A good opening pair means half the job done

At Nottingham, where there was a fair measure of assistance for the pacemen, Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik (right) swung the match with an association of 147. It proved crucial after England had been dismissed for 198.-PTI At Nottingham, where there was a fair measure of assistance for the pacemen, Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik (right) swung the match with an association of 147. It proved crucial after England had been dismissed for 198.

The days ahead will be demanding for Jaffer and Karthik. Vitally, they have displayed the understanding an opening combination should possess and have helped each other out during different phases in the middle, writes S. Dinakar.

It’s a tough job — opening the innings. The batsman’s technique is probed, so is his temperament.

History tells us that great cricket teams, invariably, had an outstanding pair at the top of the order. Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, among others, are duos that greatly influe nced matches.

The ball darts around, the batsmen are tested by the swing and seam of bowlers who are fresh and steaming in, and in conditions — especially on the first morning — that can surprise and consume.

The early inroads have to be prevented, and a foundation needs to be laid. A strong opening partnership can dictate the flow of a Test. The threat from the new ball is negated, setting up things for the rest.

When India achieved the historic first Test victory over Pakistan in Multan, a rampant Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra, who blunted the attack, put on 160 for the first wicket on day one. The Pakistani pacemen never really recovered.

At Nottingham, where there was a fair measure of assistance for the pacemen, Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik swung the match with an association of 147. It proved crucialafter England had been dismissed for 198. India emerged victorious.

The Indian line-up, with stroke-makers in the middle-order, can be a different force once the new ball is seen through safely. Multan and Nottingham are clear pointers.

Jaffer is an opener in the classical mould, who can ‘play’ and ‘leave.’ His footwork is largely organised and he can, crucially, play the waiting game and then split the field with elegant strokes. He needs to overcome unexplained streaks of inconsistency that have had a detrimental effect of his career.

Karthik, by instinct, is more of a shot-maker. He has, to his credit, shown a willingness to learn. As former India opener and coach Aunshuman Gaekwad put it aptly, “he is a survivor.”

Is India looking at an opening combination with a long term future?

Specifically, is Karthik an opening batsman?

Interestingly, he averages 54.25 in five matches as a Test opener, with half-centuries in Newlands, Lord’s and Trent Bridge. Heart and courage are not commodities he lacks.

He has also evolved technically, although there is a fair distance to travel yet. In his earlier days with the side, Karthik lacked balance in his stance, and, consequently tended to fall away in his initial movement. This made him vulnerable to deliveries coming into him — he was a candidate for leg-before decisions — and was also opened up by balls moving away.

Karthik found a way out of the mess and the answer lay in lengthening his strides, which were too short. Due to the short stride, he was playing too many deliveries from a half-cock position, whereas, accomplished batsmen either move fully back or fully forward, using the crease to the maximum. In other words, Karthik was often caught in a no-man’s land.

The batsman’s conscious decision to lengthen his strides has made him more balanced. Consequently, his head position is a lot better. And it is the position of the head that plays a large role in helping a batsman determine where his off-stump is.

Of course, there are still occasions when Karthik’s old habits creep in, and he does venture into drives without quite getting his left foot in the right position. He is battling his instincts as much as correcting his technique. He is a hand and eye batsman who is keen to back his natural ability with the right methods.

Says former India batsman and Tamil Nadu coach, W.V. Raman, “At the end of the day, it is only your performance on the field that matters. He has been doing a good job, has shown that he can adapt to situations. He has fought hard. Whatever he is doing for the team now should be recognised by the management. There will be days when he will not do so well and he will have to be backed then. The selectors and the think-tank should not do a volte-face and drop him after a couple of failures.”

It was on the night before the decider in Cape Town last year that Karthik was informed that he would be opening the innings. He grabbed the lifeline offered to him.

When India achieved the historic first Test victory over Pakistan in Multan a rampant Virender Sehwag and Aakash Chopra put on 160 for the first wicket on day one.-K.BHAGYA PRAKASH

He had, on occasions, opened at the under-19 level for his State, done the job in Chennai’s competitive TNCA first division league, and, subsequently, walked in at the top of the order for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy.

However, facing Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn with the new ball was a different challenge altogether. Karthik and Wasim Jaffer batted solidly gathering 153 for the first wicket. That was an innings where Karthik played with the full face of the willow, answered questions about his temperament. He has not looked back since as a Test opener.

However, doubters remain. Former India batsman Parthasarathy Sharma, who suffered because he was thrust into an opener’s role, says, “I fear he would be made a scapegoat at some stage. We lack a clear policy of grooming openers. It’s a specialist job. It’s about consolidation. Jaffer bats like an opener, plays close to his body, plays late and uses the pace of the ball. He is a Test batsman and picking Jaffer in the one-day squad was a blunder. About Karthik…I am not so sure. I still feel he tends to play too many shots, does not quite have the approach of an opener. He can be a fine middle-order batsman.”

Former India opener and National selector from South Zone, V. B. Chandrasekar, disagrees. “He has always wanted to open, from his under-19 days. When he was picked for Tamil Nadu, he would often walk up to me pleading ‘I want to open.’ Karthik is willing to play his shots. So what? He gets into a side-on position, doesn’t square-up. The fact that he is short works to his advantage. The pacemen have to alter their length and this is never easy. Karthik now has to work on his conversion rate. The fifties will have to be converted into hundreds.”

Karthik, as Chandrasekar says, is positive. He is particularly effective with horizontal bat shots, essays the cut and the pull well. He often sways away from the line of short-pitched deliveries, keeping his eyes on the ball, which is a good sign.

The taller Jaffer, a pleasing driver off his back foot, is a different batsman. He has the attributes of a quality opener. However, a tendency to hang back — stay on his back-foot — early in his innings has, on occasions, made him vulnerable to deliveries of fuller length, swinging in or away. On the present tour of England, Jaffer, happily, has moved to the front-foot in a manner that is more decisive. Once set, he can display a full range of strokes.

Chandrasekar, however, concedes that India has often resorted to short cuts, forced by compulsions of the team composition, to select non-specialists as openers. He reveals, “I argued this point with Rahul Dravid while picking the eleven for the second Test in Faisalabad during the last tour of Pakistan. Dravid had opened himself in the first Test, to accommodate another batsman. In the second Test, he was keen to do the job again, since the think-tank wanted a fifth bowler on what was likely to be a flat track. I told Rahul, ‘We have two specialist openers, Jaffer and Gautam Gambhir, in the side and what message would this send to them?’ Rahul had his way and Jaffer and Gambhir did not play a Test in the series. Eventually, on a Karachi pitch that was doing a bit, we lost the third Test and the series.”

Raman says, “We have the knack of breaking up promising opening combinations. Look at Ramesh and Das and Sehwag and Jaffer. We keep repeating the mistakes.”

Gaekwad adds, “We lack vision when it comes to openers. We are obsessed with middle-order slots and fail to realise the value of a sound opening pair. It’s sad.”

A middle-order batsman, and one with strokes, when he began his international career, Gaekwad was asked by the team-management to open the innings on India’s tour of the West Indies in 1976. “I had never opened in my career before. I was told that I had the technique for an opener. They told me ‘Sunny (Gavaskar) will be there at one end. You just stay at the other.’ I was also given the assurance that, even if I failed as an opener, I would remain in the side. I stayed at the crease as an opener, saw off the new ball, but was the first one to be dropped consequently! I sacrificed my natural game for the team, but paid the price.”

Sharma relates a similar tale about Aakash Chopra, who, on India’s eventful Test campaign in Australia (2003), was asked by the think-tank to drop anchor at one end even as Sehwag went after the bowling at the other. The Sehwag-Chopra pair, one of contrasts, was immensely successful down under, and began well in Pakistan. But then, when Chopra suffered a dip in form, he was branded as being too defensive and dropped from the side.

Indeed, openers often become sacrificial lambs.

This is precisely why there is a need to groom openers. The left-handed Gautam Gambhir, a part of the Indian squad in England, is an exciting shot-maker but tends to play away from the body. He requires to tighten up his game, without compromising on flair. Robin Uthappa is not without ability, and during the last domestic season, he displayed a willingness to construct big innings. He requires to shed his ‘one-day opener’ image.

The young Cheteshwar Pujara is rated highly promising by several former cricketers, including Sharma. How he utilises his opportunities on the `A’ tours remains to be seen. Pujara has made an encouraging start in Zimbabwe. The left-handed Dheeraj Jadhav is another batsman with possibilities.

Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sunder Das had some valuable stands when they opened the innings for India.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Then there is the question mark over Virender Sehwag’s future. In terms of runs scored and average, Sehwag — 3776 runs in 47 Tests at 51.02 — is India’s most successful opener after Sunil Gavsakar. And he was a converted opener.

“As long as Sehwag was in great form, the runs were coming at such a clip, even in Tests, that it did not matter who was at the other end. Once his form slumped, we noticed the other opener more,” says Chandrasekar.

Adds Sharma: “Sehwag’s hand-eye coordination was extraordinary and in that kind of form he would have made runs in any position. Once his reflexes slowed down, he did not have the technique to fall back on and looked a misfit as an opener.” Small changes in the alignment of the body position can make a big difference to a batsman’s fortunes.

The days ahead will be demanding for Jaffer and Karthik. Vitally, they have displayed the understanding an opening combination should possess and have helped each other out during different phases in the middle. There were times when both played and missed at Nottingham but constantly talked to each other, lifting their spirits.

The selectors have picked Karthik as an opener first for the England tour. It would, however, be interesting to see how his wicket-keeping ability is utilised in the future. The selectors and the think-tank have, rightly, not burdened Karthik with wicket-keeping duties while asking him to face the new ball.

However, if Mahendra Singh hits a bad patch with either the bat or the big gloves, the selectors could be tempted to give Karthik both jobs to accommodate a fifth bowler or an extra batsman. Raman predicts this scenario.

In his favour, Karthik has a wonderful attitude and has this ability to express himself on and off the field. Former Indian coach Greg Chappell acknowledged the youngster’s ability to work between groups, and share his ideas fearlessly during the team meetings. “He will be a leader in Indian cricket,” Chappell would often say.

For now, converted or not, Karthik is leading the Indian innings — as an opener. As they say, well begun is half done.