From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.12 :: Mar. 21, 2009
Opening batsmen are considered specialists in their positions. For that matter, the No. 3 slot is always said to be marked for the best batsman in the team, for he is expected to deal with the new and the semi-new ball with the same flourish. Middle-order batsmen have their own strong points, but openers are special. They play a significant role in deciding the course of the innings.
Remember the openers from the past — from the days when there was no elaborate protective gear — and then the era when the face of the batsman was sheltered behind a grill attached to the helmet. Batting continues to be a hazardous exercise, especially when opening the innings, but it is not a fearsome task. Getting hit is not a crippling factor.
India has had a rich history of openers; rich in terms of technique and strokeplay. Batsmen like Vijay Merchant, Mushtaq Ali, Vinoo Mankad, Pankaj Roy, Nari Contractor, Farokh Engineer, M. L. Jaisimha, Sunil Gavaskar, Chetan Chauhan, Aunshuman Gaekwad, K. Srikkanth, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Ravi Shastri have all served with distinction as openers. (India has tried out 138 opening combinations so far in Test cricket.) Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have brought a refreshing aggression to the role of opening the innings from the time they came together in the 2004-05 season.
The image of an opener from the 1970s and 1980s is in stark contrast to the contemporary one. Images of Gavaskar in the middle are still vivid. His partners kept changing, but not Gavaskar’s resolve. He would take his time to settle at the crease — he would survey the field, tap the pitch to overcome “butterflies” in his stomach, and wait for the fast bowler. Nine times out of ten he would have to leave the ball or offer a defensive bat.
In modern cricket, the role and appearance of an opener has undergone a sea change. Images of Sehwag in the middle conjure some of the most exciting moments of the game. Like in the case of Gavaskar, Sehwag’s partners too have kept changing, but not his unique approach to the game. He takes little time to settle at the crease, does not worry about the field and there is nothing called “butterflies” in the stomach as he waits for the fast bowler. Nine times out of ten he would smash the first ball of his innings to the boundary. This is the difference between opening the innings as taught in the coaching manual and the one popularised by Sehwag, a protagonist of attacking and entertaining batsmanship.
“At most times he defies the basics of batting. Does it matter? Look at where the ball flies off his bat,” says Sandeep Patil, who, in his heyday, was a huge crowd-puller because of his attacking presence at the crease.
“I love his batting,” says Kapil Dev in praise of Sehwag.
When Sehwag walks out with Gambhir, the audience, on television and at the venue, is assured of some creative batting as the openers invite each other to a pleasing competition; a competition that contributes towards making batting an interesting spectacle.
Sehwag and Gambhir should rank as the best opening pair in the world today, if not India’s greatest ever. That distinction belongs to Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan, who brought solidity and respectability to the job. The pair brought stability to the position and went a long way in making the team realise it had the potential at a time when fast bowling standards were far superior to what it is now.
The Gavaskar-Srikkanth association was a delightful departure from the Gavaskar-Chauhan era. Srikkanth brought rare belligerence to the job even as Gavaskar relentlessly tried to play the calming partner. They complemented each other splendidly, just as Sehwag and Gambhir do now. But then, Sehwag and Gambhir are yet to open in a Test in Australia, England, Pakistan, South Africa and West Indies.
Chauhan was Gavaskar’s best partner. “We had a specific role to perform. Stay at the wicket. Remember there was no restriction on the short ball those days and bowlers were genuinely quick,” Chauhan points out even as he raves about the Sehwag-Gambhir combine. “They are a devastating pair. Both are amazingly positive.”
From the ‘blunt the ball and tire the bowlers out’ strategy of Gavaskar and Chauhan, there is a markedly changed attitude shown by Sehwag and Gambhir. The right-left combination, tactically strong, makes the job difficult for the bowlers but what makes them dangerous is their desire to match each other. “When he hits the ball hard, I draw my plans to contribute too,” admits Gambhir, who is a great fan of Sehwag.
Gavaskar is known to take young openers out to dinners. Sehwag can’t forget the one in Australia. “It was a great motivation,” he confesses. He lost little time in imbibing what he learnt from the great Gavaskar. And that has made him the most feared batsman in international cricket today.
Sehwag also gives credit to Gambhir for the domination they establish at the crease. “I enjoy his batting. It is a treat to watch him at the other end,” says Sehwag. “I have the best seat in the stadium to watch Viru decimate the bowling,” reciprocates Gambhir.
Sehwag and Gambhir have introduced a different approach to opening the innings. Times have changed from the situation when an opener had to be patient. In the last decade or more, cricket has seen entertainers at the top like Michael Slater, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Graeme Smith, Sanath Jayasuriya and Saeed Anwar to name a few. They were not the typical openers who would leave the ball more than play it. A good ‘leave’ was considered essential to become an opener. Now, leaving the ball is a rare sight!
Today the opener is a batsman with an aggressive mindset. Sehwag, Gambhir, Chris Gayle signify the modern opener. Today’s opener will not allow the bowler to dictate terms and here Sehwag and Gambhir stand out for their exceptional consistency. It may be a little early to judge their value when placed alongside Gavaskar and Chauhan, but Sehwag and Gambhir can aspire to become the greatest Indian opening pair. They have the potential to attain that status.
“We don’t play for records,” was Gambhir’s honest submission when discussing his partnership with Sehwag. They bat to dominate. A first-ball boundary is very much on the cards when they open, be it in Tests or one-day internationals. They have made a huge impact on India’s batting approach in the past season with their attacking instincts. They may not be copybook openers, but led by Sehwag, the pair is firmly on course to becoming an all-time best association.
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