Making things happen

THESE dashing men at the very top of the order. They are a breed apart: swinging matches for their teams, taking the game away from the opposition, winning duels in a hurry, leaving the rivals demoralised.

They are the ignition keys and the innings roars to life as the big booming strokes emanate from their blades. They are the danger men, often the principal threat.

Virender Sehwag has scant respect for the reputation of bowlers. He just plays his natural, attacking game.-N. BALAJI

In the ODIs their role assumes even more importance for there are only 50 overs to be faced, and they can hit a side out of contention; blasting away in the first 15 overs when the field restrictions are in place and then consolidating on the gains.

The openers are in news these days and for the right reasons too. During the ICC Champions Trophy in Colombo, Virender Sehwag, Herschelle Gibbs, Sanath Jayasuriya, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist have all made runs, and made them in style.

Sehwag's blazing hundred against England in the group game was an innings where his strokemaking qualities were seen in all its glory. He put his foot on the accelerator and the Indian innings zoomed forward.

Herschelle Gibbs doesn't mind living dangerously. He is only concerned about keeping the scoreboard moving.-REUTERS

The reputation of a bowler hardly bothers him. He just goes out there, plays his natural game, and his in-born instinct to attack gleams through.

It was in Sri Lanka during the triangular one-day competition last year that the Indian team-management first stumbled on the idea of sending the hard-hitting batsman at the top.

That was a tour when India was without Sachin Tendulkar, down with a heel injury, and there was an urgent need to find a partner for Ganguly. The think-tank did not appear to have too much confidence in Amay Khurasiya, selected for that tour as a specialist opener, and, in the couple of instances when he partnered the Indian captain, Yuveraj Singh fell early.

The choice of Sehwag was almost an afterthought, and in his early days as an opener, the Delhi batsman's efforts were more like a curate's egg. Good in parts.

Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden... the gale force at the top of the Australian order.-N. BALAJI

He produced some spanking strokes at the top of the order, but also appeared a touch uncomfortable when the ball was dug in short by the pacemen; Sehwag was dismissed fending more than once.

He had reserved his best for the big occasion. In the 'do or die' encounter against New Zealand in the crucial league game, Sehwag fired on all cylinders, conjuring a remarkable hundred laced with stunning strokes.

What stood out during that innings was his ability to find the gaps with ridiculous ease, and his sweet timing. Sehwag can give it a real wallop, he can also caress the ball to the fence, hitting straight and through the line. He is sound off his back-foot against pace, and the fact that he appears to have a little more time than the others is because he plays the ball late. This simple and humble young man also works extremely hard at his game, and is today a considerably better player of the short balls.

Sanath Jayasuriya, a lower order batsman to begin with, has metamorphosed into an explosive opener.-REUTERS

That special July day in 2001, the few present at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground were lapping up every minute of his stay in the middle. "He does bat like Sachin," said someone in the press box, and one has been hearing that often.

That knock at the SSC, a ground steeped in cricketing history, marked a remarkable turnaround in Sehwag's career. The point to note here is that when he opened in Sri Lanka, 2001, Sehwag was stepping into Sachin Tendulkar's huge shoes, and yet that did not affect him psychologically.

Then, during the ODI series against England early this year, when Sehwag actually received an opportunity to open with Tendulkar, his idol, he made it an occasion to remember, destroying the English bowling, setting up Indian wins.

He is a match-winner and whenever he crosses fifty or more, India invariably wins. The point is Sehwag gets his runs so quickly, that even if India suffers a mini-collapse, the run-rate would still be healthy, due to the opener's early pounding of the bowlers. That's the advantage of possessing an attacking opener.

In India's case, it has two of them and Sourav Ganguly's exploits with the willow in the ODIs are too well known. He can clear the ground with effortless ease, and anything short or wide on the off-stump is sent racing to the pickets by him. And of late, he has been pulling well too.

To dwell on Tendulkar's exploits as an ODI opener would require a separate piece and it will be fair enough to say that he has sacrificed his opening slot, at least for the time being, in the interests of the team.

Gibbs is also someone who loves to seize the initiative from the bowlers. Gibbs had a rough initiation into Test cricket but that has strengthened his resolve.

He is a blithe spirit and his batting reflects his cavalier attitude.

Among the South African batsmen, none uses his feet better than Gibbs and he does get into position quickly for the aggressive stroke; he plays the drive fluently in the arc between point and mid-off, has a pleasing on-drive, too and uses the lofted blows to good effect.

His association with the experienced Gary Kirsten at the top of the order served South Africa well, with their contrasting batting styles complementing each other. Now, with Kirsten in the evening of his career, no longer able to find a regular place in the ODIs, Gibbs could form an effective partnership with southpaw Graeme Smith.

Gibbs doesn't mind living dangerously and there have been times when he has walked down the track to the pace bowlers before giving them the thump. Yet, he is perfectly capable of producing authentic strokes, that comprise a majority of his runs.

Gibbs' successive hundreds in the Champions Trophy, against Kenya and India, were efforts where his ability to provide the innings the thrust came to the fore. And after he retired hurt due to cramps against India, the Proteas realised how difficult stroke production was going to be on a slow Premadasa Stadium wicket. Earlier, Gibbs had made it appear so easy, cutting the Indian attack to ribbons. When he departed, the Indians came back into the contest, and nothing illustrates his value to the side more.

The Aussies do not depend on a single match-winner at the top of the order - it has two of them, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. This left-handed gale force can blow away most attacks.

Gilchrist's greatest asset is his eye, enabling him to pick the line of the delivery a shade quicker than most and he is in position for the attacking blow in a flash. And he is so ruthless that anything short or wide is pulled or cut, and the overpitched ones driven unerringly. In other words, he does the simple things right.

When the 31-year-old Aussie vice-captain walks into the middle, his mindset is to attack; and he is someone who doesn't let negative thoughts to cloud his style of play. He is forever looking to force the bowler into changing his line, getting him to bowl to his strengths.

On occasions he does more than that and slams the perfectly good deliveries to the fence, going on to his back-foot to shorten the length, hitting through the line or on the rise, or taking a calculated risk by giving the bowler the charge. While facing the spinners, he is a good sweeper of the ball.

So dangerous is he, that a captain often struggles to set a field for him; he can despatch the ball to any corner of the ground, either taking the aerial route or hitting all along the ground.

When he is around, there is seldom a dull moment, and in some respects, he has revolutionised batting in one-day cricket. Considering that he also performs the demanding role of a wicket-keeper, Gilchrist is a truly remarkable cricketer.

His opening partner Matthew Hayden is out of the ordinary. A powerful man with strong arms and shoulders, Hayden can put to the sword the most threatening of attacks.

The 31-year-old Queenslander has also displayed enormous courage and fortitude in fighting his way back into the Australian side, and then turning in headline grabbing performances.

He made his international debut way back in '93, and survived a phase when many ruled him out. Hayden continued to believe in himself and there was reward for all his hard work when he managed a massive career turnaround with that outstanding tour of India in 2001. So good was his form, that, Hayden, originally not a part of the Australian ODI line-up, was retained for the one-dayers that followed a dramatic Test series.

Such a clean striker, the bat meeting the ball from a high back-lift, Hayden was bound to succeed in both forms of the game. He came up with a match-winning hand in the decisive ODI of the series in Goa, but had to bide his time before Mark Waugh was finally eased out by the Australian selectors.

Hayden has now struck a fine partnership with Gilchirst, and the two Australians are remarkably similar batsmen; both relish the pull, the cut, the sweep, and the lofted hits. It's bad news for the bowlers of the world though!

It's a similar story for the bowlers when Jayasuriya strikes form. His has been an amazing story of a lower-order batsman - he was essentially a left-arm spinner when he first played for Lanka - whose talent was spotted by a shrewd captain in Arjuna Ranatunga... and the rest is history.

Jayasuriya was promoted as Lanka's opener and the cricketing world discovered an explosive batsman. The Lankan captain is different from the rest of the batsmen in the sense that he requires less room than the others for the cut and the pull strokes. His is more of a short-arm jab, with the left-hander creating room before putting the deliveries away.

Jayasuriya is a resilient cricketer who can bounce back from career threatening slumps in form or injuries. His aggressive hundred against Pakistan in the inaugural contest of the Champions Trophy is a case in point; he was not fully fit from a dislocated shoulder, but volunteered to play for the team. Captain Courageous did not let the side down either.

These magnificent openers; they often open the door to success. They are on top at the top of the order.