Acing the test of Tests

Acing the test of Tests

Despite a steady diet of T20 cricket, youngsters from India are making a seamless transition to longer format

Shubman Gill

When good Karnataka buddies K L Rahul and Mayank Agarwal were setting the world Under-19 stage afire a decade back, it was always the latter who was the cynosure. His flamboyance had more takers than Rahul's dour approach. But for the hard grind of first-class cricket, Karnataka’s selectors knew they needed someone who could deflate rival attacks more than a player who would delight with a fleeting cameo. Expectedly, Agarwal had to wait three years after Rahul’s first-class debut to break into Karnataka's Ranji Trophy squad. In those three years, Rahul had done enough to thrust himself into national reckoning. 

Having cut his teeth at the first-class level in 2013, Agarwal realised he needed more than flashes of brilliance to even survive, let alone thrive at that grade. The fair few rough edges to his game stood exposed, and it wasn't long before he was axed from the state team, in 2015. He was obviously disappointed, but not demoralised. Agarwal went back to the drawing-room and fine-tuned his game under the guidance of coach R ‘RX’ Muralidhar. He worked both on the mental and technical side of the game, and when he returned to the Karnataka side, he was a player transformed.

With his calm head and assured presence at the crease, he stacked up runs for the state, then for India 'A' both at home and abroad. Even as Rahul's Test fortunes suffered a reversal, Agarwal was knocking hard on the doors to the national team. The irony wasn't lost on anyone when Agarwal finally made his Test debut, in the 2018 Boxing Day Test. That it came at the expense of a struggling Rahul was the completion of a full circle, so to say.

Agarwal found immediate success against the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon. He struck 76 and 42 in the Melbourne victory, and followed it up with 77 in Sydney, gathering 195 runs at an average of 65 in his maiden series. For someone typecast as a white-ball batsman, this was a remarkable transformation. The way he took to Test cricket in perhaps the most difficult conditions for any cricketer, leave alone a debutant flown in midway through the series, was instructive.

Just before Agarwal's impressive baptism, Jasprit Bumrah, Hanuma Vihari, Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant – the latter two quite contrary to their images - had made a seamless transition to Tests.  And in Melbourne last month, rising batting star Shubman Gill and pacer Mohammed Siraj played big hands in India's series-levelling win. Neither Gill nor Siraj betrayed any nerves for Test first-timers, their success flying in the face of those who profess there are few takers for Test cricket in the T20 age. For, with the exception of Vihari, the above mentioned are all big-ticket draws in the Indian Premier League.

While it's always satisfying to see youngsters not do just lip-service to Test cricket but actually walk the talk, it's equally important to acknowledge the factors facilitating this welcome development.

There are multiple elements at play, with the much-maligned Board of Control for Cricket in India as the driving force. There are many things about the BCCI worth criticism and censure, but it's equally true that it has rarely compromised on ensuring a quality supply line to the national team. While people may grudge it its wealth, it has put the money where its mouth is. In association with affiliated state units, it has built a system where players, from the Under-12 category to 'A' teams, get enough cricket through the year to prepare themselves for the international grind.

To substantiate that point -- the last Indian domestic season saw as many as 2,024 matches, at all levels, involving 37 teams. The matches were spread over 3,444 match days compared to 1,032 matches involving 28 teams, amounting to 1,892.5 match days in the 2017-18 season. A total of 6,471 players participated in the 2018-19 season which was played in 100 cities across the country. It's difficult to imagine such a wide-scale spread of another team sport anywhere else in the world.

Besides a good number of domestic first-class matches, the substantial increase in the quantum of 'A' tours is another major factor in getting Test-ready players. With the quality of the opposition bowling and batting obviously a rung or two superior to domestic cricket, by the time players make their Test debuts, they are mentally ready for what they are going to encounter in a particular country, thanks also to early exposure to various conditions.

Talking of the mental aspect of the game, the IPL too has played a big role. While the T20 format may not exactly help their Test game, the confidence they get from sharing change rooms with the best plays a significant part in their success. For example, someone like Gill, who had Cummins as his team-mate at KKR, will not be intimidated by the sight of the big fast bowler, his positive approach in both innings driving home that point.

"That’s the way, that’s the brand of cricket we’ve been playing for the last three or four years,” Head Coach Ravi Shastri said on the success of Gill and Siraj. “I think a lot has to do with IPL. The fact that they share dressing-rooms with international players, they rub shoulders with the best, that complex factor disappears very quickly.”

Last but not the least, it’s impossible to overlook the influence of Virat Kohli, whose desire to perform in Tests obviously rubs off on the youngsters. Notwithstanding his phenomenal success in the shorter formats, Kohli has been the finest ambassador of his time for Test cricket which, as he often and rightly emphasises, is the real test of a player.