Pakistan v India, 3rd Test, Rawalpindi, 1st day April 13, 2004

Messing around at the top

The whole idea of shielding batsmen is now passé, thanks to the Australians who play cricket as it should be played - without fear
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Parthiv Patel as opener: inspired move or foolish gamble © Getty Images

By late afternoon, enterprising batting from Mohammad Sami and Fazl-e-Akbar had done much to restore morale in the Pakistan dressing-room after the top-order batsmen were roughed up on a helpful pitch by India's pace attack. India, having run out of puff after tea, then gave Pakistan another spring in their stride by bizarrely opting to open with Parthiv Patel.

At his pre-match press conference yesterday, Sourav Ganguly had categorically stated that he and Yuvraj Singh - who replaced Sadagoppan Ramesh, a specialist opener, from the squad that toured Australia - were the ones in contention to partner Virender Sehwag at the top of the order. "When we picked Yuvraj ahead of Ramesh in the squad, he had agreed to open if required," were Ganguly's exact words.

And it was on those grounds that Aakash Chopra was dropped from the playing XI. Chopra's periwinkle-on-rock-smashed-by-stormy-seas batting style might not be easy on the eye, but it had been mighty effective. In the eight Tests that he has opened with Sehwag, they produced four century partnerships, two of them against the best team in the world. In the first Test of this series at Multan, they put on 160 to lay the foundation for the run-fest that followed.

You couldn't fault Ganguly's reasoning yesterday. Yuvraj was in better form than Chopra and, considering this game as a one-off, was therefore well worth a gamble. But by not opening with him, the team management sent out the worst possible message to the likes of Chopra, Ramesh, Wasim Jaffer and Vinayak Mane - men who have earned their place on the fringes by virtue of their displays against the new ball. If they watched this and thought, "What's the point? We might as well bat down the order ourselves, since middle-order bats are the flavour of the month," you couldn't fault them.

And it's not as though Patel - who batted adequately to be not out on 13 at the close - came in with any pedigree as an opening batsman. His only previous attempt at taking the shine off the new ball at Test level had lasted precisely four balls, before Daryl Tuffey ended his misery at Hamilton. When he walked out to face Shoaib Akhtar, sprinting in to hurl the ball down at 95mph, it was impossible to ignore the lamb-to-the-slaughter analogy.

The whole idea of shielding batsmen is now passé, thanks to the Australians who play cricket as it should be played - without fear. With the decision to send Patel in, the Pakistanis were given the message that neither Ganguly nor Yuvraj fancied a late-afternoon contest against the new ball. And in a Test match of such import, that simply wasn't the sort of message you wanted to convey to the opposition.

Of course, Patel may go on tomorrow and make a big score, thus making his promotion look like an inspired hunch. But to praise it would be to miss the point. Breaking up India's most successful opening combination in years to fit in an in-form batsman was a dodgy enough move. What followed was a knee-jerk reaction, and a big step backwards that did no-one involved any favours. There is a line from that old rhyme which goes, For want of a rider, the battle was lost. Indian cricket, which has suffered from the want of an opener ever since the irreplaceable Sunil Gavaskar stowed his bat away - and lost many Tests as a result - should have known better.