Of all the things that this Indian team has done well in the recent past, one outstanding act stands out: for almost each player in the team there is a body double waiting in the wings to take over in case of any slip-ups. The rarity of it in Indian cricket history makes it all that much more special. If Ajinkya Rahane goes out for a game, Karun Nair not only fills in but almost threatens the incumbent’s spot with a triple hundred.
If Shikhar Dhawan is struggling, no problem, let’s get back KL Rahul and also, why not throw in Abhinav Mukund into the mix! Even if the wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha gets injured, Parthiv Patel steps in—and the RAC ticket is with the likes of Rishabh Pant. If Cheteshwar Pujara messes up, Mukund can be even played at No. 3 or with some juggling in the batting order, Nair can be brought in. Only Virat Kohli is irreplaceable right now as the captain and the batsman. Even R Ashwin has been dropped overseas in the ODIs.
The problem of plenty isn’t just seen with the batsmen. Ishant Sharma, the Test specialist these days, has been travelling with the team without able to get a look-in. Even when the best seamer Mohammad Shami is injured, they have Bhuvneshwar Kumar to move in without much fuss.
It was tough to imagine this scenario in the past. An injury or two would affect the balance so much that it would lead to team’s chances being torpedoed. The bench strength used to be a first-world luxury— Australia could have it, South Africa could do it, but India? No way.
The man who captured the body-double scenario the best was Karun Nair. Who told him he could walk into a Test team and hit a triple ton in his third Test? There he was in Hyderabad, in the batting nets that lie outside the arena, reverse-sweeping R Ashwin and using his feet against Jayant Yadav. Batting adjacent to him was Ajinkya Rahane, punching and pushing, mostly of the back foot. Both Anil Kumble and Virat Kohli have already made it clear that Nair would have to sit out. Kohli framed the scenario this way: “I feel one game doesn’t overshadow two years of hard work from another player … Sealing a spot as far as the squad is concerned – that’ what Karun did.”
Another noteworthy aspect of this was that it wasn’t just the youngsters who stepped up when they were drafted in but also the comeback men like Yuvraj Singh and Parthiv Patel. Happy problem that throws up pressure?
It would be interesting to see how this happy problem plays out in the time to come. Purely from the mental scheme of things. Would the knowledge that if you slip up for a series or two, there is a ready replacement waiting to swoop in add that much more pressure? Here is where the team management has really excelled with the move of backing Rahane publicly as they have done. ‘You might have hit a triple hundred, but boss, chill, and wait your time’ can be of a great pressure-reliever to Rahane. And it also sends out a message to others that we would try to back you as much as possible.
The replacement would squeeze you out only if you had been given a fair chance to succeed or fail. Like with the case of Shikhar Dhawan. He can’t complain about his exit – he was given a fair run and only then, was he dropped. The other positive of in all this, though, is that the scenario could toughen up the players mentally and get complacent ever.
How it will play out in the future should be fascinating to track. Would the Indian team management continue to be as patient or having seen the replacements showing mojo, would the temptation come in for more frequent shuffles?
Kohli indicated the road map for the team. “An injury should not deplete a team; that’s something that bench strength contributes from. I think bowlers can be switched according to conditions. You might want to play three spinners, sometimes you might want to play three seamers; some seamer might be more effective on a seam-friendly wicket, some guys might have more pace for reverse swing,” he said.
“But to chip and change regularly doesn’t help a batsman gain confidence. We are lucky to have guys who are up and ready for Test cricket. Jayant walked in beautifully. In T20s and one-dayers you saw Chahal and Kedar stepping up. If a form or that kind of thing happens, then obviously, you need to change,” he added.
It’s a tricky balancing act of course—to keep the confidence of the established batsmen, and to keep up the morale of those waiting outside. It comes down to communication, Kohli felt. “I think communication is a big thing on that front and that’s something we do really well with the team management and myself as well, to convey to the players what we want.”
The communication has come through in various instances – Kumble telling Pujara not to fret about his strike rate, Kohli telling Yuvraj that he is in the scheme of things, the selector MSK Prasad keeping Parthiv in the loop, or the public backing now of Rahane.
Only one irreplaceable man in the team is Kohli, who Ricky Ponting called as the best batsman in world cricket. Ponting even saw bit of himself in Kohli’s temperament. As a captain, Kohli has had quite a stunning ride in the recent times and so his answer to what has been the biggest learning from the home season was quite revealing.
This Indian team is learning how to be more patient, he said. “There was one instance in West Indies in Jamaica when we kept going positive and we didn’t hold back but we couldn’t take 20 wickets and the bowlers got tired. I think we done the patience bit very well in the series against New Zealand and England, bogging down the batsman and earning the wickets in difficult situations in the game. When everyone is young, everyone is excited in the team. Sometimes people tend to get carried away and you don’t understand the importance of being patient. That’s something we want to do and to improve on as a team.”
Clarity in communication, a healthy bench strength, and patience—not a bad mix at all. No wonder they have been winning consistently.