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.)
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.
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.
* 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.
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.