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India's opening problems

The case for Ramesh

Sambit Bal builds a case for S Ramesh in this week's Tuesday column

Sambit Bal

November 11, 2003

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Rameshdeserves another chance © AFP

Sanjay Manjrekar's most endearing quality is his honesty. For a man hailed as the next great batsman in the early '90s, his Test career was modest, but never would you find him offering excuses about why he played no more than 37 Tests. His failure as a Test batsman in Australia remains one of his prime regrets, and he blames no-one but himself for it. When the Indian selectors sit to deliberate the Test squad for Australia later this month they would do well to consider carefully the case of Manjrekar in Australia in 1991-92.

India played five Tests in that series, and lost 4-0. Manjrekar, who made the tour as India's prime batsman, returned with 197 runs at 21.88. Yet, he swears that throughout the series he never felt out of form. "I kept on thinking that a big innings was just around the corner," he says. It never came, and 45 in the second innings of the Adelaide Test was his highest on the tour.

With distance and acquired wisdom, he can now see the light, and is candid enough to admit that he didn't have the game to succeed in Australia. His defence remained immaculate through the tour, and so was his judgment of line and length. Yet, as he writes in the latest issue of Wisden Asia Cricket, he just couldn't create enough scoring opportunities to be successful in Australia. Only twice in the tour was he dismissed in single figures, and on eight occasions he batted for over an hour. He reckons that had he managed to score off a few more balls from the 636 that he faced, it could have been a different story. The wait-and-watch approach, he says, just wouldn't work in Australia, because rank bad balls rarely come your way. His big fear about the forthcoming tour is that Akash Chopra, now a certainty after his fine showing against New Zealand, will come back as another Manjrekar.

It depends, of course, on the team's expectations from the openers. If the sole objective is to see off the new ball, even if that means a two-hour 15, then Chopra, who has a compact and balanced game, and is a good leaver of the ball outside the off stump, is the man. Failing him, there is Sanjay Bangar, a limited player with a great attitude and the ability to send down ten quiet overs in the day as well. There is also a school of thought that plumps for Deep Dasgupta, whose technique was found to be ideal for opening on India's last tour of South Africa. But his batting form has been indifferent since he was dropped from the national side, and scores of 4 and 0 in Bengal's first Ranji Trophy match won't have strengthened his case.

However, since there is a certain wisdom in accepting that stonewalling isn't the surest way to success in Australia - ask Michael Atherton and Rahul Dravid - it wouldn't be out of place to consider another approach to opening in Australia. The game has had plenty of successful players, and indeed openers whose batting wasn't wedded to purity, but yet they found a way to achieve what is the ultimate objective of a batsman, putting the runs on the board. Among international openers, and we are considering Virender Sehwag a makeshift one, Sanath Jayasuriya and Marcus Trescothick spring to mind instantly. For a couple of seasons on either side of the turn of this century Sadagoppan Ramesh was another.

It is perhaps nobody's fault that Ramesh, who has a Test average of 37.97, hasn't played a Test since scoring 55 in his last innings in Colombo in 2001. He pulled out of the South African tour with a back injury which, some uncharitably suggested, was feigned to avoid a tough tour, and his claims were passed over by the selectors who preferred to try out the younger Wasim Jaffer. Also, Ramesh's temperament was suspect - there was an air of laziness to everything that he did on the field, where his lack of nimble footwork extended to his running between the wickets -- and he was considered an anachronism in the John Wright era of work ethics and fitness.

To anybody who would care, Ramesh is prepared to give reports of the medical tests undertaken on the advice of Andrew Leipus, and it was none other than Wright who campaigned for his inclusion in the trial matches before the international season began for India. He finally got his chance, his only one against dozens provided to some other contenders, in New Zealand's final tour match - and made his case with a century, but Chopra, with a one-match advantage, booked his spot with a hundred and a fifty.

There is little doubt that Chopra will start the Australian tour as the first contender to open with Sehwag. There might be a case to bat Sehwag down the order in Australia, but a vacancy doesn't exist in the middle order. But it wouldn't hurt to have Ramesh in the frame. He didn't have a great tour of Australia in 1999-2000, but his economy of foot-movement could actually be an advantage in Australia, where, says Manjrekar from experience, it pays to play alongside the ball rather than behind it. A good ball will get anyone, but when it comes to putting away the marginal ones, Ramesh has the eye and the timing to do it as well anybody in the game. His casual approach has cost him quite a few runs in Test cricket, but 1367 runs from 19 Tests isn't a poor return. He should be allowed a chance to add to it.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India. His Indian View will appear here every Tuesday.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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