June 18, 2012

In search of India's next Test openers

Why have India been so dismal in Tests abroad recently? First up in a four-part analysis: does the opening combination need changing?

After India's disconcerting 0-8 scoreline in overseas Test matches in 2011-12, there were calls, especially in the social media, to boycott the IPL. Indian cricket was at its lowest ebb and abandoning the IPL seemed to many the logical choice. It was commonly believed that India's abysmal showing overseas was thanks to the eight-week-long T20 extravaganza. But like I said back then, while it's fine to ignore a tournament as a show of displeasure, it's hardly the solution to India's problems.

To look for answers one will have to eventually dwell on the vexing issues that led to India's poor performance. The question we must answer is: what can be done to plug the holes that appeared in that wretched period away from home?

In this four-part series, I shall attempt to identify the problems, look for possible solutions, and try to anticipate the dilemmas they may encounter in the foreseeable future.

Since openers are entrusted with the job of laying the foundation, it would be fair to start there. Going by their overall career statistics, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were considered among the strongest elements of India's batting line-up. So it was quite unexpected when they turned out to be one of the weakest links overseas during this period. Sehwag averaged 21, Gambhir 29, and Abhinav Mukund, who filled in for Sehwag, also averaged 21. These unflattering numbers were perhaps one of the major reasons for India's poor showing. It's also worth bearing in mind that Sehwag hasn't scored a Test century outside the subcontinent in over four years, and Gambhir hasn't scored a Test hundred anywhere in the last two.

It would be easy to continue with the same combination for the home season, for Sehwag and Gambhir are likely to find form on Indian pitches. Or India must choose to invest in an opener (or two) likely to succeed away from home, which means the selectors will have to find a batsman with the technique and temperament to succeed on pitches that have bounce, pace and lateral movement. What are the available options?

Ajinkya Rahane
Since Rahane was selected as the reserve opener for India's tour to Australia, it's fair to assume he's next in line to fill the opener's slot. While his technique against the new ball in the longer format hasn't been tested, his temperament to score big runs and his ability to occupy the crease are well documented in his first-class stats. The only problem with Rahane is that he has always batted at No. 3 and hence might find opening a little different, if not tough. But if Sehwag could make that adjustment, the selectors have every reason to believe Rahane can too. It's odd, though, that while he is an opener in waiting, Rahane has opened for India A in only one game of their current tour of the West Indies. Does that mean he's no longer in the race for an opening slot but instead for the spot vacated by Rahul Dravid?

Abhinav Mukund
He didn't set the world on fire in his first few outings for India but Mukund can be given the benefit of the doubt for two reasons: he played all his Test matches away from home, which can be quite daunting, and it shouldn't be ignored that he scores runs by the ton in the domestic circuit. Does that make him a legitimate candidate for the Test spot in the immediate future? I may be a sceptic but I wouldn't put my money on him, not for now. Despite the runs he gets in domestic cricket, he'll only succeed outside the subcontinent if he makes radical changes to his technique. His initial movement makes him go deep inside the crease before the ball is bowled, and that turns him into easy prey for swing bowlers. Early in his innings, thanks to his non-existent front-foot stride, he's often susceptible to getting lbw decisions to balls slanting in to him and to edging the full length away-going deliveries. He's comfortable against short-pitched deliveries but international bowlers don't take long to figure out that if pitching the ball up can do the trick, there's no point in bending the back too much.

Shikhar Dhawan
I wouldn't have put his name in the list of prospective openers if he wasn't playing for India A in the West Indies. Dhawan is a talented player who bats with a lot of flair, but his technique isn't tight enough to succeed in trying conditions in the longer format. His first-class career graph highlights a sequence of big scores followed by prolonged barren patches, which indicates that his scoring depends a lot on form/momentum and not so much on technical prowess. Since I've watched him from close quarters, I can say with some authority that his only response to poor form is to go on the offensive, which may not be such a bad thing in shorter formats but doesn't always work in the long format, especially for an opener. Scoring one century every ten first-class innings isn't a Test selection performance. Even his current selection in the A squad seems to be influenced by what he did in the IPL, because he had a rather ordinary first-class season last year.

I would have added M Vijay to this list if not for his lack of growth in first-class cricket. He started as a good Test prospect, with a decent technique and a penchant for occupying the crease for long. But his last few successful seasons in the IPL have changed the way he constructs his innings in the long format. Earlier, he used to bide his time at the start of an innings, but now he's consumed by the need to dominate the bowling come what may. The conditions may demand caution but he struggles to find that gear in his batting. I wish someone could work on Abhinav's technique and Vijay's temperament because the shortage of quality openers in the domestic set-up demands these two find the right path.

It's unfortunate that despite fielding 27 teams in the Ranji Trophy, we can't find more than a handful of openers equipped to fill the Test slot. This is because young openers like Unmukt Chand, Akshath Reddy, Sarul Kanwar and Tanmay Srivastava play a shot a ball (even in four-day cricket) and find it tough in trying conditions because they don't have defensive gears anymore. This new brand of batting emerged with the IPL but largely went unnoticed till now because there weren't any places that needed to be filled in the Indian Test line-up. Now we need options but there are few because to bat in the traditional mould means sacrificing an IPL contract.

Vineet Saxena, the second highest run scorer in the Ranji Trophy last season, is a prime example of a player an IPL team, quite rightly, will not want: he has a strike rate of 40. Why would a youngster spend (read waste) time to know where his off stump is, leave the ball alone and play late when his peers get immediate gratification by playing fearless cricket?

These are tough times and it's important to make the most of our scarce resources and give Rahane and Co a dry run in familiar conditions. Once the selectors identify a suitable opener, he should be given an extended run for the next few Test series in the subcontinent before trying him against South Africa in 2013.

I shall discuss the middle order in the next column.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here