Wednesday, 6 June, 2007

First In First Out - Part I

Almost exactly 20 years before Rahul Dravid and his men succumbed to Bangladesh’s Mortaza, Razzak and Rafiq in the first round of 2007 World cup, Sunil Gavaskar was waging the last of his numerous battles, this time against Pakistani spinners Tausif Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim, on a treacherous Bangalore pitch. The day - 16th March 1987 - was Gavaskar’s last in test cricket.

It was also the beginning of a long drawn struggle for Indian openers, a struggle, which shows no signs of abating even today.

How uphill the task has been for Indians can be gauged from the fact that in last 20 years, India has selected no fewer than 30 openers in test matches and in the process tried 50 different combinations of opening pair. That means a new opening batsman after 5 tests (approximately, for India played 161 tests after Gavaskar retired) and a new opening combination every 3 tests! A sure recipe for disaster, won’t you say?

What do the figures during the Gavaskar era say? In 129 tests that India played since his debut at the Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1971, Gavaskar has partnered 19 batsmen to open the Indian innings. This list does not include players like Raman Lamba, Suru Nayak and Lalchand Rajput, all of whom have opened the batting when Gavaskar was either unfit or had dropped himself lower down the order. The number of opening combinations during this period reads 30.

If we peek into the pre Gavaskar era, i.e. from 1932 to 1971, during which it played 117 tests, India has had 30 openers and 45 different combinations of opening pair. An opener every 4 tests and a different combination every 3 tests.

Dig deeper and we find that in 75 years of its test history, only four Indians had an extended/continuous run as opening batsman. Pankaj Roy - for almost a decade in 1950s, Nari Contractor - between 1955 till the time he got injured during the WI tour of 1962, Sunil Gavaskar - from 1971 to 1987 and Virendra Sehwag from - 2002 to 2007.

What do these figures suggest? Obvious inference is the lack of quality opening batsmen over a period of time. But more damning is that, when we were fortunate to have a quality opener in the side, we failed to capitalize on it by not having a stable opening partner at the other end.

There are only four instances in Indian cricket, when the same opening pair batted a full series involving 5 tests or more. Three of those involved Gavaskar (with Chauhan against Australia in 1979, with Gaekwad against WI in 1983 and with Srikanth against Pakistan in 1987). The other instance was in 1955 against Pakistan, when Pankaj Roy and P H Punjabi opened in all 5 tests.

Opening batsmen, like bowlers, hunt in pairs. Hutton - Washbrook, Lawry - Simpson, Greenidge – Haynes and Hayden – Langer, to name a few, form cricket’s most celebrated opening pairs. No wonder, their stay at the ‘top’ coincided with the team’s domination in world cricket.

So when Rahul Dravid said, at the end of recent Bangladesh series, that during the last ten years he has seen only ‘makeshift’ openers open the Indian batting, he wasn’t merely stating the fact. He was also alluding to the deeper malaise that has been part of Indian cricket since 25th June 1932 – the day India played her first test match at Lords.

(to be continued...)


Kartikeya said...

Nice analysis.... though im not sure i would call it a malaise. In the 75 years of Indias test history, if you discount the first 7 years and the period between 1978-1994, India have not had a world class new ball bowler either let alone new ball opening pair.

The key issue in the discussion about openers in my view is that all great openers have first and foremost been terrific batsmen. If you invert that argument, then it probably makes a lot of sense to find high quality batsmen, and if they want to be openers - to invest in them (as was done with Sehwag with spectacular success).

Cricket Guru said...

Thanks Kartikeyan,

The reason why I called it a malaise would be clear in the part II and III of this post. I hope you have read it too.

I agree openers are not born, they just have a different temperament, Sehwag and Hayden being the obvious exceptions to the rule.

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