India v England, 1st Test, Nagpur, 2nd day March 2, 2006

A case for specialists

It wasn't the most fluent innings that Wasim Jaffer's ever played but this unbeaten 73, with the prospect of many more, will mean the world to a man who has spent some of his best years on the fringes

Wasim Jaffer celebrated his return from the wilderness with a half-century © AFP

As Wasim Jaffer faced up to the first delivery of the Indian innings, he could have been forgiven a nervous flutter or two. Confronting him was Matthew Hoggard, whose canny swing had breached his defence for 0 in successive Tests at Lord's and Trent Bridge on India's tour of 2002. That Test at Nottingham, where he managed only five in the second innings, was to be his last, and after just 261 runs in seven matches spread over two years, he returned to the twilight zone of domestic cricket.

He was to linger there over three years, before that unexpected call-up for the Ahmedabad Test against Sri Lanka. With Gautam Gambhir in such wretched form, most expected him to play, but a vote of confidence in the incumbent meant that Jaffer had to watch from the sidelines as India ground out a convincing victory marred only by poor batting from the top order.

Even when he was jettisoned in England, few doubted his ability, but with Virender Sehwag demonstrating his calibre at the top of the order and Sanjay Bangar showing immense adhesive powers on a seam-friendly Headingley pitch, the door had been shut on a comeback. Undaunted, he went back to doing his old stomping grounds, compiling big knocks with the poise and style that had always marked him out as a talent to watch.

He started the following season with a century in the Irani Trophy, and was a qualified success while opening for India A on their tour of the British Isles in 2003 - a rapid 218 while following on against Warwickshire was further evidence of his appetite for the big innings. Aakash Chopra was the flavour of the moment though, and it was he that went to Australia and Pakistan, while Jaffer contented himself with vital knocks for Mumbai, including 133 in the Ranji Trophy triumph over Tamil Nadu.

Three big centuries followed at the start of the next season, but a subsequent slump ruined any chances that he may have had of making the Indian side. By then, Chopra was long gone, and Gambhir was accompanying Sehwag to the middle. Instead of losing heart, Jaffer went back to basics and came back stronger. He started the current season with 133 for West Zone against South, and a splendid 267 against Delhi pushed him back to the front of the queue as India continued to debate who should partner Sehwag.

That he would go to Pakistan was never in doubt, and he appeared to have played himself into the XI with 58 and an unbeaten 35 against a Pakistan A attack that included Umar Gul, Mohammad Irshad, Yasir Arafat and Mansoor Amjad. But with back-room machinations playing a part in the selection of the Indian team, neither Jaffer nor Gambhir got a look in, and the absence of a specialist opener was keenly felt at Karachi as Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar ended India's chances with two telling new-ball spells.

When he walked out with Sehwag 45 minutes into the afternoon session today, with England having made 393, there must have been the odd fidget in the dressing room. A first-innings total of 398 had proved to be more than enough for Australia in the last Nagpur Test, and in Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Hoggard, England had an attack that was nearly comparable to the triumvirate of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz that had peeled apart the Indian batting as easily as you would one of the local oranges en route to that 342-run romp in 2004.

The discipline with which England started meant that runs were a scarce commodity before tea, as Dravid - coming in after Sehwag's casual waft to short-cover - laboured 42 deliveries over five. The notes of positivity all came from Jaffer, who used those supple wrists beautifully each time the bowlers erred from their outside-off-stump line. The fact that 10 of the 13 boundaries he struck came in the arc between fine leg and long-on said much about how well he played to his strengths, while eschewing unnecessary risks.

There were periods when he too appeared becalmed, with Flintoff and friends bowling tight lines to fields that choked off his main scoring shots. But the slightest slip was usually seized upon, and towards the end of the day's play, he unveiled a majestic cover-drive off Hoggard to illustrate that there was more than one arrow in that quiver.

It wasn't the most fluent innings that he's ever played, and the bowling was disciplined rather than lethal, but this unbeaten 73, with the prospect of many more, will mean the world to a man who has spent some of his best years on the fringes. In the furore surrounding Ganguly's ins and outs from the XI, Indian cricket had lost some focus with regard to the importance of an opener. As Jaffer and Alastair Cook have already shown over the first two days of this series, there's still a lot to be said for specialists.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo