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Young India: The trophy team

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 21, 2021

Young blood: The new generation of players represents a time of unprecedented bounty for Indian cricket   -  PTI

What makes the new crop of young Indian cricketers such game-changing winners? Over and above their talent, it’s the fearlessness with which they express themselves, both on and off the field

* Tuesday’s heroics will be remembered for a long, long time

* The 26-year-old Siraj’s life story is instant Netflix material

* That Dravid has emerged as the Yoda figure for these youngsters is not surprising

***

Rishabh Pant is 23 years old, but to the casual observer it might seem as though he’s a teenage heart-throb from the movies. Alongside his skipper Virat Kohli, he appears in a TV commercial for acne cream. During the recently concluded Test series against Australia, Pant was sledged about his weight by Australia’s incumbent no. 5 batsman Matthew Wade (“You’re 25 kilos overweight!”). So, more Ansel Elgort than Michael Phelps, really.

A good game: Rishabh Pant delivered the game-changing innings that Indian fans had been waiting for   -  REUTERS

 

On Tuesday, January 19, however, Pant delivered the kind of blistering, game-changing innings that Indian fans had been waiting for since the wicketkeeper-batsman burst onto the scene a few years ago. His unbeaten 89, alongside a fluent 91 by rookie Shubman Gill and a typically tireless half-century by Cheteshwar Pujara, led India to a famous three-wicket victory against Australia at Brisbane (the Gabba or “the Gabbatoir”, as it’s often called by Aussie commentators) where the home team hadn’t lost a Test match since 1988. Against the best bowling attack in the world, on a fifth day Gabba pitch, chasing down 329 when just about everybody expected them to play for time, accept a draw and walk off with a 1-1 series scoreline; Tuesday’s heroics will be remembered for a long, long time.

Hyderabadi hijinks

Thoughts of a series win would have been far from the minds of Indian fans after the first Test in Adelaide last month. Having collapsed in the wake of a Virat Kohli run-out in the first innings, India slumped to its lowest-ever Test score in the second — a shambolic 36 all out (technically, 36 for 9 with one player retired hurt). Questions were asked, predictably, about the techniques of some of the younger players in the side, like Prithvi Shaw (promptly dropped after that first game at Adelaide) and to a lesser extent, Mayank Agarwal. Worse, India were now without Kohli (on paternity leave) and the fast bowler Mohammad Shami.

In that Melbourne game, India replaced Shami with the Hyderabad rookie Mohammed Siraj, who impressed one and all with his pace, accuracy and cerebral approach to fast bowling. His very first wicket was hardly a conventional Test match dismissal; Australia’s nigh immovable no.3 Marnus Labuschagne getting caught at leg slip, strangled down the leg side by a fast delivery that bounced just a little more than expected.

Big wicket: India’s Mohammed Siraj celebrates with Ajinkya Rahane after dismissing Australia's Marnus Labuschagne during the second Test match between Australia and India   -  REUTERS

 

It was a plan that India followed rigorously for both Labuschagne and Steven Smith, Australia’s middle-order Atlas and unquestionably the greatest Test batsman in the world today. That a debutant executed this left-field team plan perfectly, sans ego or first-day jitters, spoke volumes about the young man’s temperament. Siraj finished with match figures of 5/77; not bad for someone who had never bowled with a hard cricket ball until 2015.

The 26-year-old Siraj’s life story is instant Netflix material. The son of an auto-rickshaw driver in Hyderabad, Siraj played no cricket until Std VII (age 13), by which point a lot of Indian cricketing prodigies are already making national headlines (Prithvi Shaw being the most recent example). In 2015, he bowled with an actual cricket ball for the first time. One fast bowling talent hunt later, Siraj found himself with an IPL contract worth ₹2.6 crore.

His first India cap followed soon after, in a T20 international against New Zealand. Siraj’s father wished to see his son playing Test cricket for his country. Unfortunately, he died in November due to a respiratory illness, shortly after Siraj and the Indian team reached Australia. The young fast bowler chose to stay back with the team, saying that his father would have wanted him to stay.

Siraj is the kind of brilliant, fresh-faced, joyful young man who seems to have no pretences or false modesty whatsoever. His Hyderabadi speech only adds to the ‘adorable quotient’. At Melbourne, captain Rahane didn’t give him the ball until after lunch. When he was asked about this delay during an interview with India Today, Siraj replied, good-naturedly, “Haathaa toh khujaa rahe thay!” (My hands were itching, it’s true!). Siraj was also seen teary-eyed when the Indian national anthem was being played before the start of play at Melbourne.

Sports writer Sidharth Monga, in his Cricinfo piece on Siraj last week, mentioned how his energetic dancing to the eponymous Hyderabadi pop song has earned him the moniker ‘Miya Bhai’ among his teammates. Monga wrote: “The kind of ‘good Muslim’ comments that it (the national anthem moment) attracted, or some of the vitriol his Instagram post generated, tells you Miya Bhai is not an identity to wear lightly in today’s India, but Siraj does it so effortlessly, as he does most other things on a cricket field.”

The heir(s) apparent, the Yoda touch

Shubman Gill, meanwhile, entered Australia as the 21-year-old anointed the future of Indian batting — the next Kohli, basically. In Melbourne and Sydney he got some good starts before being dismissed. Brisbane’s second innings saw him in full flow, as he struck a fluent 91 before being caught at slip by Nathan Lyon. Brisbane and Sydney also saw the emergence of T Natarajan and Washington Sundar, both of whom played crucial roles in the series win. Sundar struck an elegant 60 in the first innings at Brisbane, following which he experienced that moment middle-class Indian kids are intimately familiar with — parental disappointment. Apparently, his father said he was disappointed Sundar did not go on to hit a century.

How did a crop of talented young players make their way to the team India? Gill, Pant, Sundar and several other youngsters around the team right now speak effusively about the influence of Rahul Dravid. Gill had said in an interview last year: “Rahul sir told me that if I change my game, it won’t be natural anymore and may not provide success. His focus has always been on the mental make-up while we face the challenge posed by the best.” Dravid heads the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and has accompanied the India ‘A’ team on several overseas tours, where they played the ‘A’ teams of Australia, South Africa, England and so on. As a result, he has been closely monitoring the progress of several promising young players from the U-19 level itself.

That Dravid has emerged as the Yoda figure for these youngsters is not surprising. During the course of his distinguished playing career, Dravid was seen as the most dependable, unfussy, no-frills figure in the star-studded Indian dressing room (which he shared with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and the incumbent BCCI president Sourav Ganguly). I remember, during the heydays of the prank show MTV Bakra, they once shot an episode featuring Dravid being accosted by a female actor (Sayali Bhagat) pretending to be a journalist. After she ‘interviews’ Dravid, she asks him to marry her, several times, becoming more and more insistent with each iteration.

Mentor figure: Gill, Pant, Sundar and several other players speak effusively about the influence of Rahul Dravid   -  VIVEK BENDRE

 

To no avail, however: Dravid, in a stern but low-decibel voice, calmly asks her to stop proposing and “instead, please focus on your studies, your career”. After Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul appeared in Karan Johar’s talk show on TV and made fairly derogatory remarks about women, this old Dravid video started doing the rounds on Twitter, with captions such as “this is how gentlemen cricketers behave”. The truth is, Dravid has been a mentor figure all along, even when he was Pant or Gill’s age — and Indian cricket has only now started to reap the rewards. If India’s youngsters look like they’ve been trained to go eye-to-eye with the best, ‘The Wall’ deserves a fair chunk of the credit.

What makes the likes of Pant, Gill, Siraj and Sundar near-perfect representatives for Generation Z (for the uninitiated, that’s the generation right after the youngest millennials)? Over and above their precocious talents, it’s also the fearlessness with which they express themselves, both on and off the field. Pant had been dismissed for 97 at Sydney, trying to reach his 100 with a six and getting caught — unfazed by the criticism that came his way, Pant charged the same bowler (Lyon) at Brisbane at a crucial moment in the game. Oh, and he smashed him for six just one ball after Lyon had landed one in the rough and turned it a mile (the delivery ended up at first slip, the turn was that prodigious).

Then there was Siraj, who had the composure and the presence of mind to point out those in the Sydney crowd who were subjecting Indian players to racist abuse. After a brief conference with the umpires, the offending crowd members were promptly escorted out of the stadium; they are currently facing life bans from the venue pending the results of an official inquiry.

Moments like these are a sign that this new generation represents a time of unprecedented bounty for Indian cricket. And don’t get me wrong — once Kohli, Bumrah, Shami et al return one may not see Sundar or Siraj in a Test match again for a while, maybe even years. But their Australia exploits have made the whole world sit up and take notice; something tells me it won’t be the last time.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on January 21, 2021

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