Keeping it open till the end

A great who scored his 47th ODI ton and a record fifth in the World Cup along with a steely batsman, who notched his maiden century in the premier tournament, have conclusively shown that openers can effortlessly stretch a 100m dash into a marathon run, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Dour men playing out time, robbing the new ball of its sheen and providing a cushion for the middle-order to flower may be the recurring themes for opening batsmen. The traits may still linger in the long-drawn intense world of Test cricket, but in the frenzied arena of limited-overs tussles, the men at the top literally step out with all guns blazing.

Long before the word ‘pinch-hitter' was bequeathed to the likes of Mark Greatbatch, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana, India too had one in Krishnamachari Srikkanth. However, during Srikkanth's heyday, branding of roles remained low-key in cricket and the current chairman of selectors was often referred to as a swashbuckling batsman.

The evolutionary path of openers in ODIs has over the years taken a different and enviable nuance with far-reaching implications. The willow wielders now smite, steal the singles and also nurse this burning desire of staying forever in the park and ensuring that their team emerges triumphant in the chase or posts an impregnable total.

Recently, Virender Sehwag ominously spoke about his wish ‘to play across 50 overs.' This pinch, pummel and prosper blend that grates on rival captains' nerves was evident on a special Sunday at Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium.

Two men radically different from each other but fused together with their zeal to win matches for their respective teams, highlighted the pivotal role that an opener plays in ODIs.

Sachin Tendulkar (120) and Andrew Strauss (158) proved to be the heroes of a match that was played on a razor's edge and finally the cricketing gods tweaked in the perfect result with India and England locked in a tie. “I guess Sachin Tendulkar and I did not deserve to lose,” Strauss said tongue-in-cheek. Tendulkar the legend is set in stone, while Strauss is assured of his enhanced stature for posterity thanks to his exploits in the Ashes.

Both individuals have that steely edge melded with their philosophy of ‘competing hard and yet respecting the opponent.' Perhaps the two openers' magical knocks had that sense of destiny around them. Asked about Tendulkar in the pre-match press-conference, Strauss unabashedly said: “He is one of the mammoths of the game and the fact that he has lasted two decades is a testament to his preparation.” Strauss then paused and added: “Look we are not here to build-up players, we are here to win a game!” That resolve was evident in his knock that he termed as his finest after a draining weekend night under lights in Bangalore.

The ability to steal the singles, pick the gaps and also lend a reassuring shoulder to hyper-kinetic partners distinguishes both Tendulkar and Strauss. On super Sunday, Sehwag let adrenaline rule and flashed hard at James Anderson's first delivery. A few deliveries later the Indian opener popped up a lob from the leading edge. Tendulkar quickly walked up to him and had a word. Sehwag did calm down, but in his inimitable style, crunched a few fours before departing.

Strauss, meanwhile, had to contend with Kevin Pietersen's halo as well as his poor yield in ODIs over two years. Pietersen did miss a few against Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel and Strauss was at hand to help the man, who patented the switch-hit, take a deep breath. Pietersen's knock however ended as a cameo with Munaf showing smart reflexes.

Strauss the southpaw prefers his runs square of the wicket and his cuts had that rapier touch. With a visage that, like his Indian counterpart M. S. Dhoni's, hardly reveals any emotion, Strauss was literally the ice-man while the pressure of chasing 338 hardly impacted his tenure at the crease. “To calm down at the half-way stage, to take things in perspective, to take it one ball at a time…well it was incredible to watch the way he played,” Ian Bell said.

The England skipper may not have that languid grace that usually defines left-handed men like David Gower, Brian Lara and Sourav Ganguly, but he has that tough-as-nails approach that was also preached by a man named Allan Border two decades ago. The manner in which Strauss whittled down the target was reminiscent of the ways by which Javed Miandad anchored Pakistan with minimal fuss in the past. It almost looked as though the Indians were not even aware of the match being pulled away from them by Strauss.

Tendulkar of the luminous talent and Strauss of the gritty pathway do share a humility and that is reflected in the manner they ran the singles and twos for themselves as well as their partners. Openers no longer biff around and quickly head back to the dressing room for a shower. They often play the lead role in an ensemble cast that adds value to the script. While India and England soared, slumped and finally rested with the scores level at 338, the sub-text was provided by the partnerships that Tendulkar and Strauss sewed up with their batting allies.

Tendulkar ensured that both Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh struck a perfect compromise between staying firm and playing their natural games and the alliances helped India tide past that final crumble of losing seven wickets for just 33 runs.

Later, in the chase, Strauss and Bell strung an almost match-winning partnership — 170 runs for the third wicket — and Dhoni conceded: “England batted really well, especially Strauss.”

Tendulkar's desire to unhinge Anderson and Strauss's inability to tackle Zaheer Khan's swinging yorker finally grounded the two knocks of infinite delight, but the contrasting duo had by then made a loud statement about the crucial role that openers will play in the current World Cup and beyond. A great who scored his 47th ODI ton and a record fifth in the World Cup along with a steely batsman, who notched his maiden century in the premier tournament, have conclusively shown that openers can effortlessly stretch a 100m dash into a marathon run.