India's opening conundrum

Chin music
Hanuma Vihari falls to a Pat Cummins bouncer on the opening day of the Melbourne Test. AFP

When India announced that Hanuma Vihari will be opening the innings in the third Test in Melbourne, one was reminded of the old adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” One had hoped that after evolving into a side that has showed guts and gumption for taking on opponents on their terms and reaching the pinnacle as the No. 1 Test team, India had grown out of the naive practices of yesteryear, one of which was to convert middle order batsmen into openers in Test cricket. It saddened one to see that despite the presence of recognised openers in the side the team management decided to push Vihari, who does not possess any experience of opening the batting even in first class cricket, to the top of the order at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

A quick look at the history of Indian cricket would reveal that except for short periods when country was fortunate to find good pair of opening batsmen, it was the norm for the national side to take the field with makeshift openers in Tests. During the period prior to 1950s, Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali formed a good opening pair though they could play together only on very few occasions.

After their exit from the scene, Pankaj Roy made his way into the playing eleven as the regular opener. He usually had the versatile Vinoo Mankad as his partner. Mankad could bat at any position in the order. Though not a natural opener, Mankad’s technical prowess and temperament were such that he adjusted to this role comfortably and the pair even notched up the world record for biggest first wicket partnership (413 runs) which remained unbroken for more than half-a-century.

However, during the 1960s India struggled to find a reliable set of opening batsmen. Nari Contractor was a solid opener who could have served the side at the top of the order had his career not been cut short by a Charlie Griffith bouncer which nearly killed him. During the entire decade India experimented with makeshift openers - Dilip Sardesai, M L Jaisimha, Farokh Engineer, Budhi Kunderan, Rusi Surti, Abid Ali, Ashok Mankad are some of the names that spring to mind.

All of them were more comfortable batting in the middle order, but were forced to open the innings as the side lacked specialist opening batsmen. None of them, except Engineer, met with success while opening the innings. However, since they were not certainties in the playing eleven, they chose to open the batting as that gave them a opportunity to play for the country, which they did not wish to lose out by insisting on batting down the order.

Calming presence of Gavaskar

It was only after the arrival of Sunil Gavaskar that India’s woes at the opening slot were cured to a substantial extent. During his Test career spanning 16 years, Gavaskar had 12 partners, out of whom only Ramnath Parker, Chetan Chauhan, Krishnamachari Srikkanth and Pronob Roy were regular opening batsmen. The remaining eight, of whom Anshuman Gaekwad and Engineer were the most successful, were middle order batsmen and distinctly uncomfortable at the top of the order. Out of the rest, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar, Dilip Vengsarkar and Ravi Shastri managed to revert to middle order and sustained their career, while Sudhir Naik and Arun Lal could not manage that shift and had to be satisfied with shortened careers at the highest level. Shastri, though, possessed sufficient skill and technique to become a full fledged opening batsman at a later stage in his career.

The 1990s also saw many middle order batsmen padding up to face the new ball. Sanjay Manjrekar decided to open the innings as he felt that his place in the middle order was not secure while V V S Laxman found that this offered him the only way to break into the playing eleven. Manjrekar played only a couple of matches as opening batsman after which he was dropped. Laxman, on the other hand, played quite a few Test matches and even hit a brilliant century against an Australia attack comprising Glen McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne, while batting in this position. However, he later decided to bat in the middle order, where he made tons of runs for the country. W V Raman was another middle order batsman who resorted to opening the innings in his later years, with moderate success.

Lone exception

Twenty first century has also had its share of converted Indian opening batsmen, the most prominent among them being Virender Sehwag, who soon became the most dreaded willow-wielder of his generation. Sehwag started out as a middle order batsman and even scored a century on his Test debut, batting at No. 6 position. However, Sourav Ganguly prodded him into opening the innings and the rest, as they say, is history. Sehwag made the required adjustments in his technique and played more in the 'V' between mid on and mid off during the initial overs, but mercilessly punished every loose ball that came his way. He scored two triple centuries, missed a third one narrowly and invariably succeeded in giving his side a head start, even while playing in the most adverse conditions.

If Sehwag found his true calling when asked to open the innings, Rahul Dravid was often pitchforked into that position on account of the needs of the side. Though he made plenty of runs in that position, and once even came close to breaking the record set by Mankad and Roy in the company of Sehwag, Dravid was not comfortable batting at the top of the order. The most reliable partners that Sehwag had during his career were Aakash Chopra and Gautam Gambhir, who were both natural opening batsmen. During this phase India also experimented with Parthiv Patel and Yuvraj Singh as opening partners for Sehwag, but the two failed to make their mark in this position.

After the exit of Sehwag, opening slots have been held by Gambhir, Shikar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and K L Rahul, all naturals in that position. After the exit of Gambhir and the drop in form of other three, newcomers Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal have grabbed the openings and eased into the side. The present squad had in its ranks Rahul, Vijay and Agarwal, who was brought in after Shaw suffered an injury to his ankle and had to be sent back to India.

From the above account it would emerge that except for Sehwag, none of the other middle order batsmen who were asked to open the innings in Test matches could fit into that role comfortably. Ashok Mankad and Shastri could perform creditably in that position on account their versatility, while Engineer put his flair to good use to run up some decent scores. Other than these four, the rest flopped and while some had their careers crippled due to this move, others returned to middle order to rediscover their moorings. Those batsmen who tried to move to the opening slot to salvage their careers did not meet with success either as they found the task too daunting and beyond their ability.

I recall the advice given by Vengsarkar to Manjrekar to desist from making the move when the latter announced his decision to open the innings. Vengsarkar would have known the agony of being made to open the innings when one’s mind was not on it. Not only did he fail miserably, he lost vital years of Test cricket and could establish himself in the side only in 1978 despite making his debut in New Zealand almost three years ago. Similarly, Laxman has admitted about how he had stopped enjoying the game when he was made to open the innings. It was only after he took the firm decision not to don the role of an opener in any grade of cricket, that Laxman could rediscover the joy associated with batting. Needless to say, the move to middle order saw him score runs by the tons and emerge as one of the mainstays of Indian batting through the first decade of 21st century.

Preferential treatment?
The Indian team management decided to keep Rohit Sharma in the middle order in the Boxing Day Test. AFP

One does not know whether Vihari’s opinion was sought for before deciding to play him as an opener. Even if it was, the poor lad would not have had much of a choice as he could not afford to antagonise the team management and risk being accused of lacking in team spirit and dropped after one bad performance. As Laxman himself stated, it was unfair to ask Vihari to open the innings. What made this decision look worse was that the batsman retained in the middle order was Rohit Sharma, who possessed considerable experience in opening the batting in limited overs cricket but has not being doing well in the middle order in Test matches played outside India. Followers of the game may be pardoned if the thought that Vihari was made the sacrificial lamb to salvage the career of Rohit crossed their minds. Vihari failed in both innings while Rohit utilised this opening and the dropped catches to notch up an unbeaten half-century in the first innings. While it is anyone’s guess whether Vihari might have performed better than Rohit in the middle order, what has emerged crystal clear is the fact that team management has been partial towards the latter at the expense of the former.

Nothing can be more cruel to a talented youngster than tinkering with his position in the batting order just as he is coming to grips with the pressures of playing cricket at the highest level. A player gains entry to the national squad after honing his technique and temperament in the cauldron of domestic cricket circuit for many years. The national selectors who choose the members of the side pick a player to bat at a particular position in the playing eleven, which is based on his performances.

It would be next to impossible for most cricketers to suddenly change their attitude and approach to the game and bat at a different position, especially in the more difficult slot at the top of the order, in the challenging arena of Test cricket. It is indeed sad that these aspects are brushed aside by the captain and coach, who act as final arbiters in picking the playing eleven, especially when the side is touring.

India winning the Melbourne Test by a comfortable margin should not take the attention away from the injustice meted out to Vihari. It's high time the team management stopped toying with the careers of young players by forcing them to open the innings. The success of Agarwal in the opening slot in Melbourne only goes to show that the task of opening the innings should be left to batsmen who specialise in this position. The Board of Control for Cricket in India should insist that players chosen for opening the innings should be asked to perform that task and if they are not found good enough selectors should accept their mistake and provide substitutes from among those playing domestic cricket.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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