Opening July 17, 2007

Imagination, patience, luck

Aakash Chopra on what a good opener needs - especially in England



Letting the ball go is the better part of valour when you're opening the innings © Getty Images
Visualisation is a major part of most batsmen's preparations ahead of a big game - more so for openers, since they do not have the luxury of watching the game before they go out to bat. They do have access to the wicket the day before the game to formulate their plans, but there's a lot of guesswork involved.

How the track is going to play is the first major area of concern. How much swing will there be in the air and off the track? Then there's the new ball, which rarely gives a batsman a clue as to which way it's going to swing. To add to it, all countries do not use the same brand of ball. The Kookaburra balls (used everywhere except in India and England) tends to move a lot when it's new; the Dukes ball (used in England) doesn't move alarmingly at the start but does enough all through the day; and the SG ball (used in India) doesn't swing at all when it is new but moves quite a bit when it gets a little old. So you have to prepare and adjust your game accordingly. There are a few fundamentals that hold true in all conditions, though.

Put that way, opening in a Test may sound bloody tough, but while it isn't the most difficult job in the world, it is far from the easiest. And that's the reason we have three specialist openers in most Test squads, and no specialist Nos. 4, 5 and 6, who are all picked as middle-order batsmen. I've left out No. 3 here because that happens to be something of a specialist's job as well - in technique and temperament, he should be suited to play the new ball.

Traditional openers are quickly becoming an endangered species, but since there's a job to be done when the ball is moving - like it does in England - they're still around. Playing the new ball is a lot about imagination, backing your instincts, and buying time to get used to the conditions. Also, with the new ball, often even the bowler does not know for certain how it is going to behave initially, so a batsman does require a certain amount of luck to guess it correctly every time.

Most conventional openers prefer to take the safe route: stick to the basics to start with, and pray that it's your lucky day. Try to play only the balls you absolutely need to, and let the rest go to the keeper. This helps you gauge the bounce, the swing in the air, and the movement off the pitch.



Shots played to the leg side are the traditional opener's bread and butter © Getty Images
If it's moving quite a bit, then a few shots go out of your book right away, like the punch off the back foot (because it is difficult to cover the movement off the pitch with a vertical bat), and the cut comes in in its place. But if it is bouncing a lot and not seaming, then the cut isn't the wisest option (because its difficult to keep the ball down). Regardless of the conditions, though, shots off the legs are always bread and butter shots for an opener. They involve the least risk and the greatest reward, as bowlers tend to bowl to a heavy off-side field early in the day.

The other thing about opening is to try and not face all six balls of an over. Good fast bowlers tend to set a dismissal up, and bowling an entire over to one batsman gives them the opportunity to do so. Having said that, taking singles and rotating the strike is not easy, since the attacking field placement doesn't allow for singles; so mostly it's either a dot-ball or more than a single if you get past the infield.

An experienced opener knows how to use the pace of the ball, so the theoretical basics are: play with soft hands, so if you edge it, there is less likelihood of it going to the slips; and stay away from expansive drives, since the pace takes it to the fence if its sweetly timed anyway.

Yes, all this doesn't always work in practice, even if you follow the basics, but the chances are greater it will if you do. And that brings me back to what I said earlier. In the end, no matter how good you are, how late you play, and how solid and compact your technique is, you need a certain amount of luck to succeed. You will get a few unplayable balls with the new ball (at any level of the game) and you need to be lucky to miss those. This is one edge you do not want.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is currently playing league cricket in Staffordshire, and for the MCC