Dhoni, Raina and Sehwag have challenged the foundations of Indian batsmanship, writes Peter Roebuck
Indian batting has changed. Once the preserve of properly trained players from Gymkhanas, it has been taken over by roughnecks from outposts where cricketers retain the joy of the smite and disdain the watchfulness of the prod. Turning its back on the book of coaching with its safety first recommendations, dusty India is giving voice to long suppressed parts of the national character.
Not that the old ways have entirely been abandoned. Classical tendencies can be detected in a few of the established players. Sachin Tendulkar reflects the mastery that has long been admired in the clubs of his home city. Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar were his precursors, Sanjay Manjrekar counted amongst his contemporaries. The Mumbai school of batting instilled technical expertise and an enduring respect for the fundamentals. But Mumbai has fallen back. Everywhere the elite is in retreat.
Traditional batsmen have also emerged from other cities, notably Bangalore, whose products include Rahul Dravid with his educated style, patience and shy flicks of the wrist, unfurled to remind observers that he is Indian, and proud of it. Mohammed Azharuddin and V.V.S. Laxman also took guard in southern locations and, though more exotic of disposition, they too played a familiar game. Nurtured like an urban flowerbed, they displayed a certain controlled sophistication. Neither remote village or the anarchy of the backstreets contributed anything to their making.
But the scientific, structured approach to batting is struggling to survive the examination of a generation that plays the game by its own lights. By their very audacity, their refusal to be cowed, Dhoni, Raina and Virender Sehwag have challenged the foundations of Indian batsmanship.
Advancing with buccaneering elan, deciding for themselves which rules required their attention, they have captivated supporters able to recognise their daring, enduring selves in the strokeplay of these cavaliers of the crease.
Setting the tone
Sehwag set the tone with his cheerful rotundity and slightly crazed look. He had the instincts of the bush warrior. Certainly he did not react as he was supposed to react, did not play the expected stroke, did not keep the ball on the ground or ignore wide deliveries or bother about clock or boundary fieldsmen. He seemed to think percentages were a type of apple. In short he released the youth in himself, and not the accountant or the lawyer. And it worked, much better than any sensible person had predicted. He scored lots of runs, and took a particular fancy to the mighty Australians.
Dhoni and Raina have responded with their own forms of plunder and piracy. Previously players from the backblocks had seemed like pale imitations of the masters. Dhoni did not bother with any of that. He grew his hair long and batted more like a Rolling Stone than a Beatle. Nor did he adjust his approach merely because he was playing in a famous stadium and not a schoolyard or street corner. He saw the ball and he hit it as hard as he could. Not that he was merely jolly. His counterattacks were defiance personified.
Now comes Raina, another young batsman who believes in his cause. In another era he might have escaped attention, or been taught the finer points. Instead his timing has been superb. Indian cricket has moved beyond Mumbai and MCC coaching manual. Dhoni and Raina are not extravagances destined to fall as swiftly as they rose. They are splendid cricketers who capture the spirit and direction of their country.