It's difficult to gauge what's more rare. A net bowler making his Test debut in a high profile series, or him going to take big scalps of Warner and Smith among four wickets in the game and a crucial half-century to keep the team alive. Whatever it may be, it has fallen alright for India.
The ongoing Border-Gavaskar trophy has been a series of many outliers. Frequent injuries, unexpected fight backs and what not. I mean I have never seen any team, at least if my memory serves right, missing as many as seven first-choice players and several back-ups compelling inclusion of net players, who otherwise wouldn't even have made it to the original Test squad. One of the many beneficiaries of the injuries has been the promising Washington Sundar.
A T20 specialist, 21-year-old Sundar, with a first-class experience of 12 games, 532 runs and 30 wickets, was at least a few years away from even making it to the India side, if not more. He last played in Ranji trophy in 2017 for Tamil Nadu and is fourth choice spinner after Ravi Ashwin, R Sai Kishore and M Siddharth if all are fit and available even for his domestic side. But cometh the series-deciding and high-profile Gabba Test, he makes his Test debut against Australia.
And he starts off by bamboozling one of the greatest Test batsmen of all-time, Steven Smith, as his first victim and takes four wickets in the Test. Not to forget if it was not for his 123 run-stand with Shardul Thakur, where he made a gritty 60-odd, India well might have been out of the game way before. With Ravindra Jadeja injured and likely to miss the major part of the upcoming England home Tests, Sundar is likely to be included in the Test side for the England series as well.
But that is where India will go wrong if they do so. Not taking anything away from him in what has been one of the most promising Test debuts by a spinning all-rounder in some time for India, that too away from home, he shouldn't be included for the forthcoming Tests. Playing Sundar when India were in a catch-22 situation at Gabba was a forced move but now if India persist with him, it would set a bad precedent going forward. There's a vast difference in making a forced choice in an unprecedented and helpless situation and persisting with it just because it worked in an odd game that well might just prove to be an exception.
There have been players in the same mold as Jadeja who have given their blood, toil, tears and sweat, day-in-day-out, year after year, in face of rejection, lesser financial gains, empty stadiums, just to wear the elusive Indian Test cap one day. Selecting a T20 specialist and an accidental Test cricketer, who doesn't even play red-ball cricket owing to his white-ball commitments, will be a punch to the gut for players devoted to the longer format for years. It will be akin to nipping the Pujaras, Viharis and Agarwals of India's domestic cricket in the bud.
For they developed, evolved, and translated into the players they are at the moment because of the Ranji trophy. IPL wouldn't have given a Vihari, who could bat for 161 balls for merely 23 at the SCG, with a hamstring tear, battling the physical pain of the injury and the mental challenge of arguably the best bowling attack of the world at their own backyard in their full pomp. It will be turning back on the domestic giants or the future Viharis of the Indian cricket. Soon, IPL will become the gateway to not only money and fame, but to earn the much prized Indian Test cap, which has been donned by only 301 players in the last 88 years.
Despite missing a plethora of first-choice players, India were able to stare right into the eyes of the gleaming Australians, put up a fight, pile them under pressure, and symbolize resilience because of their strong bench strength. Shubman Gill, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, and Navdeep Saini are results of a well-built system. They have played ample of Ranji trophy and India A games. It has helped them graduate into the players they have become, not timid but ready to take the world by storm as they have been prepping for a situation like Gabba for years.
Else, an inexperienced Siraj leading the pace attack as early as his third Test and Gill batting with the chutzpah of a seasoned campaigner wouldn't have been a reality. And this is how Indian cricket should continue giving chances to players who deserve it as it will help them to have a team or squad ready, which can sustain excellence for a long period of time, given they are trained and built for that.
Harsha Bhogle had once given an intriguing example of a principle that the Australian Army uses when recruiting for an elite core team: "They look at your career record, your track record. And if you've never failed, they don't pick you. They don't pick you because they say 'If this man experiences failure, will he know what to do?' "
Having experience is not just about playing a 'X' number of games. It is about being in various game situations, from the ups and downs, to success and failures. From a wicket-less session to a one full of wickets. From a flat wicket to a rank-turner. From a purple patch to lean form and dealing with most of the scenarios that one can encounter at the highest-level. Practicing and overcoming it over and again with practice until it becomes your innate nature is what elevates a player into a giant at the domestic level, ready for Test cricket.
Nothing can substitute bowling 60-70 overs or playing 400-500 balls in a red-ball game. Not only does it help in skill-set development, it also aides in meeting the mental and physical requirements, for which neither there is any substitute nor it can be brought from any supermarket. And that is why it's always ideal to invest in tried and tested players, more so, in Tests, than the other way around.
Even for the sake of Sundar, it will be imperative to allow him to grow and evolve into a finished Test product if India are looking at him as a red-ball player before he potentially gets found out sooner or later, in some aspect or the other as not for nothing experience holds value. It would be a confidence breaker for the 21-year-old to potentially face failure, break down physically, or succumb to intense mental pressure that five-day cricket brings along. And experiencing something like that at such a big stage, having not tasted it enough, after much adulation before the rigors of Test cricket takes over, can be damning.
It will also be travesty for someone like Jalaj Saxena, who's a spin-bowling all-rounder and up there with the best in the world, leave alone, Ranji trophy. Since August 1, 2014 to December 30, 2019, there are only five all-rounders in the cricket world to have the combination of 3000+ runs and 150+ wickets, and Saxena is the only Indian to feature in the list. He has the best batting average and the second best bowling average.
An addendum that's possibly more eloquent, numbers wise, than all of the above. Since August 1, 2014, there are only five allrounders in *world cricket* who have the combination of 3000+ runs and 150+ wickets. Jalaj Saxena is one of the five. Some good company there: pic.twitter.com/gWxy6VWo3G— Saurabh Somani (@saurabh_42) December 30, 2019
In 2019, when picked for India A against South Africa, he was the Man of the Match in the first game while in the only innings, he batted in the second and last game, he got an unbeaten 48*. He bowled merely five overs though. Saxena is a domestic veteran and if he doesn't get his chance now, in favor of a T20 specialist who had one great Test, a bad precedent will be set in times when for many budding cricketers, IPL has already become the priority and shortcut to everything material one craves for, leaving Test cricket in a bad shape.