Many many years ago when you read newspapers and magazines from edge to edge (no Internet and TV programmes dedicated to rural life helped!) I remember being fascinated by the title of a book on Time's bestseller list. If Life Is A Bowl of Cherries What Am I Doing In The Pits. I thought of it as I started writing this article in an atmosphere of post-Tendulkar gloom. Yes, he's gone, yes, he's left a legacy that will be unmatched but the tide is bringing in fresh faces. And having briefly felt like life was in the pits I am back to seeing the bowl of cherries.
There isn't a replacement. If there was he wouldn't be a legend. But a group has emerged that has me excited. It is a group that is taking me back to the turn of the century when a wonderful collection of cricketers came together. Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S. Laxman had started finding their feet, Tendulkar was at his peak, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh were getting inspired, Javagal Srinath was bowling fast and Anil Kumble was becoming the rock. There were others too but the passage of time allows us to sort the long distance runners from the sprinters.
More than anyone else, the quartet of batsmen excites me the most. They are young, hopefully they dream of becoming legends and have a work ethic to match; they seem to have an all-round game and they have all started well. They may not become Sehwag, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman, they might become better or they might fall by the wayside, but they have the ability and that is what keeps the cricket-lover excited.
In 1996, when India went to South Africa, Dravid had played six Tests for 402 runs but had made 95 and 84 in his first two games. Ganguly had played five for 488 runs with centuries in his first two innings and Laxman had played just two Tests with a fighting half century on debut. They went on to play 411 Test matches between them for 29,281 Test runs. You realise now why watching them grow was such a wonderful phase in Indian cricket.
But, initially, India didn't win overseas. It took the arrival of Sehwag, even if briefly, Akash Chopra and later Gautam Gambhir to change that. Outside India, you need to play, and bowl, the new ball well. And it augurs well that one of the four in this new crop is an opener. Between them Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma have played 42 Tests.
It might seem like a lot more experience but Dhawan and Rohit haven't played outside India and Pujara has played a mere two. They don't have the experience that a Md Azharuddin or a Tendulkar provided in 1996 (M.S. Dhoni only averages 33 overseas) and so, in a sense, they must feed off each other. That is why it will be great for Indian cricket if the four compete among each other but that each is secure in the playing eleven. When you are secure, you are generous.
This crop has an advantage in that it is better travelled because of the amount of limited overs cricket there is. While adjustments have to be made, conditions and grounds are not alien and they have played with and against some of the greatest in the game. But this is also an era of more shot-making and infinitely greater wealth, of many potential distractions and, therefore, of challenges on priorities. The path towards glory in Test cricket may not be the pilgrimage it once was and less rigour can still produce greater fame and recognition.
There are others who can fight for a place in the sun. We have tended to discount Murali Vijay when playing overseas and he could have a battle on his hands to keep a hopefully resurgent Gambhir away. But with the focus on those four, he can do his job quietly.
It will be a test of his character. And I am very curious to see how Ajinkya Rahane uses his opportunities, maybe at number six. There is such undoubted class about him but the examinations ahead are daunting. Starting out overseas (and I am ignoring that solitary Test) can be tough but it can be the making of you.
To this list of four, add Ravichandran Ashwin. He is an intelligent young man and he will know that his extraordinary all-round performance so far has come largely at home. He batted better than he bowled in Australia but those three Tests he played there will have prepared him for the next 15. If you don't have four bowlers of the calibre that the West Indies and Australia threw up when they ruled world cricket, you need a fifth bowling option. It means one of the bowlers must bat or one of the batsmen must bowl. In the years ahead in Test cricket, I believe Ashwin's batting, rather than Ravindra Jadeja's, will allow India to play five bowlers.
It is entirely possible, even if I think unlikely, that none of these five will become the players they can be. But the great joy of watching sport is to see people evolve. India, for example, discovered what Rahul Dravid could do in South Africa in 1996.
There is no Tendulkar now but the road ahead, till April 2015, is very exciting. I won't be surprised if there is a bowl of cherries ahead. Or maybe, more than one.
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