The absurdity of making Irfan open
Knock knock? Who's there? Irfan. Irfan who? New-ball bowler? Bowling allrounder? Batting allrounder? None of these. For the moment, opener. If the sight of Irfan Pathan walking out with Gautam Gambhir to open the India innings against Australia does not seal the argument in favour of MS Dhoni primarily being a defensive captain, nothing will. On the day he took what he called one of his toughest decisions, Dhoni effectively nullified the rare selection decisiveness he had shown in leaving Virender Sehwag out by having Irfan open.
Irfan is no Shane Watson. He has a decent technique and can hit a few big shots, but he is nowhere close to being Twenty20 opening material. It was immaterial how many runs Irfan actually got against Australia. For the record, he made one of the scratchiest thirties you'll ever see. But it was never about how many runs Irfan could have scored anyway. He was opening not because Dhoni thought he was the best opener in the selected XI, but because Dhoni did not want any of his middle-order batsmen to. He was opening because Dhoni did not want Irfan to bat at No. 7, a position where normally Dhoni himself or Suresh Raina bat. It was the height of defensive compromise to needlessly cushion a brave, by Dhoni's standards, selection decision.
Dhoni invests a lot in setting an innings up for a final assault. It is evident in the way he bats, content to play out several dot balls initially with the confidence that he or someone like Raina can make up at the death. At times, he has been criticised for leaving it for too late, for letting the pressure build up. Gambhir made the point in the Australia tri-series earlier this year that Dhoni should not have taken the chase till the final over in an ODI against the hosts.
Whether Gambhir or the world agrees with Dhoni or not, that is the way he has approached limited-overs cricket increasingly over the years, and his record shows he has mostly been successful, especially in ODIs. The point is, can the need to have a potent batsman at No. 6 or No. 7 justify fiddling with the opening slot, especially in a format where there is little time to recover from a diffident start? The bigger point is, Dhoni's most-eggs-in-the-death-overs-basket batting strategy does not suit T20s as much as it suits ODIs. There is a limit to how much damage even the best finishers can cause in a T20 because of the sheer paucity of time in the format. That is why most sides have their best batsmen opening in Twenty20 internationals. Watson and David Warner for Australia, Chris Gayle for West Indies, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Mahela Jayawardene for Sri Lanka, Tamim Iqbal for Bangladesh.
India had opened with Irfan against England as well, but that was an inconsequential game, and Dhoni wanted to give the fringe players in his squad a chance. But against Australia in the opening game of the Super Eights, a stage where India have famously struggled in the World Twenty20 in the past?
Will Irfan open against Pakistan as well? India had an optional nets session today at the beautiful Colts Cricket Club ground in Colombo for which the entire squad turned up. Most of the time was spent in playing a lengthy game of football after which a few batsmen practised in the nets for a short time. Sehwag was not one of them. Irfan was.
If Sehwag plays against Pakistan, the Irfan debate ends there. If Sehwag is left out again tomorrow, there is no justification in having poor Irfan open. It is not as if there is no one else in the middle order to do the job. Virat Kohli can and has done it before. If India feel he is too valuable a batsman to be disturbed from his No. 3 position, Rohit Sharma is another man who has done it before.
Will Irfan get the new ball tomorrow at least? Don't bet on it. He came on in the 10th over against Australia.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo