A batsman of easy elegance

Wasim Jaffer's batting shows few signs of struggle. He has about him the indifferent air of a Nabob. At his best, he makes hitting boundaries look easy. Nearly 56 per cent of his Test runs have come from fours, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian author, gave the world the most startling hypothesis of 1929. Any two people on earth, said Karinthy, were separated by no more than five acquaintances. Stanley Milgram, at Harvard, had the same idea, and tested the thesis by sending random packages with precise instructions. He found that, on average, six links of friendship got the package to the person intended.

American playwright John Guare wrote Six Degrees of Separation in 1990, the term was appropriated by popular culture, and a party game was born. But, in the right hands, it can be so much more. Any two Indian opening batsmen of the last seven years, for instance, can be linked in six degrees; there's a good chance they might have walked out together, but finding the links serves a sneaky purpose. It confirms the difficulty India has had settling on an opening pair.

Wasim Jaffer and Rahul Dravid have opened together. But, Jaffer has also opened with V. V. S. Laxman who has opened with Sadagopan Ramesh who has opened with S. S. Das who has opened with Sanjay Bangar who has opened with Virender Sehwag who has opened with Dravid. Though India hasn't been as scatty as Pakistan, which in the last 10 years has had a different opening pair every second Test, many a selector has mulled over whom to stick in at one and two.

Since July 2002, Virender Sehwag has been the one constant. In his 46 Tests as Indian opener, Sehwag has had seven partners, three of them makeshift. Sehwag was dropped for the Tests in Bangladesh, illustrating further the troubles India faces. The current season features tours of England and Australia. For India to win — and there is no point travelling if thoughts of winning aren't all-consuming — it must first identify an opening pair. Directed preparation must follow.

England and Australia make different demands. World-class batsmen should adjust, but the team management mustn't preclude thoughts of different opening pairs for the tours. If a particular opener suits the playing conditions in, say, England and another looks the better bet in Australia, so be it. India's success in previous tours had much to do with its opening batsmen. Sanjay Bangar's limp-wristed defiance at Headingley, Leeds, in 2002 set up a famous win; Aakash Chopra helped Sehwag raise partnerships of 127, 4, 66, 48, 141, 5, 123, and 11 in the series of 2003-04 in Australia.

But, the standards for selection must be fair. Chopra was asked specifically to bat time in Australia. Runs, Chopra later said in an interview, weren't a criterion. Yet, when he was dropped to accommodate Yuvraj Singh in Pakistan, his failure to make good the starts he was getting off to was cited. There's no way to measure the influence of these crossed signals on Chopra's performance against Australia at home — 15 runs from four innings — but they can't have helped.

It is in this light the performance of Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik in Bangladesh turns interesting. For all its progress in one-day cricket, Bangladesh's Test side is as poorly calibrated a barometer of quality as domestic Indian cricket: success in numbers means little; failure looks worse. Jaffer's century in the second Test, where the top four made hundreds, came after a pair in the first. This pattern of scores, small and tall, has been the motif of Jaffer's career: he has scored less than 15 in 19 of his 35 Test innings; when he has passed 15, ten times he has scored at least 50.

"I hope he makes a habit of it," said captain Rahul Dravid. "He has all the equipment, he has all the attributes of being a very good player. It's just a matter of him finding consistency."

A part of Jaffer's success since his comeback in March 2006 — 945 runs from 12 Tests at 45 with four centuries and three half-centuries — must be credited to the selectors. Scores of 1, 1, 9, 4, 26, and 28 have led to openers being dumped. But, Jaffer was allowed another chance. He made 116 against South Africa at Cape Town. Similarly, scores of 2, 0, and 0 were followed by 138 retired hurt at Dhaka. This ability to bounce back could see him ballast India's batting this season.

Jaffer, who grew up in the poverty-stricken lanes of a transit camp in Bandra Reclamation in Mumbai, appreciates every break he catches. "It is nice to come back and get one after a pair," he said. "I was that extra bit determined after getting the pair. I am delighted that the team management stood behind me. It backed me after the first Test and if it had not done so I would not have been playing this game."

Jaffer, if fit, will be the first opener selected for the tour of England. His critics have deplored a tendency early in his innings to stiffen the front knee, and, consequently, push his hands at full, swinging balls. Surely, such a frailty will do him no good in England, they say. But, Jaffer has proved he can counter it. In his comeback Test, he made 81 and 100 against England at Nagpur; the second innings was under intense pressure.

The track was unlike any Jaffer will bat on in England. Matthew Hoggard, however, was swinging it both ways, conventional and reverse. It is in the drive through cover that Jaffer's locked knee can act up. So, he cut it out. He abstained from deliveries outside off, leaving on occasion on length. Having suckered England's bowlers into shifting their lines to off and middle, he turned his wrists and unlocked the on side. Of his 100, 63 came on the leg side. When he toured England with the India `A' side in 2003, Jaffer had topped the charts. Included in his aggregate of 512 runs were scores of 90 and 54 against a South African attack of Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini, Monde Zondeki, and Dewald Pretorious. These runs, moreover, were scored between July and August — India is scheduled to play its three Tests during the same months this year.

Jaffer has most attributes an opening batsman needs. On the sidelines of a felicitation ceremony in early 2006, the kind that abounds in India's home season, Ravi Shastri held a small audience. Talk was of this and that before someone wanted to know if Jaffer could cut it. "He isn't afraid of the hard cricket ball, and let me tell you there are many that are chicken, not Jaffer," said Shastri before ticking the boxes: "He's got guts, he can play the long innings, he can score off the back-foot, which is important against good attacks abroad, and he can handle pace."

Like V. V. S. Laxman's batting but to a lesser degree, Jaffer's shows few signs of struggle. He has about him the indifferent air of a Nabob. At his best, Jaffer makes hitting boundaries look easy. Nearly 56 per cent of his Test runs have come from fours. What he does in between, however, has prompted criticism. A knee that required surgery has put the hustled single beyond him. It's the reason behind his many stunted starts. It was said of Mark Waugh that he never looked out of touch; he simply got out. Jaffer isn't dissimilar. He often strikes a languorous ball almost immediately after taking strike. When he splits the gaps early, he goes on, interspersing graceful, lithe boundaries with a defence that grows increasingly intact; when he can't prick a gap he leaves, orphaned by the single.

Who will Jaffer partner in England? Dinesh Karthik has been beyond reproach, but in admittedly forgiving conditions. He said he is working on his footwork and learning to trust his technique. He has shown he can adapt. His low-slung athleticism, not unlike Ricky Ponting's, allows him to mimic ideal postures and make changes. Jaffer is a mate: Karthik sat next to Jaffer on the team bus and obliged a request to take first strike ("I wasn't in the mood to show I was a brave man," said Jaffer who had made a pair the previous match). But, is Karthik being looked at as an opener in the long term? And what of the criticism of having two wicketkeepers in the side?

"It was agreed that Dinesh Karthik was going to open for a couple of games to prove his credentials as an opener," said Dravid in Bangladesh. "I try to keep saying this and I don't know how better to say this. Dinesh is a wicketkeeper, but he is playing as an opening batsman and he has been scoring runs.

It does not matter whether you are a specialist, regular, official, unofficial, non-regular. At the end of the day it is the runs that matter. In my 10 years of playing for India, the guy (Sehwag) who has been the most consistent and who has got runs for us as opener with some consistency has been a middle order batsman, who converted to an opener."