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The new scary batsman and the changing face of Indian cricket

The new scary batsman and the changing face of Indian cricket


Sunrisers Hyderabad's Abhishek Sharma plays a shot during the IPL match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Punjab Kings, at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad.  File photo

Sunrisers Hyderabad's Abhishek Sharma plays a shot during the IPL match between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Punjab Kings, at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad. File photo | Photo credit: KR Deepak

When I was growing up, Sunil Gavaskar was the face of Indian cricket. He was textbook, necessarily risk-averse at the top of an inconsistent batting order, and when he was dismissed, a nation sighed in fear knowing that most of the batting order was gone.

It says something about today's game that the face is Abhishek Sharma, 23, of Sunrisers Hyderabad and Punjab. Actually, it could be a group of players. Abhishek represents a type, the new Indian batsman, who differs in sum and substance from players of previous generations.

At the age of 23, Gavaskar played alongside the best of the World XI on a tour of Australia. Abhishek also plays with the best, but in a different format. He is the batsman who has called Australian captain Pat Cummins scary and admitted how grateful he is that he doesn't have to bowl to him (they are in the same team). The last Indian batsman to give an Australian bowler nightmares was Sachin Tendulkar, as Shane Warne admitted when he bowled for him a quarter of a century ago. But I digress.

Short opening batsman Gavaskar made us all feel bigger with his performances in and outside India, against some of the most dangerous fast bowlers to have played the game. A country not used to winning was happy to score a century in losing causes. He scored 34 in total, 28 of which came in losses or draws.

The conversation then often turned to saving our honor, defeated but not destroyed and other similar concepts. This was our consolation.

Abhishek scored 467 runs in the IPL competition with a strike rate of 209 without ever playing more than 30 balls in an innings. 41 deliveries produced 246 of those runs, or more than half came from sixes. Awareness is beginning to spread that strikeout rate can be more important than average, especially if a hitter plays a large number of pitches. The idea has been around for a while, but it's taken players (and fans) time to buy into it. We're still obsessed with big numbers.

The comparison between hitters from two different eras, two styles and two attitudes is not about the individuals themselves, but about what it says about the game and public attitudes towards the game.

Gavaskar, which stands for cricket, meant that his ideas became our ideas, his approaches our approaches, and what he felt about the game became our guide. And he felt that the one-day match (50-over or earlier, 60) was not cricket. There were two consequences: one professional and the other personal for Gavaskar. The first was that the Indian administrators did not think much about the one-day competition either and saw the matches as merely routine matters and the World Cup as a necessary evil. Personally, Gavaskar saw just one century made in the format in his penultimate match.

Abhishek tells us through his bat that T20 is different both on the field and in the mind. It's a format where a 20-ball 50 is more important than an 80-ball 100. And that requires a mentality (and a team management) that accepts failure and inconsistency. The measures of success in the case of the two openers are different. Gavaskar was not expected to play anything like Abhishek, nor is Abhishek's T20 judged to Gavaskar's standard. The two openers represent their time and their sport in different ways.

Strangely, neither of India's two outstanding young performers in the IPL finds a place in the national team. Fast bowler Mayank Yadav, 21, bowled just 73 for the Lucknow Super Giants and missed matches due to injury. Both he and Abhishek will have to deal with follow-up blues, they will have to show consistency and fitness to break into the national team.

Selectors sometimes like to strike while the iron is hot, such as when the player is on form even if a little raw, and sometimes they wait for the almost finished product. It's a judgment call. They had it right with Gavaskar all those years ago. He was 21 when he first played for India and started with 774 in his first series.




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