"The good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision" - Sun Tzu, in The Art of War
Perhaps the finest decision Sourav Ganguly made in his captaincy was to get Virender Sehwag to open the batting for India in Test matches. At that time, against England at Lord's in 2002, it seemed like a short-term tactical move, with Sehwag a makeshift opener at best. Even Sehwag had indicated that he felt more comfortable in the middle order, though he was happy to open if the team required him to. Well, in the 20 months since then, it has gradually become evident that Sehwag is not only suited to open in Tests, but that he may be on his way to becoming one of the finest Test openers India has ever had.
A common view of Sehwag, when he entered Test cricket, was that he was a one-day swashbuckler, who might fit into the lower-middle order in Tests, but was unsuited for the kind of rigour and discipline that opening the batting supposedly needed. Sehwag certainly is no classical opener, but Test cricket, in recent years, has broken away from the traditions of more than a century, and Sehwag has emerged as a batsman ideally suited to the times.
Steve Waugh's Australians have redefined Test cricket as a game of aggression, where momentum always overcomes solidity, where the traditional dichotomy of Attack and Defence is recast into a new paradigm of Attack and Counter-attack. Think of the great opening batsmen of our age: Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs and Michael Vaughan routinely play at a pace that brings them 180-plus runs in a day. Virender Sehwag is a perfect opening batsman for what Test cricket has become today.
The first thing that must be said about Sehwag, expressed by* no less a cricket thinker than Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi two years ago, is that he does have the technique to play the new ball. During his first hundred as an opener at Trent Bridge, and his second at Mumbai, and the 195 he made at Melbourne a couple of months ago, in three different continents against three different kinds of attacks, he saw off the first hour before gradually beginning to play his strokes, and seized the momentum for India emphatically. He did not need to hold himself back today, as Pakistan's bowlers made little impression on a flat and slow pitch, but he did display a knowledge of where his off stump was, letting the ball go a few times, and playing that defensive punch that, while not necessarily Boycottesque, is suitably effective.
Sehwag's record, which includes opening in away series in Australia, England, New Zealand and now Pakistan, is second only to Sunil Gavaskar's in the history of Indian cricket. Including his 228 not out today, Sehwag averages 54 as an opener - ahead of Gavaskar (50.3), Ravi Shastri (44), Navjot Sidhu (42.8) and Vinoo Mankad (40.7), among batsmen who have made at least 1000 runs opening for India. Sehwag has 1407, well short of Gavaskar, but within striking distance of every other Indian opener. He has made five centuries in 16 Tests when opening the batting (including this one), and while statistics may be misleading, the manner of his dominance suggests that Sehwag may well end up as one of India's greatest Test openers. No mere one-day swashbuckler, this man.
Great teams aim for dominance; lesser teams sometimes just have to struggle to survive. While Sehwag represents what India aspire to become, the fact remains that until recently, India often struggled to keep afloat overseas, as their openers let them down repeatedly, exposing the middle order to the new ball. There was a need there, too, and Aakash Chopra stepped up to fill it.
Chopra complements Sehwag perfectly. An opener in the classical mould, he plays the ball late, almost under his nose, and has a minimal backlift that seems to preclude much strokeplay, but serves his purpose perfectly. He plays a compact game, happy not to play anything that he doesn't have to, and his finest shot is leaving the ball outside the off stump (not playing a ball is a way of playing it, so surely that too ought to qualify as a "shot"). His strengths help him fulfil his role in the team perfectly - to see off the new ball - but they turn against him as he reaches the second session, and seems unable to push the pace, or convert his starts. Ironically, the better he fulfils his role, the more redundant it will seem. But don't underestimate Chopra's value.
In the 20 Tests before Chopra joined Sehwag at the top of the order, India's openers averaged a first-wicket partnership of 31, which has been pretty much the norm in recent years. In the 13 innings, including this one, in which Sehwag and Chopra have opened together, they average 65. Among Indian pairs who have opened in ten innings or more, this is the best ever, ahead of Mankad and Roy (57.9), Gavaskar and Chauhan (53.7), and Mongia and Sidhu (47) - it is also ahead of Hayden and Langer (60) and Vaughan and Trescothick (47) among contemporary pairs. Chopra keeps an end up and protects the middle order (the first five maiden overs today were bowled to him), Sehwag takes the initiative (the first eight boundaries were hit by him) - it is a perfect opening partnership.
India's middle order, it can safely be said, is the best they have ever had. With Sehwag and Chopra batting the way they have, there suddenly seem to be no holes whatsoever in the batting line-up. This is a remarkable development, and this remarkable day underlines just how formidable India could be in the years to come, as they break away from their past, and all these years of being also-rans, towards greatness.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.
*In a moment of interesting insight, Pataudi, the most inspirational Indian captain before Ganguly, said in an interview that appeared in the March 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket that he ranked Sehwag higher than VVS Laxman. "Sehwag looks a more organised player. He has a very compact defence." (Back to article)