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Match Analysis

A case for India to pick their openers based on conditions?

Shikhar Dhawan's aggressive style works very well for a team looking for to force a result in good batting conditions, but surely they have two more solid options than him on seaming tracks

Instant regret for Shikhar Dhawan. Pure joy for Suranga Lakmal, India v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, 1st day, Kolkata, November 16, 2017


Suranga Lakmal ended up with figures of 6-6-0-3, but the most unplayable ball of this 11.5-over day was delivered by his new-ball partner Lahiru Gamage. It turned out to be the last ball before bad light brought the curtains down: it swung from wide outside off stump, pitched so full it was nearly in the blockhole, and still seamed away enough to beat Cheteshwar Pujara's outside edge and miss off stump by a millimetre.
Extravagant swing, extravagant seam. The curator who prepared the Eden Gardens pitch may have bargained for a little bit of each, but perhaps not the wet weather that prevented any work on the surface on the eve of the match, and the incessantly overcast conditions that kept the ball swinging and kept the moisture from drying out at any point of a stop-start first day. There may not be much sun for the next few days either.
And so it was that Sri Lanka sent India in - becoming only the third team to opt to bowl in India since 2006 - and subjected them to a searching, and given this was still the subcontinent, unusual examination. Had Sri Lanka batted first, they might well have ended the day on a similar score.
India's tour of South Africa is still a month-and-a-half away, and it's hard to imagine they will face conditions this seam-friendly in any of the three Tests. South Africa would probably not risk bringing India's quicks into the game to such an extent. But there will be swing, there will be seam, and there will be bounce.
Faced with all that, India's top order will probably want to avoid the kind of shot that cost Shikhar Dhawan his wicket on Thursday. It wasn't just any cover drive - it was a cover drive to a ball that wasn't quite full enough, played while leaning back and lashing at the ball with an angled bat. Lakmal found some swing into the left-hander - it's his stock ball, so it shouldn't have surprised Dhawan - and clattered the stumps off his inside edge.
Sanjay Bangar, India's batting coach, didn't sound too upset by the shot in his post-stumps press conference. "Well, Shikhar is a strokeplayer and he backs himself to play his shots," he said. "Whenever the shots come off, it really looks great. At times, strokeplayers can change the course of a match in a matter of 15 overs. So you want a player like Shikhar to bat in his own fashion. Every batsman has his own individual style of play, and we do not want to curtail any individual's style of play."
But that's what he would tell the media. It's possible Bangar had something different to tell Dhawan in the dressing room. Particularly since Dhawan has shown in the past that he's capable of curbing his instincts and grinding it out against the new ball.
His first-innings 134 in Galle two years ago - or even his second-innings 28 when the rest of the top order crumbled around him - is an example, as are the 33 and 21 he made later that year in Delhi, battling his own patchy form and skillful new-ball bowling from Kyle Abbott and Morne Morkel, or his 84 against West Indies in Antigua in 2016.
Such an approach might have served him better at Eden Gardens. Such an approach will probably serve him better in South Africa. Such an approach, however, isn't his natural game.
On the eve of the Kolkata Test, Virat Kohli spoke glowingly of the difference Dhawan can make with his aggression at the top of the order. He certainly can when the new ball doesn't do too much, as he showed with a pair of devastating centuries on India's tour of Sri Lanka a few months ago. When there is swing and seam, however, Dhawan's natural game is fraught with risk, and the more subdued approach he's capable of isn't what comes naturally to him.
India would take a battling Dhawan fighting his instincts and technical limitations if they didn't have any other choice. But they do have another choice. Their squad contains a pair of openers who are more comfortable with an old-school approach, with tight defences, sound judgement outside the off stump, and the patience to endure long spells of slow scoring. In bowling-friendly conditions, particularly seaming conditions, M Vijay and KL Rahul just seems like a more solid combination than Dhawan and either of them.
Which isn't to say Dhawan cannot play any part in South Africa or England or Australia or New Zealand. It isn't a guarantee that either Vijay or Rahul will maintain their form throughout, or their fitness. On flatter pitches, or if a first day is lost to rain, India might want to give their bowlers more time to pick up 20 wickets by picking Dhawan and looking to score quickly.
As with their bowling, India's squad has a lot of options on the batting front. But where it's routine for teams to choose bowlers based on a horses-for-courses approach - as Bhuvneshwar Kumar's recent Test career would suggest - it isn't quite the case when they pick their batsmen. India have the resources to be able to do so.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo