Note: this is not a Twenty20-bashing piece. Now that we’ve got that clear, let’s take a look at a few numbers.
Gautam Gambhir: 0 and 5. Virender Sehwag 0 and 22. Suresh Raina: 57 and 20. Rohit Sharma: 17 and 27. S Badrinath: 6 and 27 not out. Harbhajan Singh: 0 for 16 and 1 for 36. These are figures from the ongoing Champions League Twenty20 in South Africa, where the aforementioned Indian cricketers are representing their respective IPL franchises in the lucrative Twenty20 league. That all these players are participating just shows how skewed the tournament is towards IPL teams, but that’s an argument for another day.
The question is: how can Indian cricketers prepare for a Test series by playing Twenty20? Of the six, three are certain to feature in the squad to face England, one is a candidate and the other two should be trying their damndest to force their way in. Yes, Sehwag has been named captain of a Delhi Ranji squad that includes Gambhir as vice-captain – and Virat Kohli and Ishant Sharma – for the first game against Uttar Pradesh. But are back to back Twenty20 tournaments the way to prepare for a major Test series? Each of these players had the opportunity to play in the ongoing Duleep Trophy, but chose not to. Ahead of a four-Test series starting November 15, each had a chance to warm up or put their case for a recall before the series but instead are playing in the CLT20.
Ahead of four Tests against England, to see so many Indian cricketers playing in the CLT20 highlights what the players' priority is.
Gambhir has struggled for some time, and his modes of dismissals in South Africa – bowled and caught at point off a leading edge – are merely an extension of his technical shakiness. His string of Twenty20 scores recently – 5, 0, 31, 8, 0, 17, 45, 10, 10, 5, 3 and 6 – and Test returns of 22, 2 and 34 against New Zealand point to a man in trouble. For someone who has not scored a Test century since January 2010, playing in the CLT20 ahead of four Tests against England hardly seems the correct preparation.
Raina earned a Test recall against New Zealand in August after a string of impressive limited-overs innings, but also because VVS Laxman had retired and Rohit was dropped. In three innings, he made 3, 55 and 0 – that last dismissal a charge down the track that resulted in the ball missing an ugly swipe. Raina has not evolved as a Test batsman – he stands in expectancy of a short ball every delivery – and to watch him push a harmless short-of-a-length ball from Zander de Bruyn, a 37-year-old medium-pacer, to mid-off in the CLT20 was to leave you wondering what this man would do when Anderson, Broad and Finn come to India.
Tamil Nadu’s Badrinath, who averages nearly 61 over 105 first-class games, was recalled to India’s Test squad after more than two and a half years for the New Zealand series. He did not add to his two Test caps but with Raina still not convincing in whites and Rohit Sharma further down the pecking order, you would expect the 32-year-old to want to push his case by playing first-class cricket instead of Twenty20 cricket.
The tag of Twenty20 specialist attached to Rohit’s name looks likely to stay for some time. A horrid run in ODI cricket saw the 25-year-old axed from India’s Test team. Rohit’s attitude has always been more in doubt than his cricketing talent, and a preference to play for Mumbai Indians instead of West Zone shows you where his priorities lie. The fact that Harbhajan too chose captaining Mumbai in the CLT20 instead of playing for North Zone – he has been named Punjab captain for the Ranji season – indicates that he knows his India future remains in blues not whites.
OK, so we live in an era where Tweny20 cricket is a cash cow and players easily discard loyalties to country, state and province to play for franchise that pay big bucks for them. Twenty20 freelancing is a hugely viable option for many players. Preferring domestic cricket to the CLT20 could be seen as professional Twenty20 hara-kiri, but someone needs to make the call – someone needs to put Test cricket ahead of Twenty20.
Cricket Australia pulled Shane Watson out of the latter stages of the CLT20 because of their focus on the upcoming Test visit by South Africa highlights where their focus lies. With India’s cricketers, there does not seem to be any focus on the upcoming Tests. If you’re worried about the future of India’s Test cricket, it’s a depressing time to be watching cricket in South Africa.