India v Australia, 4th Test, Nagpur, 1st day November 6, 2008

Top marks for the openers

Cricinfo staff
Any fears that captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni may have had over the absence of Gautam Gambhir were allayed by the 98-run opening stand between Virender Sehwag and new man M Vijay on the opening day of the fourth Test against Australia in Nagpur


M Vijay shrugged off any nervousness about playing his first Test to put on a 98-run opening stand with Virender Sehwag © AFP
 

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's gravest concern going into the Test that will decide the Border-Gavaskar trophy was the forced unavailability of his highest run-scorer Gautam Gambhir. However, after the first hour of play, his fears had been allayed by an opening partnership that featured bristling aggression at one end and unexpectedly solid defence at the other.

Virender Sehwag may have been inhibited by the presence of a debutant at the other end, and M Vijay may have been been a bundle of nerves as he faced his first ball in Test cricket, but neither let it affect their game.

The key for Australia, after Ricky Ponting lost his third consecutive toss, was for their bowlers to get into the Indian middle order by breaking the opening partnership early. They expected Sehwag to attack and he did precisely that by square-driving the second ball of the match from Brett Lee to the boundary and inside-edging an attempted cut past his stumps off the third. They didn't know what to expect from Vijay though - he was an unknown entity to most of the Indians watching as well.

From the first few balls that Vijay faced, however, it was evident that the debutant was not overawed by the occasion. His first delivery from Lee was outside off stump and instead of having a nervous poke, Vijay let it go. The extent of his assurance emerged when he scored his first runs with a firm drive through cover off the front foot. His footwork was smooth and he was balanced as the ball made contact with his straight bat.

In Lee's next over Vijay played a similar shot and, although he doesn't go too hard at the ball while attacking, he timed this one well enough to score his first boundary.

The pressure on Vijay was eased by Sehwag's attacking approach, for the pace at which he scored forced Ponting to change his fields: a fielder dropped back to a square third man after the first couple of boundaries. Sehwag hit three fours in his first ten balls, adding an upper cut over slips and a whip off the pads to the earlier four off Lee. The run-rate dipped - relatively speaking - from over seven to five runs per over after the 10th.

The key factor in the success of the Sehwag-Gambhir partnership is the relationship they share. They understand the other's game, their camaraderie is obvious, and they respond intuitively while running between the wickets. Though that sort chemistry was never going to be there today, Vijay understood his role and played accordingly. He focused on leaving the probing deliveries outside off stump and tried to give his partner the strike, something which Sehwag craves when batting this aggressively.

Vijay ran ten singles, three twos and three threes in his innings and gelled with Sehwag. They even took on Michael Clarke at cover point and though there was a direct hit at the bowler's end, although Vijay was safe.

With runs, and not wickets, being taken with ease Ponting gave the offspinner Jason Krejza, Australia's debutant, a go in the 13th over. Sehwag unsettled him immediately by smashing the ball over mid-off and mid-on for a four and a six. His intention was clear and Ponting responded by dispatching fielders to long-on, deep midwicket, fine leg and sweeper - a rare move in the first session of a Test match.

 
 
The key factor in the success of the Sehwag-Gambhir partnership is the relationship they share. They understand the other's game, their camaraderie is obvious, and they respond intuitively while running between the wickets. Though that sort chemistry was never going to be there today, Vijay understood his role and played accordingly
 

Sehwag, though, wasn't deterred and he placed a slog sweep out of the reach of the man on the midwicket boundary following it up with a drive through extra cover. Once his onslaught had burned gaps in the field, he dabbed the ball into vacant spaces and reached his half-century off 45 balls. He even tried to take advantage of the unpopulated expanse behind point by reverse-sweeping Krejza, although he didn't make contact.

Sehwag continued to attack and both Ponting and Krejza seemed to sit back and wait for the error in judgement as the runs cascaded around them. The false shot inevitably came, for Sehwag bottom-edged a cut back on to his stumps shortly before lunch.

Ponting didn't think Vijay would treat Krejza in similar fashion so had the fielder up at mid-on for him. But Vijay, after watchfully defending the first few deliveries, stepped out of his crease and lofted over the man at mid-on.

India scored 70 runs in the first hour of play and by the time Vijay edged a short ball that rose on him from Shane Watson the opening partnership had added 98 in 18 overs. It wasn't a tremendous contribution in terms of volume but the manner in which the runs were scored ensured that the advantage Australia had because of Gambhir's suspension was nullified.

Whether Vijay will be able to support Sehwag again in the second innings, by which time Australia's analysts would have scrutinised his 33 in this one, remains to be seen.