India haunted by perennial opening woes
NEW DELHI: It happened match after match in the Caribbean last year: Sunil Gavaskar was sitting in the press box when a familiar calypso sounded in the distance and made him break into a smile.
The song, penned as an ode to the Indian opener by Lord Relator in the early 1970s, went: “It was Gavaskar, the real master. Just like a wall. We couldn’t get Gavaskar at all, not at all. You know the West Indies couldn’t out Gavaskar at all.”
India’s selectors have spent the best part of the last 16 years, since Gavaskar retired as the first batsman to score 10,000 Test runs and the only one to hit 34 centuries, trying to find a quality opener who can replace him. They have tried 41 different combinations since 1987 but there remains a gaping void at the top of the batting order with an absence of dogged openers who, like Gavaskar, would be undaunted by bouncy wickets and unfazed by body blows.
Last month the Indian board said they had turned to Gavaskar himself to find someone to end their perennial search for a batsman who can successfully handle the new ball, especially in foreign conditions. But, from technique to temperament, there are problems aplenty among candidates vying for the job ahead of an important tour of Australia in December when the hosts will be gunning to avenge their shock 2-1 defeat in India two years ago.
Search on: Virender Sehwag and Sanjay Bangar have opened for India since a tour of England last year but their partnership, which ends this week in the first Test against New Zealand starting Wednesday, was unlikely to last for long.
Sehwag, who bats at number four for Delhi in domestic matches, wants to play down the order and Bangar, praised for his ability to stay on the wicket for long hours, was criticised at the same time for failing to keep the scoreboard moving. “It’s highly unlikely that we will go to Australia in December without two specialist openers,” an Indian selector, who did not wish to be identified, told reporters.
The main candidates being talked about are Shiv Sundar Das, Sadagopan Ramesh, Wasim Jaffer, all of whom have been discarded before, and Delhi opener Akash Chopra. But doubts linger about all of them. Gavaskar said last year that Das was getting out repeatedly because he pushed his bat too far forward, instead of keeping it in line with his head, at point of impact while playing defensive shots.
Ramesh’s flaw is a lack of footwork. The 27-year-old player, who has a healthy Test average of 37.97, makes up for it with immaculate balance. But he was unable to improvise successfully on fast wickets in Australia in 1999-2000. Bombay’s Jaffer has been criticised for playing too many reckless shots. Former West Indies captain Viv Richards said last year that Jaffer needed to curb his enthusiasm and be more selective with his strokes to succeed as a Test opener.
Inside track: The uncapped Chopra, picked for the first New Zealand Test after a century against the side in a tour match last month, has the inside track for Australia tour because of his compact batting style but he has little overseas experience.
Former England opener Geoffrey Boycott, known as a technical expert, has said all the young contenders are simply not good enough to play abroad.
India’s inability to find quality openers has been attributed to a system that encourages slow wickets where the ball almost never rises beyond waist height. Nor is there any appreciable lateral movement off the seam. As a result, openers in particular find themselves totally at sea against quality pacemen in friendly bowling conditions on lively tracks overseas.
“Finding the right openers is a point of concern with the public, media and board,” Indian cricket board chief Jagmohan Dalmiya said last month. “This is an ongoing process but the day is not far when we will again have very good players in the opening position.”
Gavaskar’s inclusion in the programme and re-laying pitches in select Indian Test grounds may be steps in the right direction. But the day when another calypso is written in praise of an Indian opener is still very far away. —Reuters