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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rakesh on June 21, 2012, 19:44 GMT

    Its gone take long time before we unearth another laxman and dravid.( Player like sachin only comes once a century so forget about replacing him) IPL has created the Hoopla which every young talent want's to join. Why play like dravid when you can play like Yusuf pathan and make millions. Chnage would come only after India starts losing at home too and next year you would start seeing this too. Mark my words India would lose and home series to both england and Australia. We don't have any quality spinner in our ranks any more.

  • Ashok on June 21, 2012, 18:08 GMT

    @arya_underfoot:Yes Gavaskar's record against vastly superior pace quartet was simply stunning - 774 runs total @ 154 average, in 4 tests in WI. This included 3 centuries + 1 double century + 3 scores in 60's.He was making his test debut at 21 !. We talk of openers now who have wrong technique. Gavaskar had perfect defence & technique with immense concentration. Which Indian batsmen can boast of that now? To get big scores these are the essential attributes. Sehwag scored heavily with his own improvised technique/footwork with good hand eye coordination which appears to work on Indian pitches only. His technique failed him in Australia & in England. Tendulkar & Dravid have a technique nearest to Gavaskar. Amongst the new talent, only Pujara has Gavaskar like defence & technique. With experience, he is the most likely guy to take over Dravid, Tendulkar & Gavaskar's role. India need more batsmen with sound fundamentals to be dominant again. Rahane &Tiwary need to work on their footwork.

  • Mahesh on June 21, 2012, 12:32 GMT

    india has only produced two world class openers in its entire history, gavaskar and sehwag, both freakish talents of different varieties. these two have risen to prominence despite, rather than because, of an inadequate domestic competition. the ranji trophy has produced several openers with prolific statistics, all of whom have failed at the test level. in recent times, there are guys like ramesh, jaffer, das and gambhir who're all very successful ranji openers and all have flopped in test matches. gambhir admittedly has put in some good home performances, but look at what he has achieved against the better bowling attacks. compare this to gavaskar's record against the west indies pace quartet.

    the system is setting these guys up for failure. india needs hard, bouncy and green pitches to be prepared for ranji matches to force the batsmen, particularly openers, to develop their techniques, not just against short balls, but against full swinging and cutting balls.

  • karthik on June 21, 2012, 8:59 GMT

    @Posted by Nampally on (June 20 2012, 16:32 PM GMT). Completely agree. India's dismal performance in Eng is due to following reasons. 1.Lack of practice matches/Not enuf time to adapt to conditions. 2.Injury to key players(almost every1 suffered injuries during the tour) 3.Bad(if not worst) bowling resources. Even though BCCI reported as "no postmortem required", they know these facts and they did their best 4 Aus tour by sending fit and correct players(i repeat, correct players) as early as possible. Bt this time, players failed. Sometimes it happens. I also have a feeling that if v had decent results in Eng, v wud hv played much better in Aus. I like the way u said abt performance of SRT, Dravid and Kohli. Very true. They played best shots, bt lacked long innings(esp SRT in Aus). Instead of blaming on past failures(which anti-Ind fans wud take care of), lets move on and support our Team. Last, don't shout 4 anyone's retirement(esp after recent Ind-A tour) juniors r gud, bt not ready

  • Naresh on June 21, 2012, 8:00 GMT

    Well said Nampally. The experience is definetly vital. Right now India need to find a good bowling unit and two good openers. Shewag and Gambhir poke and get out. Pujara looks sound enough for test cricket. Fast bowlers from India lack stamina and wilt quickly - so if dont get early wickets - then the game slips from us. The opposition knows this. Cricketers in India stand up there vacancies but no takers!!!!

  • Andrew on June 21, 2012, 5:20 GMT

    Plan for improving India's success overseas, simply; Prepare pitches with grass on it. Try & engineer some pace & bounce & magically you have conditions where young Indian cricketers will want to bend their backs domestically. Batsmen will then be tested by conducive conditions for bowling. This does NOT mean ALL INDIAN pitches need to be this way, but SOME should. ATM - who would want to be a fast bowler from India?

  • Deepak on June 20, 2012, 18:24 GMT

    @Swapnil Agarwal - What I meant by "a couple of failures" was "a couple of series defeats".. Fans need to remember that the same team won a Test series in WI and drew one in South Africa earlier that year. Why don't people talk about these two series?? For that matter every team performs brilliantly at home and struggles overseas. Best example England getting a 3-0 whitewash against Pakistan after beating India 4-0 at home.. Now Pakistan will get whitewashed in Sri Lanka, mark my words. Its all about home advantage. If the same England or Australian team tour India for 4-match Test series, then I doubt either of them will be able to win a single game. Test cricket has become so predictible and boring with this HOME ADVANTAGE factor.

  • Ashok on June 20, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    Aakash, Your first question "Why have India been so dismal in Test abroad recently " was posed to the BCCI after the Australian test series. BCCI simply shrugged their shoulders & said Our batting failed. The fact is the Indian bowling is the weakest in all major playing nations. Added to that India lost key players in England series either to injuries or being put on the field in unfit conditions. In Austrtalia, India's top & middle order batting failed but the bowlers did half decent job in at least 2 tests which India could have won but for poor batting. Gambhir & Sehwag scored most of their runs with the same strokes of flashing at the balls outside the off stump on Indian wkts. But on bouncy Aussie pitches, the same stroked were fatal.Tendulkar, Dravid & Kohli (later) all played reasonably well but lacked long innings. So real issue is batting under foreign conditions. India A Tours abroad is right approach to tackle this problem & develop young talent provided right guys are IN.

  • Ashok on June 20, 2012, 13:32 GMT

    Footwork, Technique, Judgement & patience are the required milestones of a Test opener. India would benefit a lot by sending some of its promising openers to England on a contract basis to play in county cricket. There is no other country where the ball swings as prodigiously or seams as much as on English pitches. That is the only sound way to develop a few good openers for India. India should select about 4 to 6 good potential young openers & send them on contract to English counties for a couple of seasons. They will come back much improved in all the above requisites for an opener. This is the only way to develop a good opener. After Gavaskar, India has not found an opener with requisite requirements. Match temperment comes with experience. It is futile to expect some great opener will land from above. Old fashioned cricket of fundamental needs of an opener no longer exist to succeed in T-20 IPL brand of cricket. You cannot develop another Gaqvaskar without a lot of effort!.

  • Dummy4 on June 20, 2012, 11:23 GMT

    @bruisers - you call 8 consecutive test defeats as couple of failures? When was the last time you heard any team (other than zimbabwe, WI, bangladesh) losing that many tests in a row? And that especially, a number 1 test team?

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