Opening contests could shape India-WI series
India is one of the easiest places to open an innings in. The action really begins when the ball is scuffed up, and it begins to turn, bite or reverse. All the more reason the new ball becomes crucial. Whatever advantage you can take you have to take, otherwise the likes of Chris Gayle and Shikhar Dhawan will have looted big time by the time the ball starts doing things. Time to step in, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Kemar Roach.
The Test careers of Bhuvneshwar and Shikhar Dhawan are young. They have never faced Chris Gayle and Roach in Tests, but these two sets of opening exchanges promise a keen contest going by whatever little these players have played against each other in ODIs. Bhuvneshwar has come across Gayle in three innings, and has dismissed him twice for 20 runs in 24 balls. The numbers for Roach v Dhawan in five ODIs are 56 balls, 49 runs and three wickets.
Gayle's biggest bugbear has been the left-arm quick who takes the ball away from him. Last year when Gayle made his Test comeback, he brutalised New Zealand in Antigua with 150 off 206 balls. New Zealand's response was to bring in the young Trent Boult. In the next Test, both Boult and Neil Wagner got their man cheaply with balls leaving him. India don't have any such bowler in their squad, but Bhuvneshwar comes close.
Bhuvneshwar doesn't have the advantage that the left-arm bowler has - making Gayle commit and then leaving him against the angle - but he still consistently takes the ball away, and makes batsmen play. In the only Test series that Bhuvneshwar has played, he was left alone 55 times out of the 384 times he bowled, a rate of 14%. James Pattinson and Ishant Sharma, by comparison, were left alone 17% of the times they bowled, and Peter Siddle - accuracy and making the batsmen play his USP - was left alone 12% of the times. Only 9% of Bhuvneshwar's deliveries were too wide, as opposed to Ishant's 11%.
One series is a small sample, but Bhuvneshwar is on the desirable side of accuracy. And then he almost always gets movement with the new ball. There are fewer easy leaves with Bhuvneshwar. Gayle likes those easy leaves at the start of a Test innings. Both the times that Bhuvneshwar has got Gayle out in ODIs is through staying close to Gayle's off stump and then getting the ball to move away upon pitching. Caught by first slip once, caught by the keeper once.
"He has been someone who's given us good starts with the new ball, even on wickets that were not helpful for fast bowlers," said MS Dhoni of Bhuvneshwar Kumar. "It is important that we start off well with the new ball. Those one or two wickets with the new ball always help. It always helps the spinners."
With Dhawan, in his short international career, weaknesses haven't yet become apparent. Before he came onto the international scene, he was prone to playing stylish but short innings, ending them with rash shots. In whatever little time Dhawan has spent at the top level, he seems to have overcome that limitation. What remains is the open face on the off-side shots, which mocks the fielding sides with the same regularity with which it connects sweetly with the ball.
Roach, though, has something that can test any batsman: pace. It can sometimes be welcome on Indian pitches, but Roach did make Dhawan hop around a bit in the West Indies during the tri-series. Two of his three dismissals of Dhawan have come fairly early in the innings, the third being when Dhawan holed out after reaching a fifty. Roach will remember he got Dhawan once top-edging a cut and once bowling short when the batsman gave him the charge. Bowlers remember everything. Roach missed the practice game with a shoulder niggle, but he bowled in the nets and is fit, his captain Darren Sammy said.
These contests haven't developed completely, but the opening bowlers of these two sides seem to have got the better of the opposition's opening batsmen. M Vijay hasn't faced much of Roach or Tino Best. And we don't even know who the other bowler bowling the new ball to Kieran Powell will be. Test cricket is different, and it will be a big ask of Bhuvneshwar and Roach to keep these openers, who will be looking forward to this opportunity, quiet.
In a series in which one man will reach 200 Tests and another will claim his 150th cap, these budding contests at the top of the order could well provide the decisive blows before the ball gets old and starts to turn, bite or reverse.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo