Openings for openers
The first in a series of articles examining how the Indian team is shaping up for the coming 2003-04 season. This one focusses on opening batsman.
For years India have struggled to find a regular opening pair for Test matches. In the 34 Tests since India's last tour to Australia, as many as 12 men have opened for India in Tests, and the top of the order still holds a slightly unsettled look. Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar were brought together last year in England as a makeshift tactical measure, and it worked magnificently for a while. Are these two the best bet over the coming season, especially with the tough Australian tour in prospect? Wisden CricInfo weighs up the options.
Sehwag was asked to open in England last year for two reasons: one, his ability demanded inclusion in the side, and that was the only spot open; and two, his counterattacking skills could help grab the early momentum for India, much like Michael Slater did for the Australians. Sehwag averages 38.4 as an opener as opposed to 41.5 overall, and showed admirable temperament during his centuries at Trent Bridge (against England) and in Mumbai (against West Indies), where he saw off the new ball patiently before raising the tempo. He has, however, recently expressed his desire to slip into the middle order - but does a vacancy exist there? Sehwag will certainly be tested by the short ball in Australia, but his counterattacking abilities could be crucial for a side that has often suffered from diffidence at the top.
Bangar first opened in the first Test of India's West Indies tour last year, but he was made a regular in the series against England that followed. His average as an opener is just 25, but that is no reflection of the value he brought to the team. His role was to grind out the first session and see off the new ball, and he did this often enough - most notably in the Headingley Test, where he kept his end up in trying circumstances for most of the first day, in a partnership with Rahul Dravid that set India up for a historic victory. He plays within his limitations, and his application and grit could be invaluable in Australia, where Indian openers tend to get out early. His accurate wicket-to-wicket medium pace make him a competent fifth bowler, capable of bowling ten overs in a day and giving the strike bowlers some rest.
Das is a compact, technically correct player who is equally good off both the front and back foot, and conjured up visions of Sunil Gavaskar in his early games. But he had a grievous problem converting his starts into bigger scores, and reached three figures on only two of the 11 occasions on which he crossed 50 - both against lowly Zimbabwe at placid Nagpur. To hold a regular place for India in the long term, he will have to learn to play the longer innings.
Jaffer's Test career has two parts. He played two Tests against South Africa in 1999-00, and failed in both; he then returned against West Indies last year, and made two fifties before being dropped a series later. An elegant, wristy player who is a delight to watch when at his best, Jaffer is a good back-foot player, but often appears tentative on the front foot. His footwork has been found to be deficient against the moving ball, but he has just had an excellent tour of England with India A, and is a strong contender for a place in the national side.
Gambhir first showed his penchant for the big innings at the under-19 level, and continued his exploits at the first-class level. He came into contention for national selection with two consecutive double-centuries in 2002, one of them against the visiting Zimbabweans. After a good tour of West Indies with India A in early 2003, he was picked to play for India in a one-day triangular at Dhaka just after the World Cup where he managed one fifty in five innings. He is an aggressive strokeplayer with the hunger to play long innings, but his minimal footwork and over-reliance on hand-eye co-ordination have raised doubts over his potential at the highest level. But then, the only way to find out how he swims is to throw him into the sea.
Sadagoppan Ramesh averages 37 in Tests but continues to languish in Tamil Nadu wilderness - doubts over his footwork and temperamant still seem to persist. Deep Dasgupta had shown in his brief stint as Das's partner that while he may well have been a mediocre wicketkeeper, he had just the right technique and temperament to be an opener. He saved India a Test at Port Elizabeth, and followed that up with a hundred in the Mohali Test against England. But his pigeonholing as a wicketkeeper who can bat - rather than a specialist opening option - has held him back. Akash Chopra and Satyajit Parab are in the fringes, but could find themselves with an outside chance if too many India scalps are claimed in Australia, as happened last time. VVS Laxman says he was misquoted recently about being willing to open, and that he prefers being in the middle order.
Arun Lal: I would continue with Sehwag and Bangar. Sehwag is too good a player to be left out of the team and I think he is doing well at the top of the order. Bangar did a phenomenal job for India in England last year, especially at Headingley, where his batting on the first day, in extremely difficult conditions, was key to India winning the Test. Das and Jaffer should be the back-up to these two.
Chetan Chauhan: I would like to see Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman switch positions. I think Laxman has a better technique for opening the innings and Sehwag would be better used in the middle order. Sanjay Bangar has been doing a good job and should retain his place in the side. The reserve opener should be either Wasim Jaffer or SS Das.
Krishnamachari Srikkanth: I think the opening combination is still a problem for India. In the long run, I would move Sehwag down the order, especially as that is what he himself wants. He is a natural middle-order batsman, and that is where he belongs. It is too early to say who should fill the vacancy that would create, but I wonder why the selectors are neglecting Sadagoppan Ramesh. He has the best record of all the openers in recent times.
Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden CricInfo in India.