'Once I am on the field I will be calm'
Akash Chopra's selection as an opener for India's first Test against New Zealand gives rise to optimism and simultaneously raises some questions. Chopra has been in contention for national honours for at least a year now, especially after his good performances with the A team on the tour to the West Indies in 2002-03, where he scored 537 runs at 41 - among the Indian batsmen on that tour, only Gautam Gambhir had greater success.
Unlike Gambhir, who is a more free-stroking batsman, Chopra's strength lies in accumulating runs by spending long hours at the crease. A compact player, Chopra relies mostly on the cut and the back-foot drive to gather his runs. What he lacks by way of range of strokes, he makes up with his patience and tenacity.
Injury to the right knee at the end of the last season prevented him from any activity during the off-season. "I really rue that opportunity, as I could have worked on my game much more and ironed out the mistakes from last year," said Chopra, just after the selectors had picked him for the two tour games against New Zealand. After the knee surgery, Chopra was required to follow a rigorous exercise regime, and he did that with complete dedication. "I was following the schedule given by my physio regularly and all through I was positive, which really helped me recover fast."
Knowing well that the India team - despite achieving fair success with the opening combination of Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar over the last one year - were still hunting for a specialist opener, Chopra felt he was in the reckoning. With no opener catching the eye in the early matches this season, the slots at the top of the order were still up for grabs when Chopra announced his fitness after almost five months of rigorous rehabilitation, and was selected for the tour games against New Zealand.
Was Chopra concerned about the effects that such a long lay-off would have on his game? "No, it never bothered me. I was very happy to be back on the field after five months and my priority was just take it ball-by-ball," he said emphatically. He backed that statement up with runs too, scoring an unbeaten 103 at Visakhapatnam. Just to prove that the hundred was no fluke, he scored 66 in the next match, at Rajkot , sealing his berth in the squad.
Some question-marks remain over his technique, though. He wasn't entirely convincing off the front foot against the seamers, often playing with an angled bat through gully. He got a couple of lucky reprieve at Rajkot, when a Daryl Tuffey delivery caught his plumb in front only for the umpire to turn down the appeal, and then an inside edge streaked past the leg stump for four. Mention those close shaves, and Chopra remains unperturbed. "Yes, there was only one inside edge. Apart from that I think I was just playing in the same vein as I've been doing for the last ten years."
Chopra concedes, though, that the incoming ball has troubled him in the past. "Yes, there have been a few occasions on which I have been lbw to those kind of balls, but it doesn't happen always," he argues. "Only at times when the balls comes really fast, and the bat fails to come down in time have I been deceived."
Just two days before his big test, Chopra is calm and confident. Speaking from his hotel room in Ahmedabad, he says: "I am very excited and of course a bit nervous. But once I am on the field I will be calm."
The previous incumbent, Sanjay Bangar, lost out despite showing excellent temperament and good defensive technique. Those qualities are supposed to be Chopra's strengths too. The next few days - perhaps months - will prove if Chopra could be a long-term solution to a long-standing problem.
Wisden Cricinfo asked a couple of former Indian cricketers for their opinion on Akash Chopra. Here is what they had to say:
Ashok Malhotra (India A coach on the West Indies tour in 2002-03)
His strength is his temperament and his ability not to be intimidated - he is cool and composed, qualities of a good regular opener. His technique is compact and secure. He is not a plodder, and is strong off the back foot. Although he does not play the pull, he leaves the short balls well. His only deficiency is against the ball that comes back in. During the initial part of the West Indies tour, he had problems against the ball nipping in, as he played from the crease instead of stretching fully forward. That left a gap between bat and pad. During the tour he was often trying to clip off the legs while now, I see him playing a lot straighter. Another asset is that he's a very good close-in fielder.
Atul Wasan (Former Indian seamer who played club cricket with Chopra)
I have known him from when he was seven years old. He has matured into a really good opener and has got all the qualities needed to succeed in Test cricket. He loves batting, spends time at the pitch, and his shot selection is very good. He was a little apprehensive in the tour games against New Zealand, but that will be erased when he gets more opportunities and his place in the team is secure. The selectors have done a good job by picking him up, instead of choosing someone who has already got an opportunity. We need a guy who doesn't carry the excess baggage of having failed once at the international level. Akash is a long-term prospect and if given the leverage he will be able to fill the opener's vacancy successfully.