Opening a Test innings together requires a special kind of bond. Matthew Hayden would say he and Justin Langer were almost a couple. Hayden said that because he felt he and Langer had to be comfortable in each other's space. Unlike other batting partnerships, openers start planning an innings in advance, they have the time to think of the common dangers. Sometimes you start dealing with this anxiety just after the toss; sometimes you wait in the slips, throwing furtive glances at each other, with the opposition eight wickets down.
Your livelihood depends on one of the more fickle pursuits in sport so you have to have each other's back. You have to know when the other partner is looking for a quick single to get off strike. You have to let go off your ego and let the other partner know of your vulnerabilities. The partnerships that follow are nurtured by good opening partnerships, shielded from the new ball, given by them a chance to succeed, and eventually become more successful. Third, second and fourth wickets in that order are the most prolific in the history of Test cricket than the opening stand.
If they are a couple, though, Indian openers have not been monogamous. Three of them in particular have been through this revolving door many a time. This three-way relationship began in Australia in 2015-16 when M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, though not hugely successful as an opening partnership, individually did just about enough to shield their highest run-getter, No. 4 Virat Kohli, from the new Kookaburra.
Enter another opener, KL Rahul, whose runs in domestic cricket made it difficult for him to be kept out of India XIs. So space was made for him in the middle order but he failed miserably in his debut Test. That is when, he says, the two other openers put him at ease.
"That's what I respect about Shikhar," Rahul told ESPNcricinfo in 2015, recounting the time between his first and second Test. "Even though he was going through a bad patch, they were there for me. They knew I would go back and be miserable for the next week thinking about this game. Shikhar is also pretty new - 15-20 Tests? [13 at the time] He still knows the feeling of the first Test, though he scored a hundred in his first Test."
It was decided that Rahul be given a chance at his regular station before discarding him. It is not as though Dhawan volunteered to make way for Rahul as opener in the next Test but he didn't let his own disappointment rub off to a newcomer who had been nervous in his first Test. Call it an openers' pact, call it mature team-mates helping each other, call it friendship, but the situation is not nearly as uncomfortable as it could have been. For no fault of theirs - except Dhawan once this year - one of the openers keep making way for the other - for some reason or the other - and watches that new opener stake solid claim to the slot.
In the uncertainty - right now Vijay has come back and scored a hundred when Dhawan had to take leave for personal reasons - there can be confusion and mistrust but Vijay insists it's their friendship that keeps it at bay. "We three are very good friends off the field," Vijay said if it is a challenge to go out with a new opening partner so often. "So it makes it much easier. Definitely it will unsettle the opener who is playing regular. We three have good rapport off the field, which will help big time us in the series coming ahead and future as well. It is good we are in good form."
Vijay was asked to expand further on the relationship between the three and what exactly keeps things healthy. "[We try to] Make it easier, make it lighter, more fun, talking about it openly and having a good chat over it rather than keeping it with yourself and making that person [who might be playing in your place] feel it. It's better off going in the open. Like whatever I feel or Shikhar feels, we put it out in the open so that it comes out and we move forward. Basically, we are fun-loving people, and I think we do things together and have good time outside the field, which is really helping us as a team.
The standards and results so far have been lofty. That is also down to the fact that since that Australia tour, India have played Tests only at home or in Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh. Come South Africa, if these three can keep each other under similar pressure with similar performances and at similar comfort with similar camaraderie, they will have done Indian cricket a great favour.