Batting July 17, 2010

Dashing openers - A priceless tribe

From S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, India

From S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath, India

Roy Fredericks packed enormous angst in his shots Hulton/Archive / © Getty Images

Indians of our generation grew up listening to tales of Mushtaq Ali, the cavalier opening batsman of the 1930s and 40s. Forty years later, when Kris Srikkanth made it to the Indian team, Mushtaq was remembered. When Virender Sehwag began blazing away, Mushtaq was still being remembered. The allure of the dasher as a Test match opener is simply eternal.

Should not the Test opener play sensibly, see off the new ball, take the spite out of the wicket, tire the fast bowlers, and set up a platform for the batsmen to follow? Not for the dashing opener! Seventy for no loss at lunch may be alright for normal openers but for the dasher, it is better to be 123 for 1 at lunch! He stirs the senses like nobody else can. And that alone is reason enough to celebrate this priceless gift to cricket.

The vision is intoxicating; of a knight on a steed, rapier in hand, cutting a swathe for the batsmen to follow. The pitch might be green, the ball swinging prodigiously or bouncing sharply. But these blithe spirits - they see the ball, their eyes light up and they go for it. Audacity, instinct, hand-eye coordination certainly but most important, technique is their servant and not the other way round. Because they bring off outrageous shots, people tend to think they have a loose technique. Far from it. Sehwag brings down his bat as straight as any “technically sound batsman”. The dasher often fails because he chooses to attack a ball that should not have been so belligerently addressed. Their very vulnerability adds to their irresistible charm.

Here is our list of the glory buccaneers among Test openers. Our list begins with Victor Trumper, the first and most endearing of these wonderful batsmen and ends with Sehwag, the greatest torchbearer of the tribe. The rest is in random order. Figures against the names pertain only to those Tests they played as opening batsmen.

1. Victor Trumper: 1901-12; 32 tests; 1650 runs; average: 33

This is written in sheer yearning for Trumper, who played his cricket 100 years ago. Our school boy impressions are from the stories of Trumper by Cardus, Fingleton and Robinson. The pictures that accompanied the prose always showed Trumper jumping out of his crease, and finishing a straight hit. Trumper was one in a million. Take your pick from these glorious run-a-minute centuries: Against England: in Manchester, 1902, 104 runs in just 115 minutes; Sydney in 1908, 166 runs in 241 minutes; Against South Africa: Melbourne in 1910, 159 runs off 158 balls and then 214 off 247 balls in Adelaide in the same series. Trumper died tragically young at 38.

2. Kris Srikkanth: 1981- 92; 43 Tests, 2062 runs, average 29.88

In January 1986, on the first morning of the Sydney Test, the authors left home around 7am for a nets session in preparation for a city tournament. Srikkanth was 27 not out when we set off. By 7.30am when we reached the ground, Srikkanth was 10 runs away from his century. The man had gone berserk. His fans will feel cheated if we do not mention how he belted Imran Khan and company out of Chepauk in January 1987, hitting 123 runs of just 147 balls. He had many bumbling dismissals but his square drive on a bent knee off Andy Roberts was the shot of the 1983 World Cup.

3. Farokh Engineer: 1965-1975; 26 Tests; 1577 runs; average 32.85.

For thousands of cricket-crazy spectators in Chennai, on the first morning of the Test match against West Indies in January 1967, it was excruciating to watch Dilip Sardesai sedately play out all six balls of the last over before lunch. It prevented Engineer from recording a century before the break. Engineer had already hit 97 runs that morning against Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs, an innings that even now gives goose-bumps. He was the “Suicide pilot” opener for Lancashire in their Gillette cup matches.

4. Budhi Kunderan: 1960-67; 12 Tests; 782 runs; average: 41.15

In his second test, some mastermind promoted him to open for India against Alan Davidson and Ian Meckiff in Chennai. The first over he faced went for 14 runs - four hits and two misses. Kunderan continued in the same vein to score 71. Called in to replace the injured Engineer for the 1964 Test match in Chennai against England, he blasted nearly 200 runs on the opening day. There was minimum movement of feet, amazing hand-eye coordination and a flashing blade.

5. Colin Milburn: 1966-69; 7 Tests; 500 runs; average: 41.66

There was a rare cheerfulness to English batting during Milburn’s days, a combination of his bulk and attacking style. Given his build, Milburn sensibly preferred boundaries to running his singles. England may have lost the Old Trafford Test to West Indies in 1966, but Milburn, with a belligerent 94, made sure the ship went down with guns blazing. His stop-start Test career ended when he lost an eye in a car crash.

6. Roy Fredericks: 1968 – 77; 58 Tests, 4329 runs, average: 42.86

An abiding memory of the winter break in December 1975 was listening to the peerless Mcgilvray over radio bring alive Fredericks’ incandescent innings in Perth against Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Gary Gilmour and Max Walker. A small-made man, Fredericks packed enormous angst in his shots. His 169 runs of just 144 balls with 27 fours was sheer violence.

7. Shahid Afridi: 1998-2005; 15 Tests; 892 runs; average: 37.16.

In at least three Tests against India in India, Afridi opened the Pakistan innings at a blistering pace. Two (Chennai 1999 and Bangalore 2005) of those set up the platform for Pakistan wins. Although he stopped opening for Pakistan and became even more erratic down the order, Afridi is clearly the most bludgeoning batsman to ever open for Pakistan. The fact that his strike rate as a Test opener is over 86 runs per 100 balls says it all.

8. Keith Stackpole: 1969-74; 33 Tests, 2390 runs; average: 40.5

Stackpole became an opening batsman for Australia only after a few years in the middle order. But once he became the dour Bill Lawry’s opening partner he opened up great options for Australia. An attacking captain like Ian Chappell relished a belligerent opener who took the attack to opposing bowlers. On his only tour to India in 1969, he carved a century at the Brabourne Stadium but was rather quiet by his standards in the other matches.

9. Charlie Barnett: 1934-38; 12 Tests; 793 runs. average: 39.65

A prolific county player, Barnett is best remembered for his knock of 126 in the Nottingham Test against Australia when he narrowly missed a century before lunch. Barnett was a punishing batsman feared for his ferocious cuts and scorching drives played on the up. In many a county game, he hit the first ball he faced for six.

10. Virender Sehwag: 71 Tests; 6312 runs; average: 54.88

There has never been an opener like him and it is difficult to think there will be another in a lifetime. The stats are astounding: 19 centuries, of which two are triple centuries, four are double centuries and most are big centuries. His average of 54.88 is only below illustrious, classical openers like Jack Hobbs, Bert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton and above other all time greats. Add to that the number of wins he has set up through his explosive opening. To achieve such amazingly high yields at a strike rate of 80.87 puts him at a peak that nobody has scaled. His recent centuries have only got faster! Has anybody thrilled our senses like him?

And there are still Sanath Jayasuriya, Chris Gayle, Michael Slater, Mushtaq Ali, Matthew Hayden and many others to write about. Young Tamim Iqbal of Bangladesh is starting to put together rapid-fire centuries that may see him join this pantheon. But we must halt somewhere. Maybe another time and another place we will do justice to the other trailblazers.