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Converted openers before Smith: Sehwag, Jayasuriya, Rohit and other success stories

ESPNcricinfo looks back at batters whose careers flourished after a promotion to the top

Sruthi Ravindranath
Sruthi Ravindranath and Ankur Dhawan
30-Sep-2019 • Updated on 16-Jan-2024
With Steven Smith set to open for Australia in the upcoming Test series against West Indies, ESPNcricinfo looks at other batters who started in the middle order in Test cricket before forging successful careers as openers.
In a bid to address India's top-order troubles, then captain Sourav Ganguly persuaded the five-Test old Virender Sehwag - already an ODI opener - to move up the order. Sehwag, who was a middle-order batter even in domestic cricket, agreed and adapted to the role quickly.
Much like his century on Test debut, Sehwag made an early impression in his new role, with a 96-ball 84 at Lord's. And, as if to banish any stray demons, from his own mind as much as the public's, he followed it up with a hundred in Nottingham. He moved from strength to strength, notching up 147 against West Indies in Mumbai, before making a brutal 195 on day one at the MCG. He went on to become India's first Test triple centurion too, in Multan, and laid the foundation for the historic series win in Pakistan in 2004.
That famous 309 was part of a streak that saw him convert 11 successive centuries into scores of over 150, which included three double-hundreds, and quite remarkably, another triple - joining a list with only Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Chris Gayle - against South Africa in Chennai. A few more big innings later, came another rampaging knock that threatened to break Don Bradman's record 309 in a single day, as he flayed the Sri Lanka attack to all corners of the Brabourne Stadium. He finished with 284 for the day in an innings of 293. Furthermore, he forged India's most successful opening partnership, with Gautam Gambhir, as the side climbed to No. 1 in the Test rankings for the first time in 2009.
Katich made his Test debut in the 2001 Ashes at Headingley and his career as a middle-order batter see-sawed until he was dropped in 2005 after a string of low scores. He eventually lost his national contract in 2007, which would turn out to be a watershed year in his career. In the domestic Pura Cup later that year, he piled on 1506 runs for New South Wales, breaking Michael Bevan's record for most runs in a single season. That culminated in a recall to the Australia side for the tour of the Caribbean, where he was asked to play out of his position and open the batting with Phil Jacques.
In what was a career-defining transformation, Katich 2.0 amassed 2928 runs at an average of over 50 at the top of the order. With that came some of his best performances, including a resolute 131 against New Zealand in Brisbane in 2008, when he carried his bat, and career-best 157 against West Indies in the same year.
Most tailenders aspire to score a fifty over a long career, something Glenn McGrath waited 102 Tests to achieve. Fair to say, India's current head coach Ravi Shastri was not cut from the same cloth. Having started at No. 10 in the first Test against New Zealand in Wellington in 1981, Shastri began building a reputation as a stubborn batter. He was elevated to No. 7 in the first innings of the third Test in Auckland, before dropping two places to No. 9 in the second. His ability with the bat properly came into focus when he was promoted to No. 6 in a home Test against England in Mumbai, where he faced 134 balls for 33 runs to help India to victory.
Two Tests later, he fell seven short of a maiden Test century in Delhi. His ascent up the order was rapid thereafter, as he was asked to open in the second Test in Manchester against England in 1982. He wasn't immediately successful as he bagged ducks in his first and third outings, but sandwiched between those was a promising 66 at The Oval.
Yet, he wasn't a permanent fixture at the top, shuffling up and down the order throughout his career. Some of his best innings, however, came when he opened the batting, including a career-best 206 against Australia in Sydney, where he shared a 196-run fifth wicket stand with a young Sachin Tendulkar, before becoming Shane Warne's first Test victim. As an opener, Shastri averaged 44.04, a difference of 12.31 from when he batted in other positions, averaging 31.73.
Wilfred Rhodes was the original lower-order left-arm spinner who became an opening batter. Thirteen years after he made his Test debut as a No. 10 batter in 1889, Rhodes entered the record books for his batting, as he and Jack Hobbs put on a record 323-run opening stand against Australia in Melbourne, a mark which stood for 36 years.
His career spanned more than 30 years - the longest Test career - during the course of which he occupied every position in the batting order, enjoying most success as an opener. He first opened for England against Australia in 1904 in Melbourne and played his last innings as an opener against the same opposition in Sydney in 1921. Nine of his 11 fifties and both his hundreds came when he opened, including the career-best 179 in the famous partnership with Hobbs. Curiously, he finished his Test career where it had started, back at No. 10, against West Indies in 1930.
Initially perceived as a bowler who could also bat, Jayasuriya evolved into a destructive opener. He first opened for Sri Lanka during the Hero Cup in India in 1993 and almost immediately adapted to the new role, scoring three half-centuries in as many games in the ODIs against Pakistan in 1994. This prompted his captain Arjuna Ranatunga to bump him up to the top in Test cricket as well. Opening with Roshan Mahanama at the P Sara Oval, Jayasuriya managed just 9 and 1, in a match that Sri Lanka would lose.
After missing from the Test squad for a year, he came back in 1996 to reinforce his image as a dashing Test batter. Having found success in ODIs in his new role, he transferred that method to the longer format, making 48 and 112 against Australia in Adelaide. He then cracked 340 in Sri Lanka's 952 for 6 against India in 1997. Jayasuriya finished his Test career with an average of 41.48 as an opener.
Ten years into his Test career, at a time when he was getting stick for his inconsistent performances in the Sri Lankan middle order, came a move that would transform Dilshan into an all-format star.
In his 56th Test, against New Zealand in Galle, he opened the batting and raced to 92 off 72 balls in the first innings and followed it up with a century in the second. He went on to hit six hundreds in that year and scored more than 1327 runs at an average of 64.52 from the top of the order. Overall, in the 29 Tests he opened in, he finished with 2170 runs. His career-best 193, against England in Cardiff, also came in that position. He signed off with an average of 42.54 at the top of the order.
Playing his first Test series in November 2013, Rohit Sharma made an impression that was both belated - a last-minute injury had cost him a Test debut three-and-a-half years earlier - and instant: centuries in his first two Tests against West Indies. That beginning promised a long and fulfilling career in the middle order, but that didn't quite materialise. Rohit spent the next six years in and out of the Test XI, squeezed out by intense competition for a limited number of slots, with India often preferring to play five bowlers.
By the time South Africa toured India in 2019-20, Rohit was 32 and left with what seemed like one last chance to stake a long-term claim on a Test spot, a spot that had opened up at the top of the order. Rohit was, by now, one of the world's premier openers in white-ball cricket, but he had only played the role three times before in first-class matches. Could he do it in Tests?
You bet he could. He started with three centuries, including a double, in four innings against South Africa, and has continued since then to pile on important runs against the new ball, his highlights including a tone-setting 161 on a Chennai turner against England in 2021, a match-turning third-innings 127 - his first century away from home - at The Oval later that year, and an authoritative 120 on a tricky Nagpur pitch against Australia in February 2023.
Rohit's middle-order average of 39.62 is far from shabby, but he has definitely reached another level as opener, scoring 2151 runs at 51.23, with seven hundreds in 45 innings.
This feature was updated on January 16, 2024.

Sruthi Ravindranath is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo