As Sarfaraz Khan racks up centuries for fun in the Ranji Trophy, there’s a growing chorus for the Mumbai batter to be rewarded with opportunities at a higher grade. Since scoring an unbeaten 301 against Uttar Pradesh in January 2020, the 24-year-old has been nearly unstoppable, hitting two double centuries (226 and 275) and making three scores of 150-plus.
While his run of scores seems to have propelled him to the top of the queue of middle-order contenders for the Indian Test team, most will concur that the India A set-up is an ideal testing ground before thrusting him into international cricket. Unfortunately for Sarfaraz, though, his dream run has coincided with India A tours nearly coming to a halt owing to Covid-19. Since March 2020, when the virus began spreading in this part of the world, India A have just had the solitary tour of South Africa in November-December last year. Sarfaraz played two of the three four-day games, but he got to bat in only two innings and made scores of 71* and 14.
With the number of matches in the 2021/22 Ranji season curtailed due to Covid constraints after a season where the first-class competition was cancelled altogether, Sarfaraz’s opportunities in the longer version are limited at the moment. After the conclusion of the Ranji final in Bengaluru, it is very much possible that he won’t be playing red-ball cricket of this standard until the start of the new domestic season a few months down the road.
This is where the lack of A tours could hurt Sarfaraz and other India aspirants as well as have a long-term effect on the bench strength of the Indian team. From the time that Rahul Dravid – currently head coach of the senior team – took charge of the India A and U-19 set-ups in 2015, there was a conscious effort on the part of the Indian cricket board (BCCI) to send an India A team to countries where the Test team was travelling. The India A players subsequently gained experience of playing in England, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies. It had a tangible impact in India’s Test results improving overseas, underlined by the 2020/21 series win in Australia when a major chunk of the first-choice players were unavailable. It is ironical then that Dravid as coach is currently unable to capitalise on a structure that he had a big part in developing.
“The A set-up is extremely important. What was happening with the A system was that you were having shadow tours,” said former India fielding coach R Sridhar, whose tenure came to an end after the 2021 T20 World Cup.
“When we went to West Indies in 2019 for the first series of the inaugural World Test Championship cycle, for instance, we had an A team travelling to the Caribbean just before that. In that series, (Hanuma) Vihari got a hundred and then got a hundred for the Test side in Jamaica after that. The A tours have multiple advantages. It gives our second or third string players exposure in those conditions. It clearly helps us find out our red-ball players. What IPL does is give us bench strength in the white-ball formats, but it is these A tours that give us bench strength in five-day cricket.”
What these A tours also did was bridge the gulf between India’s premier domestic tournament and international cricket. “There is a sizeable gap between Ranji Trophy and international cricket. It’s not just Ranji, any first-class competition is well below the standards of Test cricket. There is no excuse for not bringing back that A team culture. It’s just that the pandemic needs to settle down,” he said.
BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal said efforts are on to get India A tours up and running once again. “With Covid ending, we would like to have as much cricket as possible. We have strong domestic players and they should get opportunities. We will be talking to other boards to resume India A tours,” he said.
According to Sridhar, the impact of the prevailing absence of A tours will be felt by the Indian team over a period of time.
“I can already see the impact on the bench strength. You won’t know (the adverse impact) immediately, but it will slowly eat into your system,” said Sridhar.