Call them the Three Musketeers or simply the greatest middle-order batting trinity of the generation, but Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman formed the engine room of the Indian line-up for what seemed like an eternity. Their collective and individual class, cricketing nous and a fierce determination to propel themselves and their team took Indian cricket to heights that had been unimaginable. But after 15 years, two months and a week, the curtain fell on the dream triple act when Rahul Dravid, the oldest of the golden batting trio, announced his international retirement.
They were so different in their approach to their batting; Dravid’s grit wore down opposing bowlers, Tendulkar’s sheer technical brilliance subdued them, while Laxman was both the delightful wrist artist and an epitome of patient batting with the tail-enders. But they never lost sight of the fact they needed to pull the team in the same direction.
One of sport’s attractions is the attempt to fix like for like replacements, in place of greats on the verge of bidding adieu. The enduring appeal of football includes resurrecting a Pele or Maradona in debates on players currently making an impact, or in golf, where, for all Tiger Woods’ greatness the debate whether he can overhaul Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major wins is still alive.
As Indian cricket passes through a trough, the time has come to scour the horizon for new stars, and determine whether an emerging set of young batsmen can live up to the exacting standards set by the golden trio. With Tendulkar and Laxman slipping into the twilight of their careers, we can ask the question – who among the young pretenders have it in them to form the new trinity?
There is no doubt about the first candidate for this fresh grouping. As Dravid played in what turned out to be the final Test of his illustrious career in Adelaide, Virat Kohli, 23, put his hand up and scored a century to suggest he is one for the long haul.
So, at the moment, who are the candidates likely to team up with Virat and form the new bulwark for the India team? The naturally gifted Rohit Sharma, and Cheteshwar Pujara, whose game mirrors that of Rahul Dravid, appear best equipped to guide India in Test cricket.
While Tendulkar and Laxman, despite the tough time on the tour to Australia, haven’t spoken their minds about their future as India players, the time is not too far away when the dressing room will wear a different look. It is unfair to compare eras and expect players to live up to the norms laid down by the previous generation. But the current crop of players is not fazed by pressures or expectations.
So, what can inject that extra energy into the young shoulders for carrying the hopes of a billion plus over the next decade? HT Brunch expects Virat, Rohit and Cheteshwar to rekindle the nation’s hopes in the coming years, and script their own stories that can inspire a new wave of younger players.
They are not alone, nor are they going to have a free run. Waiting in the wings are the likes of Mumbai batsman Ajinkya Rahane. Suresh Raina, who lost a bit of momentum after being exposed against pace bowling on overseas pitches, is young and still very much in the equation, just like the experienced Manoj Tiwary and Wriddhiman Saha, both from Bengal.
Virat, 23, captivated fans with his brilliant batting in Australia and in the Asia Cup, regaining his poise overseas after a shaky Test debut in the West Indies last year. The Delhi batsman is pretty much the product of the times. Articulate and aggressive, he is not apologetic about his over-the-board celebrations, which former greats like Sunil Gavaskar frown upon, or about the way he likes to let his hair down.
As a batsman, more than his sound technique, his grit and self-belief which helped him score his maiden Test century in Adelaide, have been impressive.
The former U-19 World Cup winning captain did have a shaky start to his international career, after initially getting caught up in the glitz of the IPL, but people close to him are confident the boy who showed steely resolve to play and bolster the Delhi Ranji team before reaching home for his father’s funeral has put that teenage phase behind him. “Most kids lose focus at that age, but the point is how many get back on track in time. Virat understood quickly that he would be a ‘nobody’ if he didn't get his priorities right,” says his coach RK Sharma.
Speaking his mind
Virat speaks with rare maturity, taking cricket and lifestyle issues head on. “See, people give the example of those who are very disciplined and totally focused on their game. I don’t have any problem with this kind of image, it is my choice. I know that as long as I perform on the field, I will be fine.”
He is also sharp enough not to fall into the comparison trap. “I don’t want the pressure to come on me thinking whose shoes I’m trying to fill. I want to play my natural game.”
So, it should come as no surprise that the ambition to play the game at the highest level can be an extension of the youngster’s lifestyle. Virat, for one, shows the same single-mindedness in his batting with which he constantly keeps checking his hairstyle. The second obsession has even earned him the nickname ‘Chikoo’.
“Once he got his hair gelled up and asked me how he looked? I told him he looked like ‘Chikoo rabbit’ (of Hindi animation fame). The name stuck,” says Ajit Chaudhary, his under-17 state coach.
What about Virat’s anger on the field? He was fined by the ICC in Australia for showing the middle finger to a group of fans who were taunting him. And then there are the over-the-top angry celebrations that make him looking like an alpha male on steroids. Virat’s friends say anger has been part of him since childhood. “It’s just his way to celebrate. He sets targets for himself and when he achieves them, lets his emotions out,” says Delhi teammate Shikhar Dhawan.
The lifestyle connect is also very much part of Rohit Sharma’s image. Ever since he was spotted by coach Dinesh Lad at a cricket camp aged 11, his natural talent has never been in doubt. But more often than not the big knocks have not come and the youngster from the Mumbai suburb of Borivali had to face questions over his injuries and attitude. Former South Africa opening batsman Herschelle Gibbs, drawing from the experience as his teammate in Deccan Chargers, wrote in his book To The Point that Rohit was capable of downing a few drinks when he set his mind to it!
But coach Lad says Rohit’s wild lifestyle is a thing of the past. His world turned upside down after poor form and focus led to exclusion from last year's World Cup squad. “Today Rohit is a different person. He is focussed on his game and fitness,” says Lad.
His coach agrees that the boy from a humble background could have done more in the time he spent in the India dressing room. “But I am sure he will play at least 10 years for India.” That ‘for India’ refers to Test cricket, still the yardstick to measure a great player, although for youngsters, it is the limited overs cricket that opens doors.
Rohit is a product of Mumbai’s brash, urban environment. Originally from the suburb of Borivali, he has now moved into a penthouse flat in Bandra. He also likes cars. But he realises it is his wristy strokeplay, rather than his skill behind the wheel that’ll fetch him dividends.
Chip of the wall
A more correct player among the trio, Pujara is seen as the ideal replacement for Dravid, for his ability to accumulate runs and play within himself. The player from Rajkot made an impressive Test debut, scoring a match-saving 72 at Dravid’s No. 3 spot. Anxiety overshadowed his technical ability and prevented Pujara from giving his best on the South Africa tour in 2010-11, before knee trouble sidelined him for the tours of West Indies and England.
Pujara underwent surgeries on both knees and is gradually playing himself back into the reckoning. A second generation cricketer – his father Arvind as well as uncle Bipin played for Saurashtra – he does not seem to be touched by the urge to live life in the fast lane. A god-fearing player, the one thing Pujara, 24, has gifted himself after being picked by Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL is a bungalow on the outskirts of Rajkot. He attributes his compact game to useful India A tours. “One of the reasons I got selected for India was because I performed well in England on the A tour,” he says.
Provenance: One of the three children of a late Delhi advocate, Kohli led India’s U-19 team to World Cup glory in 2008.
X factor: Virat, 23, batted brilliantly in Australia and in the Asia Cup, regaining his poise after a shaky Test debut in the West Indies.
Articulate and aggressive, the Delhi batsman is not apologetic about his over-the-board celebrations which former greats like Sunil Gavaskar frown upon. As a batsman, more than his sound technique, his grit and self-belief stand out.
Off The field: Fussy about attire and hairstyle. His favourite rest-o-bar is Shiro at Delhi’s Hotel Samrat.
Wheels: Like Tendulkar, Virat loves cars. Owns two, including a BMW.
Food: Punjabi, Thai, Japanese, Music: Punjabi pop.
Home: Lives in West Delhi’s Pashchim Vihar with his family.
Provenance: Had a modest childhood in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali. Played in the Under-19 World Cup and was a key member of the triumphant World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 and the 2011 one-day World Cup.
X factor: His talent was first spotted at a camp by coach Dinesh Lad when he was 11. Since then, there hasn’t been any doubt over the explosive talent that the youngster possesses. But more often than not, the big knocks have not come and Rohit, 24, has had to face questions over his attitude and fitness.
Off the field: Likes listening to popular Hindi and English chartbusters.
Wheels: A BMW.
Home: Lives in a penthouse in Mumbai’s trendy suburb, Bandra.
Provenance: His father Arvind and uncle Bipin were also
cricketers who represented Saurashtra in the Ranji Trophy. First made headlines when he hit three triple tons in a month. His batting is reminiscent of Rahul Dravid.
X factor: Quiet and reticent, Pujara’s batting reflects his personality. After a knee surgery, has played five first class matches. Scored 70 and 71 in the semifinal and final of the Deodhar Trophy, guiding West Zone to victory.
Off The field: Loves watching comedy films, is a fan of Genelia D’Souza and Amitabh Bachchan’s movies.
Mobile ringtone: Nirbal O Pyare.
Food: A vegetarian who digs his roti, sabzi and dal.
Role models: Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly.
On his book shelf: Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open.
Expert speak: Bishan Bedi
The former India captain and coach says that the talented three batsmen will find it tough to step into the shoes of the stalwarts.
He also believes that switching from limited overs to first-class and Tests would not be easy for the trio.
Tough act to follow: "The three giants are products of longer duration cricket. These kids, whether it is Virat or Rohit, they have come up through limited overs cricket. So, they have to make adjustments – it will be tough to switch back and forth from shorter to longer formats."
Past perfect: "In the case of Rahul and Sachin, they started Twenty20 at the fag end of their careers. They were weaned on the longer version, Test cricket, and that is how it should be."
The ideal transition: "It is easier to convert oneself from a player of the longer version to the shorter version rather than the other way around."
Lessons from the veterans: "What can they learn? Numbers 1, 2 and 3… is consistency and then – over a period of time – displaying it in the longer version of the game. Tests are the real test, always."
The lifestyle question: "It will definitely tell on physical health. People like Sachin and Rahul – even Laxman – their discipline was impeccable. They were controlled and had discipline. I’d like to think Pujara has the capacity to mould himself to an extent on those lines."
Striking the right balance: "For all the exuberance of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma and their uncontrollable energy, they will have to strike the right balance. They are in the deep end of the pool and have to swim, they can’t afford not to. Their innate professional instinct has to come to the fore."
...The other contenders
Provenance: Youngest of four children of a central government employee. Played a crucial role in the World Cup quarterfinal against Australia. But flopped in Tests in West Indies and England last year.
X factor: Raina, 25, is an attacking left-hander and an electric fielder in the circle.
Off The field: Likes to dress well, visits Aalim Hakim’s salon in Mumbai to get his hair styled.
Wheels: Owns an Audi Q7, Honda Accord and a Honda CRV.
Music: Popular Punjabi numbers. Wriddhiman Saha
Provenance: The only son of a bank officer in Siliguri, north Bengal, coach Jayanta Bhowmick helped him shift base to Kolkata.
X factor: Being a wicketkeeper, Saha, 27, knows he’ll have to wait longer than anyone else to cement his place in a side led by MS Dhoni.
Off The field: His quiet nature might have prompted him to shun Bengal’s captaincy and give it to Ganguly.
Wheels: Swift Dzire.
home: Has shifted to an apartment in Rajarhat, near Kolkata’s IT hub. Ajinkya Rahane
Provenance: Hails from a middle class family, his father is an official with the BEST, the Mumbai transport authority.
X factor: Rahane, 23, was a consistent scorer for Mumbai in the domestic circuit and made his mark during his debut in the One Day series in England last year when little else went right for India.
Off the field: Not exactly a party animal like many of his contemporaries. Very religious, carries tiny idols of deities in
Wheels: Drives a Honda City. Manoj Tiwary
Provenance: One of the three sons of an Eastern Railway Group D employee, Tiwary, 26, scored his maiden international 100 against the West Indies in Chennai last year.
X factor: After a stint as Bengal captain in 2010-11 he had to hand over to Sourav Ganguly because he was asked to play for India.
Unfortunately, he had to sit out for 12 consecutive matches.
Off the field: Loves the gym and the pool. Has a big following on social networking sites.
Wheels: Hyundai i20.
Inputs from Khurram Habib, Nilankur Das and Sharad Deep
From HT Brunch, April 15
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