The opening gambit with a mailed fist!

Dwayne Smith and Brendon McCullum have kept Chennai as the Super Kings.-PTI

The Twenty20 format allows batsmen, the openers especially, to indulge themselves. Vijay Lokapally focusses on the subject.

They are expected to make the early impact. The openers, in any format of the game, carry a huge load of expectations, a burden mostly, as they make the early assessment, decimating the opposition or perishing in the process. But they are always under scrutiny. Technique becomes paramount in the longer format of the game, but the shortest version, the Twenty20, allows batsmen, the openers especially, to indulge themselves.

With the focus on a blistering start, it becomes imperative for the openers to get into the act without the benefit of the luxury of settling down. There is enormous pressure. The team dugout anxiously awaits a sound beginning that can galvanise the batting order. The frequent changes in the order are often dictated by the situation in the middle. For someone like Glenn Maxwell, the 25-year-old tormentor at the crease, it makes no difference. He can destroy the opposition at any stage of the innings.

Maxwell’s success is linked to his temperament. He does not fear losing his wicket and that propels him into a position of strength even as he faces his first ball. It is this trait that also marks the batting style of Dwayne Smith, Brendon McCullum, Robin Uthappa, Gautam Gambhir and Ajinkya Rahane, all opening batsmen with an exceptional skill to crack the first ball they face to the boundary.

These batsmen have made an impact in IPL 2014 mainly because of their desire to attack. True, they have little option, but it is the range of shots they employ that gives them the exalted stature in their respective teams. For someone like Gambhir, it comes naturally and his three half-centuries in-a-row happened when he began to enjoy his batting — perhaps after a little chat with Sourav Ganguly when the former India captain advised him to focus more on his batting than be dragged down by the problems that come along with captaincy. Gambhir takes his captaincy seriously, but he rightly also ruled out IPL as a platform for a comeback into the Indian team.

With regard to the abovementioned openers’ batting in T20, Smith loves to explore, McCullum is at ease against any attack, Uthappa believes in attacking right through, Rahane manages to raise his game and Gambhir looks for challenging situations. The common factor is the opening slot, the freedom it gives them to employ their natural flair and not worry about adapting. In any case, T20 hardly allows a batsman to give himself much time to settle.

Smith has been an integral part of Chennai Super Kings’ strategy in this IPL edition. It was surprising that Mumbai Indians let go of this brilliant batsman from Barbados. He was third in the list of run-getters behind Kieron Pollard and Rohit Sharma for MI last season, but John Wright and Co. did not deem it fit to retain him. And this when Smith himself has placed on record the positive contribution of Mumbai Indians’ assistant coach Robin Singh to his batting. It was Chennai’s gain as Smith has proved with his innovative style. The Caribbean flavour is distinctly visible as Smith goes about his job and justifies the faith that the great Viv Richards has in this dashing batsman.

Coach Paddy Upton discusses a vital point witha Ajinkya Rahane. The Mumbaikar is performing royally for Rajasthan.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

At the end of 10 matches, Smith’s aggregate stood at 440 with five half-centuries. His best was the impactful 58 against Mumbai Indians, a knock that saw the 31-year-old West Indian concentrate hard. “Smith batted more patiently than usual, recognising his strong areas, and capitalising on them,” was CSK skipper M. S. Dhoni’s evaluation. It was this component of Smith’s batting that has helped CSK maintain its strong march to the playoff.

For McCullum, nothing comes easier than making a mockery of the bowling. The sight of this Kiwi taking guard, surveying the field and instantly taking charge makes batting a spectacle. Who can forget his awesome assault against Royal Challengers Bangalore at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in the opening match of the inaugural IPL in 2008? McCullum smashed an unbeaten 158 off 73 balls to launch the tournament in the best possible style. The trend that he set on that wonderful evening has not diminished even though there have been instances of half empty galleries at some of the venues in 2014. McCullum brings rare aggression to the middle, with an approach that does not throw caution to the winds. He is quick to pick his bowlers and go after them with disdain.

Rahane, 25, is in the McCullum mould but not so dominating. Rated high as a batsman with a future in Test cricket, this Mumbai batsman has believed in looking to milk the bowlers without sacrificing his intent to play shots correctly. The highlight of Rahane’s batting is his ability to produce cricketing strokes even in the shortest format, the drives and cuts played with control embellishing his style. He has been the mainstay of Rajasthan Royals for some time now.

Virender Sehwag, out of favour for a national slot, is easily the best on whom you can repose faith even when he is not in form. His 14th position in the list, one place ahead of Gambhir, may not be the best reflection of his contribution, but Kings XI Punjab realises his worth. Sehwag has six scores of 30 plus and they do count in the T20 format. A pity, Delhi Daredevils did not retain him and obviously it regrets the decision.

For Uthappa, coming off a successful Ranji season, the emphasis has always been on scoring briskly. He is a busy man at the crease even though his personal coach Pravin Amre insists that this Karnataka opener is yet to play to his potential. Uthappa sets immediate goals and aiming for consistency is what dominates his mind. The move to Kolkata Knight Riders has proved beneficial and the dashing opener has readily acknowledged Gambhir’s influence. Uthappa has also curtailed his walking-down-the-pitch aggression. “He has learnt to put value to his wicket,” says Amre, who has worked hard on Uthappa’s technique. A good technical approach can be a deciding factor even in T20 where batsmen are not punished by the team management even when they get out playing some fancy strokes.

The left-handed Gambhir has made some strides in this period, his most difficult cricketing phase. The exclusion from the national team has hurt this Delhi opener immensely and also led to some serious introspection.

Runs eluded him in the first-class season and he began IPL 7 nightmarishly, with three zeroes on the trot. Then, the three half-centuries in a row have brought the smiles back to the normally reticent Gambhir. He has learnt to plan his attacks and, like McCullum, pick his bowlers. The 32-year-old Gambhir’s strong off-side play also gives him the advantage to exploit the field. The fact that he is not afraid of losing his wicket makes Gambhir the batsman to fear.

Some of the bowlers have learnt it the hard way.

With the crucial phase round the corner, these openers will have a greater role to play. How they decimate the bowlers at the beginning of their innings would be the key.