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India’s second opener? Mayank Agarwal & Prithvi Shaw seek closure.

by Naked Cricket

From being the third choice opener at the start of the England series, KL Rahul is now the only certainty on top of the order. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan find themselves together again, both discarded from the Test squad. What took Vijay just two Tests, Dhawan accomplished in four.

Which brings us to Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw. Shaw was part of the squad in England, which, if you go by the Karun Nair selection logic means that he may not play in either of the upcoming Tests. Agarwal is 27, Shaw is 18. Both have robust numbers.

Before Agarwal was picked, it appeared Shaw’s name had already been inked in the team-sheet. Not so simple anymore.

In the West Indies’ tour match, the two opened the innings. Agarwal made 90, Shaw 8. A two-day game rarely gives batsmen second chances. Going by the team management fixation with ‘current form’, Agarwal would walk in with his latest mark-sheet. Going by the team management’s inclination towards young guns (take Risabh Pant for instance), Shaw could walk in. And going by the team management inclination towards muddled thinking, both could walk in, with KL Rahul at three, and Pujara on the bench.

It’s happened before. This is a home series. There’s a ticket to Australia up for grabs. And India is already thinking ahead at chasing down 500 in the fourth innings in Adelaide.

This of course means little to Shaw or Agarwal. Both aware that they will soon be sharing the Indian dressing room. Yet, in all possibility, only one will become the 293rd Indian Test cricketer.

Agarwal and Shaw found themselves together in the Board President’s XI dressing room after the second and last day’s play. With them was India’s 292 Test player, Hanuma Vihari.

There was a shyness between the two openers, one that led to an awkward silence. It took Vihari to break it.

Hanuma Vihari (HV): Have you spoken to Dravid sir….y’kno I called Dravid sir the day before I made my debut and told him I was making my debut.

He spoke to me for a couple of minutes and gave his inputs and I thought it eased my nerves a little bit, because it is coming from a legend and you know that you belong here. He just told me that you have the skillset, you have the mindset and the temperament, just go out there and enjoy yourself. I would like to give him a lot of credit for that because my journey with India A was very important for me to come here, because not only that I performed there, but the way he gave us inputs, that made me a better player

Both Shaw and Agarwal look at Vihari dazed.

Prithvi Shaw (PS): Bro…you just made a speech…nice one…

HV: No problem…it’s what I told the press too. Not seen my name in print like this before so I read it a few times. It was fun. Now I know it by heart.

Mayank Agarwal (MA): They’ll tell us the day before…

HV: Yes…y’kno, jokes apart, how this team goes by current form, maybe both of you will play and I will be dropped

PS: Bro…don’t say that…you’re always 292…and we’re openers…

MA: You’re middle order da…

HV: You made 90, Prithvi made 8 and I made only 3…so current form…

Vihari walks out, leaving the two together.

PS: Bro…you think we’ll open together…that’s crazy…Rahul will definitely open

MA: Rahul will definitely open da…

PS: Should we both call up Dravid sir…how to chill bro…before they announce the team…

MA: Dunno da…we have to use it like phone-a-friend, why don’t you just call Rishabh…he’s No. 291…he made his Test debut last month only da…call Rishabh...he’ll talk to you like a bro da

Before Agarwal can finish, Shaw is on the phone with Rishabh Pant

PS: Rish Bro…how’re you bro…big question bro…how was it before your Test debut…I’m asking for Mayank…he’s nervous as sh…

Agarwal snatches the phone…

MA: Rish…Prithvi just talking rubbish da…he wants to ask for himself…passing the buck…he’s going to make his Test debut…

Rishabh Pant (RA): M’ynk …put it on speaker yaar…I gotta message for both of you…both of you are like my brothers and I love you both…and y’kno 4th October is my birthday and I will be very happy if we are all playing together but if say, only two of us are…I don’t want the third to have bad feelings…it’s ok…dressing room is good…maybe third guy will come on as substitute fielder and we’ll all be on the field together in a Test match for India…bros I’m getting very emotional too…

PS: All that is ok, how do we handle the build-up to the Test cap, bro

RA: What build up?

MA: Anxiety da…stress, tension…should we call up Dravid sir?

RA: Why? I’m telling you don’t take stress. You’ll either be 293 or 294 or 295…it’s coming guys…I know it…and in the evening, treat for my birthday…

MA: What treat? You know we’ll be eating in the team hotel and management picks the bill, da

RA: It’s nice to say bro…don’t spoil my birthday

PS: Bro…thanks…talk soon bro

Shaw shrugs as he looks at Agarwal…the two decide to call Test Cap No. 290, Jasprit Bumrah

PS: Hi Jas bro…how’re you? gotta minute…

JB (overstepping): Hi..Hi…Prithvi…thanks in advance

PS: Oh right, bro…congrats…great win…bro…can I ask you a question…how did you handle it bro…before your Test debut

JB: It was ok…I had already made by ODI debut 2 years before…so it was good…ok…why are you asking? Oh right, for yourself? But what if Mayank A…

MA: Hi Jaspreet…Mayank here, congrats, great win da…loved it…we’re here together…just wondering…what prep…

JB: No…no prep…enjoy the moment…

As there are no answers from Bumrah either, the two decide on one final call. No 289. Hardik Pandya. They make a video call.

Hardik Pandya (HP) (in a bathtub): Hi guys…wasup? Just taking it easy…back is screwed…ready for Test debut and all…good luck…don’t take any stress…if you’re nervous…enjoy the nerves man…it’s a once in a life-time opp…I’m telling you…nothing like it…will miss not being with you…but we can do a video call that day in the evening…would love to speak to both of you…no hard feelings…oh what did you call for? Seeing me in a bath tub…you dirty boys…

Feeling better after speaking with Pandya, they decide to call No 288, Kuldeep Yadav

It was either the phone line or Kuldeep’s thickly accented American-Australian English fusion, that they understood very little of what he said. They quickly congratulate him and get off the phone.

Enjoying this sport way too much, they decide to call No 287, Karun Nair.

Karun Nair (taped message) Hi…this is Karun Nair…if you’re calling to ask how I felt being in the squad for England…and not playing a game…press 1…if you want to know how it feels being left out of the squad for the West Indies’ series press 2…if you..

They hang up. And look at each other blankly. They then hug each other. Suddenly aware of certain realities.

(However plausible this may sound, this is largely a work of fiction)

First published here


Beyond the giants, here’s to India’s team of ants

by Naked Cricket

On 18th September, Khaleel Ahmed made his ODI debut for India. Ten days later, he was smiling goofily with the Asia Cup. A Cup that refused to let go of the 20 year old. The most enduring image of this tournament will be a beaming Khaleel with the Asia Cup all to himself.  Thrilled, alone, gripping on to a trophy like it was some wicked tickling mechanism.

Khaleel did not play in the finals. But he did in two games, bowling his full quota, with four wickets to show for his smiles.  In these two games, he was part of a win and a tie. When Ravindra Jadeja was the last man out against Afghanistan, Khaleel was not out on one. His partnership with Jadeja lasted six balls – it took India from 245 to 252, from a defeat to a tie.

In his excitement, as the Indian team came together for the Asia Cup champions photograph, a mirthful Khaleel even indicated something to a dour Ravi Shastri. Why didn’t someone just go and interview him? Khaleel, not Shastri.

The Asia Cup needed a signature, one that was beyond runs, wickets, sweat, temperature, something to lighten the rigours of this last ball victory. Out of nowhere, closing in on 2 am IST, there he was, the cup-magnet. Our very own silent movie.

One that started with Bumrah being rested for the Hong Kong game. Enter Khaleel. Defending India’s 285, bowling his fifth over in his second spell; Hong Kong 175/1 with more than a sniff – Khaleel traps Nizakat Khan lbw for 92. End of game. (While Shardul Thakur’s four overs went for 41, Bhuvi’s nine went for 51; Khaleel’s 10 went for 48; 3wickets too.)

In Khaleel’s second match against Afghanistan, both Bumrah and Bhuvi were rested. This was two days before the finals. Khaleel’s opening partner, Deepak Chahar went for 37 off 4, and the other seamer, Siddarth Kaul, 58 off his 9. Khaleel bowled his 10 for 45, with a maiden and the wicket of Nabi on song. After Nabi’s wicket, Afghanistan added just 8 off the last 2.3 overs. Near perfect. As was Khaleel’s one run. In a tied match, that’s more than enough, right?

Khaleel Ahmed bowled with pace and smarts. While the other seamers were way below par, he held his own; and India did not regret the rest to either Bumrah or Bhuvi. Who knows, that break might well have been the difference; that relief camp of one more rest day, before going into the tight final.

Jadeja came in after Hardik Pandya and Axar Patel went out with injury. He batted twice in the Asia Cup; in the tied match and in the finals. Those two tricky chases will stay with us in sepia. The stop-start-halt-go-won-lost bends; and at its mind-bending best, Jadeja seemed to be there. Even though he wasn’t there at the end, he ensured somehow, it wasn’t a bitter end.

He smiled with hilarity right in the midst of the madness of the finals. It wasn’t as if he was mocking Bangladesh or himself, he was chilling. It was the deepest of breaths, that wears even better with the face breaking into a shiny happy people song like smile. It’s not the end of the world kind of resigned smile. The kind of smile that disarms a nervous partner, a jittery viewer; that conveys, it’s a game. That all those years of work can’t be wrong. That losing here will not make them wrong.

Something for every player and fan to know, learn; to try and unlearn the load, the guilt, the hatred, towards players, towards teams.

And so Jadeja smiled just like that. A smile that broke through his Tagore beard. It was almost learned. It knew. Even if we don’t win this, by now we have enough experience to tie it. Who knows, maybe that’s what he joked with Bhuvi.

Ten runs shy of Bangladesh, Jadeja fell. He knew it, the umpire didn’t, the keeper did, the reviewer did. Three against one are damning odds. A smile-less Jadeja walked off. Another 20-something knock in what would be Dhoni-time. Had MS been picking him all these years in CSK for this?

You just believe in certain players. In that slide, that stop, that look, that aim, that throw, that run out. It’s what takes 120/0 to 139/4, to 222 all out.

To the difference between winners and what could have been?

But at the very end, on the last ball of the Asia Cup, the two batsmen standing, one more than the other; saw India cross that blurred, white line. So far, both had done far more with the ball. Kedar Jadhav bowled in five out of six games but had to bat only thrice. Two of his six wickets came in the finals – the first broke Bangladesh’s 120 run opening stand. The second, Mushfiqur Rahim’s, confirmed the collapse at hand.

Kuldeep’s 10 wickets, 3/45 in the finals, bowling at the death, added life to India’s chances – none more than match-maker Liton Das’ in the 41st over. Of Bangladesh’s 188 then, Das alone made 121.

Later, Jadhav’s 23 and Kuldeep’s 5, sealed the game. KP ran into them as they returned from that winning run. In comparison to a towering KP, both looked like likeable little Hobbits. Jadhav as Frodo Baggins, Kuldeep his accomplice, Sam Gamjee. And to think, they pulled this all off in the Ring of Fire.

Beyond Khaleel, Jadeja, Kedar, Kuldeep; there’s one more, not in the playing XI, but one who’s remembered for the wrong reasons; the most ridiculed Indian cricketer ever perhaps; and now coach.

While everything cricket is debatable, it’s a good time to congratulate Ravi Shastri on the win.

He’s much more than a meme. And in his own way, we must believe, he has the best interests of Indian cricket at heart.

So what if it doesn’t always seem that way.

(Ravi Shastri was at the crease of the tied Test with Australia. Like Jadeja versus Afghanistan, he too was batting at No. 7. That day too, the last wicket was of a left arm spinner – Maninder Singh. Also on the second last ball in the over. Also in the third week of September, 32 years apart)