November 30, 2021: The Indian bench strength never fails to amaze. We had enough evidence of this in the last Test series in Australia. One by one the stalwarts dropped out for one reason or the other but the replacements – many of them rookies – rose to the occasion so admirably that India won the contest with a team that was termed as an A or B squad. And while there are more than enough players to fill in for the seniors in the limited overs game the fact remains that even in the game’s traditional format India are able to field a strong side whenever the senior cricketers are not around for whatever reason.
The just concluded Kanpur Test against New Zealand provided further proof. Missing from the line-up were Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. And yet the side that took the field came within a wicket of getting the better of the No 1 ranked Test team in the world. Yes, India are formidable at home and New Zealand’s record in this country is anything but envious. But then one would expect a side playing without half a dozen leading players to have problems coping with the visitors. And even as they did encounter hiccups along the way the positives far outshone the negatives and while there must be disappointment that India could not finish things off after coming so close to victory – one must appreciate the fighting spirit of the Kiwis in this context – it was a heartening show by a bunch hastily put together.
The bench strength was perhaps symbolized by the performance of Shreyas Iyer. The 26-year-old had already proved himself to be a vital cog in the middle order in the two limited over formats for India but there was always the hope that being from the Mumbai school of batting he would be a winner in Test cricket too. He does have a first-class average of over 50 and when the senior players were not available, he was drafted in and how spectacularly he grabbed the opportunity. He emulated the feats of two other graduates from the Mumbai school of batting Rohit Sharma and Prithvi Shaw and then went one better in becoming the first Indian to get a hundred and a fifty on Test debut. He certainly has posed problems for the selectors once the seniors return but this also underlines the problem of plenty which the bench strength is.
In a way the bench strength is the result of a system and that is what Rahul Dravid emphasized while speaking in glowing terms about Shreyas’ success. “It’s great to see the young guys come through and perform straightaway on debut and we saw that of one or two players in limited overs cricket as well. A young kid doing well in his first Test for India is not only a reflection of the player’s ability but also a reflection of the system,” gushed the new Indian coach. Dravid knows best about this for he has built up the national team’s pathway structure with a robust Under-19 and India A system in place. Little wonder then he was pleased as punch with Shreyas’ superb showing.
What is even more heartening is that besides Shreyas there are a number of talented young players waiting for their chance to come good. We had a good example of this at Kanpur when Srikar Bharat substituted for Wriddhiman Saha. It is not just the two catches and a stumping that he brought off that caught the eye; he was tidily impressive in his work behind the stumps.
(Partab Ramchand is a veteran sports journalist, the views expressed here are personal.)