dravid before them, both Rayudu and Jadhav – the only two centurions in Zimbabwe – are also capable of doing a job behind the stumps when required. However, it doesn’t appear to be a viable option in the minds of the selection committee. Not as first-choice, anyway.
Rayudu was India’s back-up wicketkeeper at the 2015 World Cup, which does suggest that India see him as a capable gloveman.
As it stands, India’s wicketkeeping conundrum has many solutions but none that stand out as clear-cut for the road ahead, both in the short and long term.
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