India's opening combinations February 13, 2006

Start me up

The time is ripe to groom another opener for India in one day internationals



Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly have pounded out 5621 runs at a stunning average of 48.87 © Getty Images

It was a balmy September evening in Colombo. With a semi-final place in the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy at stake, England piled up 269 against an Indian attack that wilted in the final stages of the innings. Given that no team had even chased more than 250 to win at the Premadasa Stadium, there were a couple of English journalists wondering whether they should head back to the hotel and file at leisure on what was sure to be an English triumph. About an hour later, indolence was the last thing on their minds as Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly set about a demolition job that was simply awe-inspiring. Andrew Caddick and friends were given an almighty mauling as both men scored centuries and India romped home with 63 deliveries to spare.

In a period when Sachin Tendulkar dropped down the order, Sehwag and Ganguly opened together 40 times, aggregating 1593 runs at 40.84, with five century stands, and six others over 50. That Colombo blitzkrieg was undoubtedly the high watermark of their association, and were it not for a certain Tendulkar showing willingness to go back to doing what he did best, the Sehwag-Ganguly partnership may have had a far longer shelf life.

This time, it was Ganguly's turn to make way. It was a selfless decision on the captain's part, given that he had been one half of perhaps the most destructive duo in limited-overs history. He and Tendulkar had opened in 117 games, pounding out 5621 heady runs at a stunning average of 48.87. There had been 16 century partnerships - a record that eclipsed the legendary Greenidge-Haynes combination - and 21 stands in excess of 50. Invariably, each partnership was a rollicking one, with one man going ballistic and the other around for the long haul. On the occasions when both went for it, the bowlers may as well have packed up and gone home.

It was an inestimably hard act to follow, but in the 51 matches where they have opened together, Sehwag and Tendulkar have managed to replicate such excellence, with 2348 runs at 46.03 (nine centuries and 10 fifties). Despite both men suffering blips at various times since the last World Cup, their ability to put at least 50 on the board every three innings is matched only by two other legendary pairs. Greenidge and Haynes went past fifty 39 times in their 102 matches together - 15 centuries and a remarkable average of 52.55 - while Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden plundered 12 three-figure stands and 19 others over 50 in 80 games.

Despite such a stellar record though, the jury has been out on the Tendulkar-Sehwag combination for a while. Sehwag's form, or lack of it, has been the primary reason. In his first 53 games as an international opener, he had 1971 runs at 40.22, with five hundreds and nine 50s. In 60 subsequent matches, before the thrilling 67 at Rawalpindi, he managed only 1704 at 28.40. Two centuries and seven 50s were a poor return for a man from whom so much was expected.

The contrast with Tendulkar was stark. A cursory glance at Tendulkar's record over a similar 60-match timeframe reveals just why talk of him having lost his edge is based more on wishful thinking than fact. You really can't argue with 2691 runs at 48.05 or 23 scores over 50, six of them hundreds. While there have been intermittent signs of decline, or at least of a change in approach, there are a lot of international batsmen that would kill for such figures.

With Sehwag ruled out for the remainder of the series though, perhaps now's the time to groom a new opener. Gautam Gambhir, who struck such a fluent century against Sri Lanka at Ahmedabad, is an obvious candidate, but as a man for all seasons and conditions, Yuvraj Singh may well be the best bet. Comfortable against pace, and adept at striking the ball cleanly over the infield, he clearly has the tools for the job. The experiments with Irfan Pathan may have encouraged some to look that way, but given his additional responsibilities as an opening bowler, a double burden isn't the best option.

The likes of Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan and Gaurav Dhiman - star of the Under-19s - may be pencilled in for the future, but with Sehwag missing, India face an onerous task to come up with the right combination. Of the twelve best opening pairs in ODI history , four are Indian. The identity of the fourth dynamic duo? The ubiquitous Tendulkar and a certain Ajay Jadeja, who served up 1315 runs at 59.77 - a record - in their 22 games together. Jadeja's alleged misdeeds meant that those flashes of brilliance are barely recalled now. That's not a fate likely to befall Tendulkar, Sehwag, or even Ganguly - truly a prince in his late-'90s halcyon years.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo