Testing times

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: Nov 11 2012, 07:22am hrs
Australia and South Africa are fighting for the number one Test spot, while India are ready to take on England. Its going to be a testing winter for top notch Test teams

Its going to be a tale of three series and several cricketers. Some are big stars, some flirting with stardom, while a few are waiting in the wings, eager to grab the opportunity. Winter is here and so is big-time cricket. Australia and South Africa are fighting for the number one Test spot Down Under. India are ready to take on England on their home turf and after that series, the Aussies are coming for another high profile Test affair. We have our plates full and the connoisseurs are relishing.

In Brisbane, worlds top fast bowlers are in action. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Peter Siddle and James Pattinson are making the ball rear on a typical Gabba wicket. Its a war out there and some of the finest cricketers in the history of the game are involved. Ricky Ponting is at the crossroads of his career and his performance in the series will determine if he will have any further part to play in Australian cricket. Out of the teams limited-overs scheme of things, Ponting is walking a tightrope. A mind-boggling 13,346 runs in 165 Tests notwithstanding, the 38-year-old needs to perform to prolong his Test career. If he fails, the world will see the exit of a master.

Jacques Kallis, however, is getting better with age. He has started the series with a bang and its pretty clear that there is still a lot of cricket left in him. Its a good news for South African cricket, for the 38-year-old all-rounder is irreplaceable. Both Australia and South Africa are blessed with quality talents and their cricket boards must have some plans in place to fill the voids as and when the greats take their last bows. But the likes of Ponting and Kallis are once-in-a-generation cricketers and the game will be poorer without them. Eyes will be fixed on Steyn as well the best fast bowler in the business at the moment. At a time when the odds are heavily in favour of the batsmen, the South African quick is like a breath of fresh air. He can make the batsmen hop, he can get them out bowled neck and crop. His form will be the key for the Proteas retaining their number one status.

Back home, we await the battle royale. The Poms are here and the Indians are ready for revenge. The scars of a 0-4 hiding last year are still very fresh. India were given a cricketing lesson by the England bowlers on green tops. Only the impeccable Rahul Dravid stood tall amid ruins. Its now the payback time and the Indian spinners are licking their lips with dust bowls on offer. Maybe England have to do more than just playing out of their skin to thwart the challenge. So much has changed since India toured England last year. Dravid made a dignified exit from international cricket, VVS Laxman has been forced to retire, the Indian openers have lost their mojo, Virat Kohli has emerged as the new star and Sachin Tendulkar is contemplating retirement.

Cynics say Tendulkar has now become a walking wicket with a gap as big as the India Gate between his bat and pads. His mode of dismissals in the home series against New Zealand had raised pertinent questions about his footwork. At 39, these questions are bound to come up if someone doesn't perform consistently. And people are always more demanding as far as Tendulkar is concerned. Over the years the master has set very high standards for himself and the fans are still not ready to accept that the God of Cricket too is fallible. Tendulkar has carried the hopes and aspirations of a billion people for more than two decades, but now maybe he is struggling a bit to lift such a huge burden. In fact, at this stage of his career he should be allowed to play freely. But given that India have a brittle middle-order in absence of Dravid and Laxman, Tendulkar will be once again the man to bank upon. With a century against Railways in the Ranji Trophy, the great man has made his intentions clear that he is ready to dig in. In all likelihood, the series against England and the one against Australia that will follow will be Tendulkar's last and we all want him to go on a high. Its going to be a very important series for Virender Sehwag as well. The swashbuckling opener hasn't scored a Test century for more than two years and his form his gradually heading South. He has to perform to retain his place, otherwise Ajinkya Rahane is waiting for his chances. The new selection committee considered Rahane as a middle-order batsman and there is nothing wrong in that. The Mumbai lad has a technique good enough to play the new ball. And he can bat down the order as well.

Indian cricket is going through a transitional phase and a few places are up for grabs. The opening is iffy and middle-order is unsure. The selectors have brought back Yuvraj Singh and it will be an emotional return to Test cricket for the left-hander, who underwent his last cycle of chemotherapy, for a rare germ cell cancer, just eight months ago. Sentiments aside, Yuvraj, however, is a proven failure in the longer format and the England series will be his last chance to cement his place in the Test team. Suresh Raina has got the axe, and the selectors are really struggling to fill the big boots of Dravid and Laxman. It is, however, a very good thing for Indian cricket that Rahane is available. He can give the side flexibility and along with Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, he is the man to take the team forward. Hopefully Harbhajan Singh too will have some role to play in the series. His 406 wickets in 98 Tests counts for nothing at the moment as he is third in the pecking order, behind R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Harbhajan, however, will get his chances and he needs to make the most of the opportunities he gets. There will be quite a few changes in this unsettled Indian team in the near future, which makes this seasons Ranji Trophy very important. Manoj Tiwary and Ashok Dinda are disappointed for being overlooked for the first two Tests against England. But they must not lose hearts. Dinda will be a natural replacement for Zaheer Khan as the latter will soon walk into a golden sunset. Dindas performance in domestic cricket speaks volumes of the effort he is putting in, and sooner rather than later he will get his reward.

Tiwary has been scoring consistently and needs to carry on with his good form. But more importantly, Indian cricket needs Rohit Sharma to realise his true potential. By this time Sharma should have comfortably sealed a spot in the Indian middle-order. But this extremely gifted Mumbai cricketer has only himself to blame for this. Its high time he learns from his mistakes. Finally, over to Her Majestys men to make the series an exciting affair. England have a new captain in Alastair Cook, and after a lot of drama and suspense their best batsman is back. Much will depend on how Kevin Pietersen counters the Indian spinners.