Openers August 3, 2010

Top four

Three one-time middle-order batsmen and one pure opener are in the running for the first two spots

Selectors of all-time XIs have two advantages over national selectors, who have to choose the team for the next Test match or next series. One, they can pick players they have never seen in action. Vijay Merchant played his last Test in 1951; only a couple from our jury were alive that year.

The other advantage is that all-time XIs, unlike current ones, do not have to be picked on potential alone. No place, therefore, for someone like Salim Durani, who fell short of greatness as an allrounder despite 29 Test matches, a century in the West Indies and his role in India's first-ever series win against England in 1961-62 (23 wickets, 199 runs). No potential, then, or such things as "entertainment value", just proven performance.

The Best XI is not necessarily the Ideal XI. According to Don Bradman, the Ideal XI would comprise two openers, one of whom is a left-hander; three middle-order batsmen, one of whom is a left-hander; one allrounder; one wicketkeeper who can bat; one fast bowler to bowl with the wind; one fast-medium bowler to bowl into the wind; one offspinner; and one left-arm spinner (or legspinner).

Any attempt to force a left-hander to open for India would keep out more deserving candidates whose only drawback is that they are right-handed. Nari Contractor was the first left-hander to open regularly. India believed for long that the way to get their money's worth out of a wicketkeeper was to make him open the batting.

This thinking was also partly inspired in the pre-Gavaskar days by the conviction that openers were sacrificial lambs anyway, their main duty being to protect the middle order from the new ball. No one, not even Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali, began as openers.

Some volunteered to open knowing that was the only way they could fit into the XI; enlightened self-interest, it was called. It is ironic therefore, that for over half a century India held the world opening record of 413 (Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad).

If all-time teams seem unfair to players of the distant past, it is partly because the later players have had more opportunities to strut their stuff upon the world stage. Also, more recent players have the luxury of better equipment, covered pitches, physical training and psychological inputs, and are thus better prepared than their predecessors, with the records to show for it. A googly might have worried Victor Trumper (or indeed Bradman himself in his final Test), but the modern batsman deals with it comfortably. All projections that give the nod to a former great over a recent candidate come with the understanding that given the same opportunities, the old-timer would have performed just as well, or better, adapting his game to the needs of the situation.

The candidates

Sunil Gavaskar
In the all-time XI, one end would seem to be reserved for Sunil Gavaskar, the first man to 10,000 runs, and a bulwark against extreme pace in the pre-helmet days. In his early days Gavaskar was seen as a clone of Merchant, whose first-class average is second only to Don Bradman's, but who played just 10 Tests (average nearly 48), all of them against England.

Vijay Merchant
If Gavaskar disqualifies himself because of opinions expressed rather too strongly for the cricket board's or the ICC's comfort, then Merchant would be the automatic choice. In fact, whatever the final XI, a case can be made for an equally balanced alternative XI - with Gavaskar opening in one and Merchant in the other.

Virender Sehwag
To open with Gavaskar and Merchant might be over-egging the pudding. Partnerships blossom by dint of differentiation and with Sehwag at the other end, India can have the best of both worlds - a top-class defensive batsman at one end and a creative, attacking one at the other.

Navjot Sidhu
Three of the four in the list (Gavaskar being the exception) began as middle-order batsmen. Sidhu began as a strokeless wonder before blossoming into an aggressive six-hitter, whose calculated attack on Shane Warne first made the great spinner look ordinary.

We'll be publishing an all-time India XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your openers click here

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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