Seeking stability at the top

Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan forged a significant opening alliance (3010 runs in 59 Test innings, ave. 53.75) and the duo scripted many a great escape act for India in the 70s and early 80s. -- Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY-Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan forged a significant opening alliance (3010 runs in 59 Test innings, ave. 53.75) and the duo scripted many a great escape act for India in the 70s and early 80s. -- Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Ironies never cease in cricket. How else will you explain the absence of a stable opening combination in a country that has produced the most successful Test opener in the game's history and holds the record for the highest Test opening partnership, asks S. DINAKAR.

WHEN Akash Chopra took guard in the first Test against New Zealand at Motera it marked yet another new episode in the great India search for a durable opening pair. A quest that has often proved elusive.

Ironies never cease in cricket. How else will you explain the absence of a stable opening combination in a country that has produced the most successful Test opener in the game's history and holds the record for the highest Test opening partnership?

Master batsman Sunil Gavaskar carved out a masterpiece in his final Test innings, a 96 against Pakistan on a minefield of a pitch in Bangalore, 1986-87, and India has subsequently struggled to put a reliable pair in place.

Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put on a phenomenal 413 runs in the Chennai Test of 1955-56 at the expense of the Kiwi attack, an effort that has stood the test of time.

With his technical purity, unflappable temperament, a fondness for the big stage and that ability to patiently construct an innings under all conditions, Gavaskar was a marvel. His formidable Test record as an opener (9607 runs in 119 matches at 50.30, 33 hundreds) reflects his standing among the legends of the game.

Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put on a phenomenal 413 runs in the Chennai Test of 1955-56 at the expense of the Kiwi attack, an effort that has stood the test of time. --_ Pic. THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY-

Gavaskar and the gutsy Chetan Chauhan forged a significant opening alliance (3010 runs in 59 Test innings, ave. 53.75), the latter making up for shortcomings in technique through his `never-say-die' ways at the crease. Whether withstanding the fire and fury of Imran Khan & Co in Pakistan or the pace and thunder of Dennis Lillee and friends in Australia, this partnership scripted many a great escape act for India in the 70s and the early 80s.

After the departure of Chauhan, Gavaskar formed partnerships with the dogged Aunshuman Gaekwad (1722 in 49 innings at 35.88) and the dashing Krishnamachari Srikkanth (1469 runs in 34 innings at 43.21). However, it has been a rough ride for the Indian openers since the little big man from Mumbai drifted into the golden sunset.

There have been some good openers during this period though, the foremost among them being Navjot Singh Sidhu (2911 runs in 45 matches at 42.81 as opener) and Ravi Shastri (1101 runs in 17 Tests at 44.04). Importantly, both were sound backfoot players against pace, the key really to survival on seaming wickets with bounce.

Sadly, Shastri's knee injury came in the way of him and Sidhu forging what might have turned into an immensely successful partnership when the Sardar made a comeback into the Indian side in 1992-93.

Openers have come and gone, several non-specialists among them. Some boasting of impressive Test records at home too, only to be blown away, away from the sub-continent. A sad state of affairs.

Over the last five years, there has been only one relatively stable specialist combination - Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das - with a fair record (836 runs in 19 innings at 44.00). -- Pic. N. BALAJI-

As the demanding Australian campaign looms, where there is an urgent need to prevent Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee from rocking the boat early, a dependable pair of specialist openers is a must.

Delhi's Akash Chopra, a compact batsman with no frills about his batting, has made a reasonable start to his international career with a 42 in his first Test innings in Ahmedabad, and Sadagopan Ramesh, who has a fair record (1367 in 19 matches at 37.97), waits in the wings. These are the two front-runners for the specialist opening berths for the Australian tour, with the team management having the option to use Virender Sehwag in the middle-order.

There are other serious contenders such as Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer, Railways' Sanjay Bangar and the man spoken of highly not too long ago — Shiv Sundar Das (1326 runs in 23 Tests at 34.89). Though he has gone off the boil lately, Das is more right than wrong technically. Jaffer can be solid off the back-foot and Bangar, a tenacious customer, has a creditable 68 to his credit on a seaming Headingley wicket under overcast conditions.

The need of the hour is men with the right approach, attitude and mindset of the openers. These are the slots where a limited cricketer, but one with strong fundamentals, can score over a flamboyant customer.

The selectors do have their job cut out. Meanwhile, we can glimpse at some of the factors that make specialist openers so vital to a side and why India has struggled to unearth a reliable pair.

The importance of openers in a side of stroke-makers: In the Indian context, the role of the openers is absolutely vital. The Indian line-up is one of glittering shotmakers and it is essential that the openers blunt the threat from the new ball.

There might have been a complete reversal of the 0-2 verdict in the two-Test series in New Zealand last season, had the openers hung on in the opening session of the first Test at Wellington. There was considerable seam movement and bounce for the pacemen. However, survival was not impossible. It called for application and a certain degree of skill when the pacemen probed in the corridor.

Instead, Sehwag and Bangar departed for next to nothing and the middle-order was exposed in the early stages of the contest. The natural strokemakers in the middle-order were always going to be vulnerable when the ball jagged around.

This is also a scenario that puts considerable pressure on Rahul Dravid at No. 3. He has a game that is tight. However, having to surface so early affects his fluency.

Opening is a specialist job — a fact often forgotten: The openers have to be specialists. A selection panel that dismisses this theory ultimately pays the price. If a middle-order batsman has to be accommodated, put him at the top of the order, appears to be the thinking in India. V. V. S. Laxman may have a Test hundred in Australia as an opener, but given his tendency to drive and push away from his body, he never really had a long-term future in that role.

To accommodate a quality middle-order batsman in the XI, the bigger picture is overlooked. The point is, by thrusting a Laxman or a Sehwag into performing the job of an opener, the men who matter are jeopardising the careers of these very batsmen, their immediate success in the role notwithstanding. Sehwag has a Test century in England as an opener. However, he is not the kind of batsman who would inspire confidence when there is juice in the pitch. The dressing room is bound to be on tenterhooks.

It was the team-management's admission of this fact when Sehwag was dropped down the order during the second innings of the Hamilton Test late last year. The belligerent batsman had a wretched time against deliveries climbing into him until that point in the series and it was the young Parthiv Patel, a compact left-hander whose batting abilities are vastly under-rated, who took his slot in the second innings.

As the Indian team prepares for the gruelling Australian tour, the message that came out so strongly at Hamilton cannot be lost. Specialist openers are a must.

Irrespective of how he performs at home, Sehwag's rightful place is in the middle-order. It is also important that as and when a pair of specialist openers is forged, it is provided with a decent run.

Compromises for the sake of balance of the side: The selectors and the team-management have often taken short cuts to achieve balance in the side. This has proved detrimental to the team in the long run.

That a home series is often the ideal platform to prepare openers for the bigger challenges on the away soil has been ignored on numerous occasions. It would be unfair to assume that the openers could deliver straightaway on green, hard, bouncy surfaces when given the chance. That would defy logic.

For instance, a Nayan Mongia walking out at the start of the innings for India in the mid-90s, apart from sending the wrong signals, ensured that a specialist opener would miss out on this grooming process.

And why was Mongia opening in the first place? It was because an extra spinner could be fitted in to enable India conquer at home. From 1992-93 to 1996-97 when the Indian juggernaut rolled on spinner friendly tracks, Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and either Rajesh Chauhan or Aashish Kapoor, had their adversaries in a tangle.

The additional spinner might have helped for the moment, but having a non-specialist at the top of the order hurt India on a long-term basis. Openers are not like ripe fruits, which could be plucked from the trees. They have to be prepared, both mentally and technically.

Then again, we go back to the real issue of the lack of genuine all-rounders, forcing the men who matter to sacrifice a specialist opener. It is a vicious cycle.

The nature of pitches in the country: They are either placid or spinner-friendly and have had an adverse impact on all aspects of the National team's cricket. However, the opening and the pace bowling departments have been the hardest hit.

An opener who has learnt his trade on wickets loaded with runs, where the ball rarely rises above knee-height, will be hard-pressed to make the adjustment when he travels to Australia or South Africa.

The sad case of Devang Gandhi, who made such a bright beginning to his Test career in the home series against New Zealand in 1999, but was so ruthlessly exposed when pitted against Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee down under, is a case in point.

However, was it entirely Devang's fault that he failed to measure up to the Australian challenge? After all, he had learnt much of his cricket on pitches of a vastly different nature altogether and was unable to come to grips with quicker, bouncier surfaces in time. The opener often becomes the fall guy and it not always due to a lack of ability.

The harder option that looks beyond series victories on tailor-made pitches at home will have to be taken.

It is not so much the individuals as the opening pair: They say pacemen hunt in pairs. The openers do much the same too, complementing, helping each other out in times of duress and difficulty. If the opposition breaches one half of the combination, the damage is done.

Opening the innings is a collective effort and to prevent the enemy from making early inroads, both the ends have to be safeguarded. It is here that it becomes so essential to develop a pair.

However, the Indian selectors have not always thought along similar lines. Over the last five years, there has been only one relatively stable specialist combination — Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das. A left-right duo with a fair record (836 runs in 19 innings at 44.00).

Incidentally, in their last Test together, against Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club Stadium ground, Colombo, in 2001, the two built partnerships of 97 and 107. However, Ramesh soon pulled out of the South African tour with a back injury and Das suffered a serious slump in form during the Caribbean campaign. A successful pairing had met with a premature end.

Limited-overs cricket and its adverse impact: Cricket has remained the same, but the dynamics of the game has changed. The phenomenal growth of the ODIs may have filled the coffers of the Board and the bank accounts of the cricketers. However, there is no denying that it has led to a general decline in technique, with traditional innings building skills going out of the window in some cases.

In the domestic scene, the budding openers have to shuffle between the two forms of cricket and this often stands in the way of them imbibing the sound basics. Delhi left-hander Gautam Gambhir is a promising opener. Yet, if we look at the manner in which he ventures into the drive on occasions, with minimal use of his feet, it becomes evident that Gambhir's game has suffered due to this switching between the two forms of the game.

At the international level, however, India has three outstanding openers for the ODIs, Sachin Tendulkar, skipper Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag, with one of them dropping down according to the demands of the situation.

It paves the way for the Test openers, if two specialists are indeed picked, to concentrate on the longer duration matches, without having the need to change their methods drastically. There is a flip side to this though.

The manner in which the tours are structured these days with a welter of ODIs, and not too many first class games besides Tests, the openers get less time to adapt. Take the case of the tour of New Zealand last season, where the Indians received just one three-day game — against the Central Districts — before the commencement of the two-Test series. The openers are the worst affected in such instances since theirs is the most demanding job among all batsmen and they may have to bat when the wicket and the bowlers are at their freshest.

The specialist Test openers also have to spend considerable time away from team during the ODI tournaments and series and blending with the side becomes a problem. With the more lucrative world of the ODIs receiving increasing attention, there is a real possibility of the Test openers, their appearances being limited, feeling left out and neglected. It is here that the job of the captain and the coach assumes significance.

The `A' tours and the improved scenario: There is intense competition for the opening slots these days, though the true merit of the contenders will only be known in the heat of the `away' battles.

However, the openers are getting to play on various surfaces thanks to the `A' tours that have grown in prominence over the last two years. During this period the India `A' team has visited Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies and England.

Progressing to the rarefied world of international cricket thus represents a lesser challenge technically though mentally it is still a huge ask. If an Akash Chopra has the makings of a sound opener, it is because of exposure to the different tracks and conditions.

The `A' tours are here to stay and this can only have a positive impact on the performances of the Indian openers away from the sub-continent. The selectors have to still get it right though.

The solution to this vexing problem has to be found. Don't they say, well begun is half done?