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Age inevitably slows down hand-eye co-ordination; high-risk batting and consistency are mutually exclusive on testing pitches; proactive decision making with the future kept in mind is the need of the hour. These are some of the many rather sound arguments being made in favour of Virender Sehwag dropping down the batting order in Test cricket. Pragmatic as it may sound, is it the most productive decision for the Indian team and for Sehwag himself? I'm not convinced it is. There are a few reasons why Sehwag partnering Gambhir at the top of the order remains the best option for India.
Firstly, a move down the order is not directly proportional to a fertile yield of runs in Sehwag's case. The swinging ball did trouble him in England but he did enter that series with one shoulder and one eye. Over the course of his career, Sehwag hasn't displayed a significant vulnerability against the new swinging red ball. He either compensates for the swing with his superhuman hand-eye coordination or compels the bowlers to stray from the fourth stump line.
As a matter of fact, he relishes the hard new ball coming on to his bat. Hence, protecting him from the swinging ball is not a dire necessity. In other words, if Sehwag bats at 4 or 5, it'd be unwise to expect his average to suddenly skyrocket.
Secondly, it's not very often that Sehwag gets dismissed for ducks or scores below 10 - 15. When he comes off, he has an impressive conversion rate. But, even when he doesn't he often gets quickfire 30s and 40s. The value of these knocks is perennially downgraded and the thing most remembered in such innings is his atrocious modes of dismissals. But, the fact that he consistently propels his team to starts of 60/1 - 70/1 goes unheralded. Home and away, a decent platform for the No. 3 batsman to walk in will never be a meager contribution.
The crucial aspect here is that he provides such starts in innings that are regarded as failures. How often do we get to see a batsman who makes a vital contribution to the team in failure? Conversely, a quickfire 30 from a No. 4 batsman fails to have nearly the same kind of effect as it does when it comes at the top. Assuming that Sehwag will bat at No.4 the same way he does at No.1, his bursts of strokeplay will cease to have the same value they currently possess.
On a contemplative note, does Sehwag really intend to be a middle-order batsman? "It's tough opening the innings after fielding for a day". These were his words when once interviewed after a tiring day of Test cricket. Fitness has never been Sehwag's forte. The generous waistline and leisurely running between the wickets indicate a general disregard to the importance of fitness. The question however is - Does Sehwag want to be a middle-order batsman because he believes he will find more success there or does he want to demote himself down the order because he thinks it'll be more comfortable? I suspect that the latter is the answer and the latter is just not good enough a reason for the balance of the team to be altered.
Finally, is there a better replacement available? Murali Vijay came, Murali Vijay went. Abhinav Mukund arrived, Abhinav Mukund faded away. Neither managed to leave a lasting impression. Ajinkya Rahane is waiting in the wings. To his credit, he does have an enviable domestic record to back him. But neither is he as battle hardened in the shorter formats as Virat Kohli nor has he grabbed international opportunities as desperately as Cheteshwar Pujara. Moreover, he's been batting No. 3 for Mumbai in the previous few Ranji seasons. The current "wait and watch" approach the team management is using with Rahane seems appropriate, not unjust.
Rahane aside, there is not a single opener knocking on the selector's doors. So, is there really a better alternative? Be it the following eight Tests against England and Australia or be it South Africa 2013, Sehwag in my opinion should continue opening the innings for as long as he continues to play Test cricket.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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