The fall guys
Sometimes, it has been done for the sake of `balance'; to allow India to play the extra spinner, or an extra batsman, but mostly because India simply have not found a couple of openers who can bear comparison to the gleaming assembly of middle-order batsmen India have produced consistently. Virender Sehwag was thrust in to the opening role because a place could not be found for him in the middle order. If Dravid hadn't decided to do the brave thing, the easy option would have been to promote the wicket-keeper. After all, India have a long tradition of it.
Names such as Nayan Mongia, Parthiv Patel, MSK Prasad, Deep Dasgupta, Sameer Dighe and even Farokh Engineer and Budhi Kunderan are examples of India's makeshift wicketkeeper openers, though Kunderan and Engineer, both top class wicketkeepers, opened with more regularity on a series-to-series basis. With the norm in the 50s, 60s and 70s being to pack the side with spinners, Kundheran and Engineer were asked to open in order to give the management more options.
Mongia's 152 - his only Test hundred - proved a thorn in Australia's side as India won a one-off Test at Delhi just after the 1996 World Cup. But, as was the norm, he made way for a batsman groomed as an opener, and when he had a couple poor innings, another makeshift opener would play a couple Tests until another opener was unearthed.
Dasgupta, the Bengal wicketkeeper, had some success - including a hundred against England in which he displayed impressive composure - but shoddy work behind the stumps ended his Test claims. Sanjay Bangar also had some productive innings, most famously an impressive 68 in a famous Headingley win in August 2002, but as is the custom in India, a couple of failures sent them back to domestic cricket. With India's specialist openers failing in the first two Tests of an Australian summer, Prasad, chosen as wicketkeeper for India's three-Test tour, was made the sacrificial lamb at Sydney in January 2000. His scores: 5 and 3 - dismissed both times wafting at Glenn McGrath - in a miserable loss.
A glaring example of desperate situations calling for desperate Indian measures was the second Test against Zimbabwe at Harare in June 2001, where two makeshift openers totally out of their depth were used in both innings. In the first, Hemang Badani was made to open, and contributed just 2 and in the second he was swapped down the order in place of Dighe, who made just 4. Zimbabwe won the match by four wickets, and neither batsman ever had a successful Test career.
Patel, sent in place of an out-of-form Aakash Chopra in the third Test at Rawalpindi in 2004, contributed a fine 69 to India's historic series win in Pakistan. Displaying an admirable technique and a penchant for anything full, Patel added 128 with Dravid in good time as India completely out-classed Pakistan.
Ajay Jadeja was used as an opener in 12 of his 15 Tests, in various situations and over different stages of his career. In a rain-marred two-day Test at Antigua in 1997, India experimented with two makeshift openers - Jadeja and VVS Laxman. Jadeja was given the job simply because there was nobody else, while Laxman was a talent being fitted into the scheme without tampering with the middle order.
Under Greg Chappell, India have made significant experiments in both forms of the game, but perhaps the finest Test move was sending Irfan Pathan to open the innings. With Sehwag recovering from a throat infection and flu, Pathan was sent in with Gautam Gambhir on the third day of the second Test against Sri Lanka at the Feroz Shah Kotla and stroked his way to 93 with 10 fours and two sixes. Just 21, Pathan produced an innings that mixed an impressive defense with some aggressive shots - those two sixes were clouted off a certain Muttiah Muralitharan - and helped India deflate the Sri Lankan attack. This move by the team management may remain an experiment, however, with Chappell himself saying that Pathan would not be batting that high regularly.
Barring a couple examples, what these haphazard decisions indicate is a fallibility on the part of the system. Collaged solutions are not acceptable any longer, and India need to decide on one policy. Makeshift openers for India have either failed miserably, performed credibly and been dumped after a couple failures, or relegated someplace else following the return of a `specialist' opener. In short, they have for long been the bane of Indian cricket. Groomed, thrust into the role, or sacrificial lamb, the makeshift opener has never lasted very long and India face a similar problem in this Test. If Ganguly fails, then India can go back to opening with Sehwag and either Gambhir or Wasim Jaffer, the specialist openers selected for this tour. If not, then India may well have to experiment further. With Dravid reluctant and Yuvraj Singh having failed in his one appearance as opener, India would do good to play one of the two benched openers. With India, however, everyone keeps their pads on.
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo