'Aggressive opener in Australia a must'
On Tuesday, the Indian selectors are likely to pick the squad for the four-Test series in Australia. The first question they would need to resolve is: who are the three first-choice openers? M Vijay is an automatic choice based on his form and solidity during India's tour of England. But there is no straightforward answer on who should walk in with him in Australia and even after the series. Should Shikhar Dhawan, despite his failures to adapt technically in England, be given the long rope? Or should the selectors turn the clock back and go with the experience of either Gautam Gambhir or Virender Sehwag? Or should they take a bold step and instill a fresh face in the form of Karnataka's KL Rahul, the best domestic opener in the last year? ESPNcricinfo asked three experts: WV Raman (former Test opener), Pravin Amre (former India batsman and a successful domestic coach, currently with Mumbai) and Surendra Bhave (former national selector) to list and expand on their choices.
Who are your first-choice openers?
WV Raman: M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan obviously would come first. KL Rahul based on current form and as somebody who has made a real mark for himself in the last year or so. Then there is Gautam Gambhir, someone who is trying to fight and stay on the radar. Those are the four you would be currently looking at because you would ideally go on current form.
Of these four, Vijay would be part of my first choice. Then Dhawan, because it is always an advantage to have a left-hander at the top of the order. He also complements Vijay, who has shown he can grind the bowling attack. Dhawan, meanwhile, likes to play his shots. They are similar in their approach to the previous pairing of Virender Sehwag and Gambhir.
Surendra Bhave: Viru [Sehwag] has to feature as one of the three openers, I strongly feel. During the IPL, he was in unbelievable touch. He really looked good and it would be important for him to perform in the Vijay Hazare trophy (domestic one-dayers). Shikhar failed badly in England so whether the selectors would go for a guy who is young, dynamic and keeps scoring runs in ODIs remains to be seen. My first-choice opener is Vijay. He is absolutely on the top. So my favourites are Vijay, Viru and Shikhar. An aggressive opener in Australia is a must.
Pravin Amre: The way Vijay has played in England, he is an automatic choice. In terms of temperament, he is in the best place. There will be some question marks over Shikhar based on his stint in England, but you cannot forget his form in the previous Test series in India.
What about the third opener?
Raman: It depends on what the selectors actually are looking for. The present selection panel has shown, on quite a few occasions, that they are looking ahead even though they did pick Gambhir for the England tour. With Rahul piling pressure with runs in a big final like the Duleep Trophy, he is a strong contender. It will be a contest between Rahul and Gambhir because they have hit centuries in the Duleep Trophy.
In Gambhir's case, he was unfortunate as the rub of the green did not go his way in England. It is not easy for someone to comeback after a two-year lay-off and straightaway hit the straps. Also [in the two Tests he played against England] he was not getting a start and then getting out, he was quickly getting out. So in such a scenario it is difficult to assess what he can and cannot offer. But if you are talking about a tough tour, then you would consider Gambhir's mental toughness and experience into account. In the event that one of Vijay or Dhawan fails, what do you do? Do you include a fresh opener?
Now it remains to be seen whether the selectors go for experience, since it will be a long and tough tour of Australia, or whether they will opt for somebody who is young and in good form. The eventual decision would depend on which direction the selectors want to go.
Amre: I don't think the selectors and team management would be interested in shuffling Ajinkya Rahane's number in the batting order. He has the potential to play the new ball. But, at his current position in the middle order, he has played a crucial role when the second new ball comes around and has proved recently that he can shepherd the lower order and that is a vital role. So as a worst-case scenario, he can be factored in. Otherwise, Rahul could be a frontrunner. His century in each innings in the Duleep Trophy final, along with his performance in the last domestic season where he was a crucial element in Karnataka winning a treble as well as his finish of more than 1000 runs, puts him in a good position.
Bhave: If the selectors pick Viru as the second opener, then Shikhar is my third choice. But, in Test cricket, he is not a finished product. He is not a batsman who plays with soft hands and that landed him in trouble in England. But, on Australian pitches, it might possibly work. He has also got runs against Australia, even if it was in Mohali, in his debut Test. He is a player, just like Viru, who has the ability to have an impact immediately.
Is it time to groom someone young and new?
Amre: There are two: Rahul and Robin Uthappa. Robin, I mention not just because we have been working together for two years now. His century at Lahli in the Duleep Trophy semi-final was a good indication of his mental strength. He has shown controlled aggression in his batting in the recent past. Take Lahli, which was a challenging pitch. The opposition (East Zone) was out twice for below 100 whereas he scored 120 in the first innings. But for him to make the Test team as an opener I still feel it will depend on how he finishes the forthcoming Ranji Trophy.
The mindset of the selectors and the team think-tank remains to be seen. So many times they have shown they would like to play safe, especially in Australia, where they have backed experience rather than including a new talent in the past. But, in England, the same did not work in the case of Gambhir. I feel this is a perfect time to groom a new talent.
Raman: It is a tough call.
Is it end of the road for Sehwag and Gambhir?
Raman: It does look very slim for Sehwag to be considered. The selectors have not considered him for more than a year now. So if they do pick him, they would need to explain clearly what made them go for Sehwag.
Bhave: As I said, Viru is one of my three first-choice openers. He might have batted in the middle-order last year for Delhi but that does not really matter as he had even told the selection panel I was part of that he wanted to finish his career as a middle-order batsman. Given the circumstances right now, you need a compact batsman at one end and Vijay, a traditional opener, provides that solidity. Complementing him at the other end, I feel, should be Viru. He has been a game-changer and game-breaker in any form of cricket. His form his excellent: it is not only the big-bang shots he played in the IPL, he was scoring runs for fun. He was absolutely in total command. He has had his rough phase where lack of form and the eyesight put his position in doubt but the times he gave dazzling starts, India have won many of those matches.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo