It is a very demanding job

OPENING the innings is the most demanding job on the cricket field. And I am not saying this because I used to do the opener's job for India.

K. SRIKKANTH

OPENING the innings is the most demanding job on the cricket field. And I am not saying this because I used to do the opener's job for India.

If the side bats first, the pacemen are fresh, you do not know how the pitch would behave and it is a real challenge out there.

And if the side bats second, then the openers hardly have time to regroup after having a long time out in the middle. On occasions, the openers have to bat during the last half an hour of the day's play.

I must say I had the good fortune of opening with one of the greatest openers in the history of cricket — Sunil Gavaskar.

The first time I walked out with Gavaskar, during the Bombay Test of the 1980 series against England, is fresh in my mind. Growing up, I never dreamt that one day I would be batting with a legend.

During my school and college days, I would listen to the exploits of Indian greats like Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath on radio. Little did I imagine then that I would one day be playing alongside these fantastic cricketers.

Gavaskar was a marvel. I mean everything about his game was so immaculate, so correct — his balance, his footwork, his judgment.

To top all that, he had loads of determination and concentration and could bat all day. I mean, he could leave the best of pacemen frustrated.

What fascinated me the most about Gavaskar's game was the manner in which he would leave the best of deliveries. That is a rare art.

Times without number I have seen a deadly outswinger reduced to a harmless ball because Gavaskar, spotting the delivery in a jiffy, would cover his stumps and just shoulder his arms.

From the non-striker's end, I would watch the sheer look of anguish on a fast bowler's face, before he starts the walk back to the top of his mark. Pace bowling is extremely hard on a bowler, mentally and physically, and Gavaskar's flawless methods left the best of speed merchants looking heavenwards for help!

Here was a threatening delivery reduced to nothing, and the batsman had not even played the ball! Imagine what would go through a bowler's mind.

I have seen Gavaskar leaving balls climbing into him through his armpits. On some other occasions, he would just sway out of the line of a short-pitched delivery, his eyes never leaving the ball.

Gavaskar deserves all credit because, learning his cricket in India, he would have had little exposure to fast, bouncy pitches. However, just look at the manner in which he made the adjustments, and how quickly he made them. No wonder, his feats as an opener for India are phenomenal.

I was a natural stroke player and never did Gavaskar try to curb my methods. In fact, he would encourage me to play my game. We had some good moments together.

All he would do was to walk up to me and alert me about the changes in the field; for instance if there were two men behind square, Gavaskar would quickly inform me that a bouncer was on the cards.

In fact, I owe my Test hundred against the Aussies in Sydney, 1985-86, to Gavaskar. I received a blow on my ankle from the bowling of Dave Gilbert and was in great pain. Unable to continue, I had started my walk back to the pavilion, when Gavaskar's voice stopped me.

He said, "You have batted for nearly an hour, got ten runs, if you leave now, after doing all the hard work, it is as good as giving your wicket away." I got the message.

I batted with a runner in L. Sivaramakrishnan and proceeded to complete a highly satisfying century. Gavaskar's words at a timely moment made a lot of difference.

Gavaskar had all the shots in the book and, due to the responsibilities on him, curbed his strokes in the interests of the team. He was a natural hooker when he began his career, but cut out this stroke due to the risks involved and only played it again towards the end of his career.

He had a wonderful repertoire of strokes and was especially fluent off his legs, getting plenty of runs in the huge area between fine-leg and mid-wicket. After him, Tendulkar has shown the same felicity off his pads.

He was a lot more aggressive in the latter half of his career, and I remember, when he once reached a Test fifty quicker than me, he was so delighted. And when he made his first ODI hunderd, against the Kiwis in Nagpur during the 1987 World Cup, he did so with some scintillating strokes. He had been battling a fever until the morning of the match.

Taking on the best of the quicks from the West Indies, Australia, and Pakistan, Gavaskar invariably came up trumps and has his place among the all-time greats of world cricket.

After the departure of Gavaskar, I felt Navjot Singh Sidhu was a good opening bat, with the right kind of attitude and approach. Then in the late 90s surfaced the left-handed Sadagopan Ramesh who has a fair record as a Test opener, and who has the ability to perform the job competently again if he is recalled to the Indian side. What we must remember here is that the role of an opener is a specialist one.

It is time India settled on a sound opening pair, that will take so much burden off the middle-order in the battles away from the sub-continent.