Indian cricket's base camp on the way to Everest
The fortune-teller and the forecaster, each indignant at being clubbed with the other, rarely get it right in India. The world, for example, has not ended yet, though some might believe that we've tried hard enough. The dollar, like an errant child, always goes the other way. And yet, here I am taking a call on the future of Indian cricket.
For long, some of us have been hoping that India creates a pool of twenty to twenty-five players, from which the national team can be chosen, from which any selection of eleven could play approximately the same level. Now in one day cricket, India is well on course. The team that beat New Zealand so easily in Wellington was without Virat Kohli, Jasprit Bumrah, and Kuldeep Yadav, three names who would make an eleven on most days.
So here is the list that excites me greatly: Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Sikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Ambati Rayudu, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik, MS Dhoni, Hardik Pandya, Chahal, Kuldeep Yadav, Bumrah, Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw, Manish Pandey, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Krunal Pandya and Mohammed Shami.
To this list, add Test cricket stalwarts Ravichandran Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Ravindra Jadeja and you have a fine a batch of twenty-five players as any team could hope for.
The first thing that strikes you is how young the one-day side is. Even if you take some of the ages with the necessary pinch of salt, it is still a collection that one can look ahead with.
Happily, there is competition for every spot and that means players will have to be on their toes; a quality that Indian cricket has not always been blessed with. At the moment though, this is an excellent fair-weather batting side and on tracks responsive to quality seam and swing bowling, the middle-order still needs to prove it can do without the top three scoring bulk of the runs.
And they can field. Expect for Bumrah and Chahal, you don't really need to hide anyone and for the first time, you get the feeling that maybe young Indian players are getting contemporary. It's a great time to raise the bar and make this an intimidating fielding side. The bar doesn't have to be raised by too much, but as high jumpers and pole vaulters will tell you, it is the last few centimetres that actually make the difference.
The key will be attitude and that is the one variable that we can look at with great curiosity. Too many players in this side have had slumps that can be attributed to attitude. This is where Ravi Shastri's real test will come. These players can play well but can they now stretch ambition and show they have what it takes to reach there.
Through good deed or fortune, India has an outstanding captain to lead Indian cricket. Many players have stood out for India in this one-day triumph, but no one more than Kohli. He has combined steel with aggression and he has been his own man. He also worked very well with youngsters.
He has done so in a flamboyant, big brotherly style and made uncertain minds feel at home on the big stage. He isn't a method person but he rallied troops outstandingly and they followed him.
A good side finds the man for the moment; each believing that he can win a game rather than watch someone else do it, as happens in individual-dominated teams. Indeed that is the strength of this side and I think a vision is slowly taking shape. Prithvi Shaw one day, Khaleel Ahmed on another, and now Shubman Gill of whom, much more lies undiscovered.
Each player is seizing the opportunity that presents itself to them and that can only come from self-belief. India might still have some distance to cover in away Test cricket but the projections in one-day cricket are looking good.
The key to a good one-day side lies in the combination of players; not great solo artists but ensemble musicians each capable of playing a great note but also of contributing to the overall score. England can do that consistently, South Africa under certain conditions and Pakistan devastatingly so when the air is right. India is getting there too, for against a good side they are able to play eight batsmen and four bowlers.
India is also discovering the great strengths of flexibility. If anyone can play anywhere then players aren't missed as much when they have to sit out. So, Jadhav can bat at no. 4 or 7, Dhoni at 5 or 7 and Hardik anywhere in the middle or lower order. It also means that on some day,s India can play seven batsmen four bowlers and an all-rounder, which is a combination that most teams dream of.
To achieve that a team needs three all-rounders: a wicketkeeper who can bat, a 10-over man who can bat in the top seven, and a batsman in the top five capable of giving five overs a game consistently. India is a bit thin in category three at the moment and that is where Jadhav has played such a key role for India.
A floater is a privilege few teams are allowed but Jadhav cannot do this all the time. And that is why the key to India taking the next step ahead lies with someone from the top-order rolling their arms. If someone can take up bowling, India could field four seamers if the situation demands. If they are confronted with a dry surface, he can give Kuldeep or Chahal much needed support. Thus with Jadhav capable of bowling either slow spin or seam up, India will have a bowling attack for any surface.
However, every thought needs suitable action. That means a team must possess players with skills to carry out plans. All along India could never play five bowlers even if that was the most obvious plan because it left the batting too thin, not to speak of a makeshift 'keeper. Now, on most days, India can.
If they believe four bowlers will do, it gives them great strength down the order with the bat. It doesn't mean India will win every game they play, but they give themselves the best possible chance of doing so.
But the main reason India is looking smart is that they are fielding smart. Hardik, Kohli and Jadeja are electric, Rohit has excellent hands, Dhawan and Pandey have strong arms and quick legs and Dhoni is getting better. India, once again, has the grammar right.
There is another good aspect of this side. There is far greater flexibility, there are people who can play in different positions and the Pandya brothers are representative of this. Krunal can bat anywhere and bowl finger spin; Hardik is ideal in the lower middle order and also handy with his medium-paced deliveries. If Kedar can bowl a bit more, the side will have the perfect balance to it, except for just one slot of a top-order batsman who can bowl off-spin.
Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri have the right men in the right places. Now they need to find consistency if they seek to set up base camp two on the way to Everest.