"Everybody was talking about this phase in Indian cricket when the big players will go out, and the pressure will fall on the youngsters and we will go through a rough patch. Now the same people are asking questions but not giving any solutions. You have to keep faith in the youngsters."
That was Mahendra Singh Dhoni the afternoon before the Nagpur Test against England started. Hurting a bit, with the losses piling up, and not too happy with the criticism levelled against him. Though, if he is to be believed, he has no clue about any of it, including news that the selectors wanted Dhoni out after the combined 0-8 scoreline in England and Australia. But he is still out there, day after day, picking the playing XI he feels is right, playing the game the way he thinks is most appropriate and not shying away from the tough questions.
Whether his critics – and the number has increased exponentially in the last year – like it or not, Dhoni is the captain of the Indian team and there doesn't seem to be an obvious alternative to replace him. With Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman both retired and Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh recently sent into wilderness, it's Dhoni who must lead whatever squad he is given, hoping to get more wins than losses against the team's name.
Who will these youngsters be though? Virat Kohli is one. Cheteshwar Pujara is another, at least in Test cricket. We got a glimpse of two others on the first day of the Nagpur Test – Ravindra Jadeja and Piyush Chawla, both bowling spin on a pitch that looked wrong for any level of cricket, let alone the first day of a crucial Test match.
Jadeja, a reserve spinner at best, picked up two big wickets – Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen – while Chawla, mostly unimpressive as he hardly made the batsmen play, got it right when he had Ian Bell driving straight to the strategically placed Kohli at short cover.
Not much to go by there, especially in Jadeja's case, given that he has been picked in the Test team as the No 6 batsman, something he would not have dreamt of even a few days ago, two triple centuries in five Ranji Trophy games earlier this season notwithstanding.
"When one of my team-mates told me about being picked in the Test team, I was fielding [for Saurashtra] in the last Ranji Trophy game," said Jadeja after the first day's play. "I thought he was joking."
The reason for his surprise was therefore obvious. The No 6 position has been an albatross around the Indian team's neck since Sourav Ganguly quit on this very ground four years ago. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina have been tried and discarded, while Subramaniam Badrinath and Manoj Tiwary were well ahead of Jadeja in the race until the two triples were racked up.
Putting down any batsman who has scored the runs that he has is disrespectful, but nothing we have seen from Jadeja in limited-overs cricket suggests that he is the solution to the No 6 problem. Judging him on the basis of whatever he does or doesn't do in Nagpur might not be fair either, considering that the pitch – according to Pietersen – is the toughest possible to score runs on.
And what about Chawla? Statistics like three wickets at an average of 45.66 in two Tests, and 32 wickets from 25 one-day internationals at an average of 34.90, don't exactly engender confidence either. The fact that he routinely failed to land the ball in the right areas and make the batsmen play him also goes against him. And it was probably a statement of sorts from Dhoni that Chawla was given just 13 overs to bowl (the same as R Ashwin), while Pragyan Ojha (27) and Jadeja (25) were trusted a lot more.
Indian cricket is in the midst of transition and, sooner rather than later, the last remnants of the golden years will also have faded away. No one said replacing legends would be easy, but the evidence so far suggests that it is going to be much tougher than anticipated. Which means that Dhoni, unless he decides he has had enough and wants to move on, should brace himself for some even tougher questions.
Shamya Dasgupta is senior editor at Wisden India: wisdenindia.comReuse content