October 24, 2008

How good is the Sehwag-Gambhir pair?

India's current openers have performed exceptionally at the top of the order, producing numbers that suggest India may have found a long-term combination

Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have put together 50-plus stands in seven of their last eight innings © AFP

In a land blessed with outstanding middle-order batsmen, quality openers have been unusually hard to find, but in Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, India might have finally found a long-term solution. Since they came together for the series in Sri Lanka earlier this year, the two have been in sparkling form and more often than not have given the team an excellent platform to build on.

In ten innings during this period, they've been consistency personified: seven times they have added more than 50, and in their three other innings, only once were they separated before 25. Admittedly all these stands have come in matches played in the subcontinent, but the manner in which the two have gone about their jobs suggests they should be able to handle tougher assignments too.

The opening pair's performances have been among the standout features of the two Tests against Australia so far. The visitors have been outclassed in most departments, but perhaps most convincingly in the opening acts with both bat and ball. Gambhir and Sehwag have strung together partnerships of 70, 16, 70 and 182. Compare that with Australia's opening stands - 0, 21, 0, 49 - and it's clear that India have had the early advantage.

Just how well does this opening pair compare with the best that India has produced? As the table below indicates, their numbers are better than anyone else's. Admittedly, they've played less than half as many games as Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan did, and they haven't yet been tested on bouncier pitches, but so far their stats are spectacular - they are already the second-most prolific Indian opening pair. (Click here for the entire partnership list.)

India's best opening combinations in Tests (Qual: at least 750 runs)
Pair Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
Gambhir-Sehwag 29 1771 63.25 4/ 11
Vinoo Mankad-Pankaj Roy 16 868 57.86 3/ 1
Chauhan-Gavaskar 59 3010 53.75 10/ 10
Chopra-Sehwag 19 897 47.21 4/ 2
Das-Ramesh 19 836 44.00 2/ 6
Gavaskar-Srikkanth 34 1469 43.20 3/ 9
Jaffer-Sehwag 28 1031 36.82 3/ 4
Gaekwad-Gavaskar 49 1722 35.87 4/ 9
Contractor-Pankaj Roy 26 852 32.76 1/ 4

In fact, their numbers are amazing even if you expand the comparison to all opening pairs around the world. Among pairs who have put together at least 1500 runs, Gambhir and Sehwag's average has been bettered only by the legendary pair of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, who averaged nearly 88, with 25 stands of 50-plus in 38 innings. The one thing the Indian pair can learn from Hobbs and Sutcliffe is to convert starts into significant stands: out of 15 stands of over 50 in 29 innings, Gambhir and Sehwag have only converted four into century partnerships; the conversion percentage is much lower than that for England's pair.

Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes have the most runs for any pair, but they scored their runs at an average of 47.31, which puts them in 18th place among the openers.

Best opening pair in Test cricket (Qual: at least 1500 runs)
Pair Innings Runs Average stand 100/ 50 stands
Hobbs-Sutcliffe 38 3249 87.81 15/ 10
Gambhir-Sehwag 29 1771 63.25 4/ 11
Hobbs-Rhodes 36 2146 61.31 8/ 5
Lawry-Simpson 62 3596 60.94 9/ 18
Hutton-Washbrook 51 2880 60.00 8/ 13
Atherton-Gooch 44 2501 56.84 7/ 12
Barlow-Goddard 34 1806 56.43 6/ 11
Gibbs-Smith 56 2983 56.28 7/ 10
Franklin-Wright 28 1543 55.10 5/ 5
Fredericks-Greenidge 31 1593 54.93 5/ 5
de Villiers-Smith 30 1646 54.86 4/ 6
Chauhan-Gavaskar 59 3010 53.75 10/ 10

With Gambhir and Sehwag, though, the story isn't just the number of runs they score; it's the rate they score them at. Both are attacking batsmen capable of piercing the field on both sides of the wicket and going over the top, but they are also equally adept at tapping the ball into the gaps or short of fielders and running the quick singles. The ability to do all this well was evident in their most recent partnership, when they smashed 182 runs in a mere 39.1 overs.

Overall, Gambhir and Sehwag have scored their runs at more than four-and-a-half an over, making them easily the fastest-scoring pair. (This is only among pairs whom Cricinfo has recorded as having faced at least 1500 deliveries. The balls-faced data wasn't available regularly for matches played more than 15 years ago; hence the data for some pairs isn't complete.) Wasim Jaffer isn't the most quick-scoring batsman around, but when he has opened with Sehwag the runs have come pretty quickly too, at a rate of 4.07 per over.

Best scoring-rates among opening pairs (Qual: at least 1500 balls faced*)
Pair Innings Runs Balls Average Runs per over
Gambhir-Sehwag 29 1771 2292 63.25 4.63
Jaffer-Sehwag 28 1031 1519 36.82 4.07
Gibbs-Smith 56 2983 4505 56.28 3.97
Hayden-Langer 113 5655 8917 51.88 3.80
Hayden-Slater 25 1045 1573* 43.54 3.78*
de Villiers-Smith 30 1646 2730 54.86 3.61
Trescothick-Vaughan 54 2487 4140 48.76 3.60
Strauss-Trescothick 52 2670 4530 52.35 3.53
Atapattu-Jayasuriya 118 4469 6865* 40.26 3.53*
McKenzie-Smith 17 1290 2193 80.62 3.52
Chopra-Sehwag 19 897 1614 47.21 3.33
Ganga-Gayle 49 1954 3487* 41.57 3.33*
* The balls faced data isn't complete for these pairs. Hence the run-rate is calculated only for those innings for which balls faced data is available.

The one difference between Sehwag's partnerships with Gambhir and Jaffer - apart from the fact that the average runs per dismissal is much lower with Jaffer - is the manner in which the pairs score their runs. When Sehwag bats with Gambhir, the emphasis is much more on rotating the strike and getting the singles, which account for 25% of the total runs scored off the bat by them - of the 1652 bat runs scored by them, 413 are singles. With Jaffer, though, that percentage drops to 19.34 (182 singles out of 941 bat runs), which indicates that the strike isn't rotated as regularly.

Sehwag-Gambhir v Sehwag-Jaffer
Pair Innings Runs Average Run rate Singles (% of balls) Boundaries (% of runs)
Sehwag-Gambhir 29 1771 63.25 4.63 18.01 60.77
Sehwag-Jaffer 28 1031 36.82 4.07 11.98 60.57

The story so far for Gambhir and Sehwag has been terrific, but they'll be the first ones to admit that they have tougher challenges to conquer before they are mentioned among the top pairs ever in Test cricket. Other pairs - Dinesh Karthik and Jaffer, SS Das and Sadagoppan Ramesh - have flourished briefly before floundering, and a final verdict on Gambhir and Sehwag must wait till they pass stiffer ordeals in seamer-friendly conditions outside the subcontinent. The tour to New Zealand early next year should be good test, but the manner in which they've performed so far suggests India may at last have found a long-term answer to a vexing problem.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo