The occasion is around six months away, but the task is such that even that long would not prove to be enough. On a humid September afternoon later this year, when India plays New Zealand in its next test, and when Sehwag swishes his incorrigible blade to get out cheaply as he has notoriously done in the past, Rahul Dravid will walk in... not to anchor the first day’s play and compile India’s innings, but to his kitchen to grab a snack he’s just cooked. It will be that moment, when he’ll be smiling, that we’ll be wondering if his replacement would be able to live up to even half of the greatness the haloed spot has witnessed.
And the pressure isn’t undue. Rahul Dravid, after all, has scored more runs at one-down than any other batsman in history, including the Don, Ponting or Kallis. So first of all, the selectors and the captain will definitely want to set their standards lower to be practical. The number 3 spot in a test, usually coming into play in the first session the team bats in, is easier talked about than understood. While the openers too need to be top-class batsmen, one can’t deny that they get some leeway as the bowlers try to settle in, getting a grip on the track and the line, exactly the time when the openers attack and get on top. However, should one of them perish early in the process, it is the number three who takes the multi-faced pressure of steadying the innings, facing the set bowlers and building the score.
Whom do we have in our arsenal to do all this and more, such as give ‘correct’ interviews, handle comparisons with Dravid and maintain his fitness for ages? Our pick is Cheteshwar Pujara. ‘That’ Saurashtra boy’ who made 72 on debut v/s Australia, boasts of a solid technique. His first-class record after this and his fitness levels following an injury might not be inspiring but the 24-year-old can well be groomed to become a successful test batsman. (No, don’t judge his number 3 capability on his IPL performances by the way!)
The next contender is a usual suspect, the more popular Virat Kohli. Another lad from the under-25 department, this dashing right-hander has ascended to fame and vice-captaincy in just one Australian tour. While his solid talent and shot-playing ability have been proven without doubt, the question is, does the man have the temperament to walk out at 8 for 1 in an overseas tour and bat out a session or two, without losing his wicket or head? His 116 at Adelaide was proof, but we want to see more to be convinced.
Some senior players (read - armchair critics) have suggested Ajinkya Rahane. The aggressive top-order Mumbai Indians star (with Rajasthan Royals from 2011) impressed in the little he played in the series v/s England at home and away, though that was the only bit we saw of him in India colours. Though the 23-year-old hasn’t played a single test, one can simply go through his incredible Ranji record to judge whether he’s ready for tests or not. (FYI, his first-class average is 68-something).
Among others, while Rohit Sharma’s love-hate relationship with good form continues, VVS Laxman might emerge as the eventual one-downer; it’s the sort of thing our myopic administrators would do. Whoever eventually takes up that space, he will have to battle long and hard to come close to filling the Rahul Dravid-sized hole in Indian cricket.
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