The ‘Opener’s Dilemma’ in Indian Cricket
If we look back at the history of the game of cricket, any team which has dominated a particular era have had one thing in common - they boasted of a very formidable opening pair. Be it Greenidge and Haynes for the West Indies in the 70s or Hayden and Langer for the Aussies in the first half of the last decade, these redoubtable opening pairs played a major role in the success of their team.
The same is true to a certain extent for the Indian opening pair of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, whose contribution was significant in the team attaining the numero uno spot in Tests last year.
After being pummelled in two away series by England and Australia, the Indian team now finds itself at number five in Test rankings. A major reason for their decline is the dismal form of the openers. Gambhir and Sehwag’s failure to perform individually and to provide decent starts to the team is best highlighted by the fact that the last time they shared a century partnership was way back in December 2010.
Indian cricket likes to live in a state of blissful oblivion where discomforting issues are camouflaged by claims of inconsequential success. The BCCI will never address the issue of a series of poor performances on foreign soil but will boast about the success of the IPL and the opportunity it provides to emerging players to compete with the best in the business. Amidst the hullabaloo over the team’s limited success in the shortest and the shorter format of the game, a few very significant issues are escaping the attention of the cricket administrators.
One issue which demands immediate thinking, planning and action is the future of Gambhir and Sehwag as openers in all three formats of the game. The Sehwag-Gambhir opening pair has failed to provide decent starts to the team in recent times. They will in all probability be retained for the home series against England. They may even manage a few decent knocks against the English attack in Indian pitches, but that will not do Indian cricket any good in the long run. Gambhir, although a very good player of spin bowling, looks vulnerable against the quality pace bowlers, especially on foreign soil.
Dhoni did take a step in the right direction by dropping Sehwag in a couple of matches in recent times but public opinion and media scrutiny compelled him to play it safe by including him in the following matches. India will need to win Tests in away series to regain the number one spot in Test cricket, something which they lost to the English team last year. Also since the next World Cup is slated to be played in Australia, it would be wiser to use the upcoming home series against England and Australia to build a team that would have the technical skills to put up a fight in foreign conditions.
The selection committee, the coach and the captain should sit together and discuss the options available and probably try somebody like Ajinkya Rahane in the home series before the tough test waiting in South Africa. Short term solutions like asking Yuvraj Singh to open will not be beneficial for Indian cricket.
Opening is a specialist position and specialists should be deployed to guard the fortress and lead the attack against the opposition. A perfect example would be Aakash Chopra who was brought in to the side to counter the then mighty Aussie attack in 2003-2004. Although he did not manage to score big runs he did the job of seeing off the new ball to perfection. Technical prowess is a must for an opener to survive and succeed especially in foreign conditions. Our very own Sunil Gavaskar would be a perfect example of this characteristic.
Indian batsmen have always been susceptible to short balls in the pacey and bouncy wickets of Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand. However the irritating part is that they have not improved on this aspect of their game and this weakness is exploited by every team even to this day. A champion team needs to compete and triumph in all parts of the world and not just in their own backyard. The Indian team was thrashed 4-0 in their last two series in England and Australia and it is high time that remedial measures be taken to avoid such embarrassments in the future.
There are no shortcuts to success in the Test arena and India would do best to bring about some drastic changes in the way the game is managed in the country. Preparing some fast and bouncy wickets at home would be a better option than primitive methods like practising with a tennis ball. The board could also encourage promising players to participate in foreign domestic leagues rather than asking them to play the IPL which destroys all the characteristics required for success in Tests.