Yet another ‘away’ Test tour is about to begin for India and once again, coach Ravi Shastri and skipper Virat Kohli are on the lookout for an opener.
Rohit Sharma’s calf injury, which ruled him out of the ODI and Test series, has come at an unfortunate time for India as his experience might have proved crucial even if his technique against the moving ball might have been tested to the hilt.
But instead, Kohli and Shastri will now need to pick between two 20-year-olds – Prithvi Shaw and Shubham Gill, for what promises to be a strict test. Their returns in the first innings of the warm-up match against New Zealand XI didn’t help either as both youngsters were dismissed for ducks.
Still, an opening assignment in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia (SENA countries) has never been an easy one for Indians. Even Virender Sehwag had his moments while opening in these four countries but he never quite managed to find the consistency that separates the very good from the great.
In the table below, we take a look at the numbers of all batsmen to have opened the innings for India since the turn of the century:
All Indian openers in away games since 2000
The gold standard that any India opener is measured up against is Sunil Gavaskar. His powers of concentration are legendary as was the confidence with which he left the ball outside the off-stump. His game was built on a near-perfect defence and the enormous value he placed on his wicket. The opposition would always have to work hard to get it. With Sunny, there were no easy games.
Sunil Gavaskar against the 'Big 4'
|v New Zealand||6||392||116||43.55||1|
|v West Indies||13||1404||220||70.20||7|
Take Gavaskar out of the picture and most will say that Sehwag was arguably India’s greatest opener. If not the greatest in terms of technique, then at least the greatest in terms of his match-winning impact. On his day, Sehwag could win India matches but his batting was always a double-edged sword. He had his moments in the SENA countries (like the unforgettable near-double ton in Melbourne) but there were plenty of disappointments as well.
Virender Sehwag in SENA countries
|v New Zealand||2002-2009||5||180||48||20.00||0|
|v South Africa||2001-2011||8||382||105||25.46||1|
At some point in his career, Gambhir lost his off-stump. But before that point, he established himself as an opener to be reckoned with. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say at one point he was one of the best Test openers in the world. He had superb tours of South Africa and New Zealand (admittedly, the conditions were better for batting in those years) but his battling instinct stood out even then. The left-hander averaged better than Sehwag in the SENA countries despite his failures in Australia and England.
Gambhir Gambhir in SENA countries
|v New Zealand||2009-2009||3||445||167||89.00||2|
|v South Africa||2010-2011||2||242||93||60.50||0|
Another opener who had a good run, impressing with his concentration and poise, was Murali Vijay. But then, he inexplicably hit a trough just when he should have been able to leverage his experience to get even better. In his last eight Tests in the SENA countries (three in SA, two in England, two in Australia), he collectively averaged 12.64.
Murali Vijay in SENA countries
|v New Zealand||2014-2014||2||48||26||12.00||0|
|v South Africa||2010-2018||6||278||97||23.16||0|
Has Dhawan been much worse than the others? One might argue otherwise. But his technique has never quite inspired confidence against the moving ball. A particularly solid tour of New Zealand is the highlight but he never quite found his feet, quite literally, away from home.
Shikhar Dhawan in SENA countries
|v New Zealand||2014-2014||2||215||115||53.75||1|
|v South Africa||2013-2018||3||108||29||18.00||0|
Depending on how Shaw and Gill go, many might look at the decision to not include KL Rahul in the Test squad as a big mistake. One school of thought is that he has been superb recently in white-ball cricket and that might have helped him settle in Test cricket too. But there is also the argument that including him in the Test squad could affect his white-ball confidence if he starts to struggle again. That’s a risk India can avoid in a World Cup year.
His overall numbers in Tests haven’t been great despite a promising start and that is why India is looking elsewhere. The most recent tour of West Indies was the final straw for the selectors as they rued his poor form despite getting plenty of opportunities.
KL Rahul in SENA countries
|v South Africa||2018-2018||2||30||16||7.50||0|
In conclusion, India’s openers have not exactly distinguished themselves in the SENA countries in recent past. Gambhir and Sehwag were probably the most consistent pairing, as the former’s powers of concentration were the perfect sheath to the latter’s swinging blade.
In SENA countries
But on the whole, the opening slot has remained a huge spot of bother for India while on tour in the SENA countries. They say well begun is half the job done but India has almost never managed to do that consistently enough. The table below is a fairly damning indictment of India’s starting troubles under Virat Kohli’s captaincy in the SENA countries.
Openers in SENA under Virat Kohli's captaincy
|MA Agarwal, GH Vihari||2||68||40||34.00||0|
|S Dhawan, KL Rahul||6||168||60||28.00||2|
|S Dhawan, M Vijay||6||161||50||26.83||1|
|PA Patel, M Vijay||1||17||17||17.00||0|
|KL Rahul, M Vijay||11||166||63||15.09||1|
|MA Agarwal, KL Rahul||1||10||10||10.00||0|
Like Sourav Ganguly said recently, even a makeshift option in Sanjay Bangar proved so important for the team doing well in England: that only goes to show the importance of starting the innings right and India will hope to avoid early jitters if they are to do well against Kane Williamson’s side.
All stats courtesy: ESPNCricinfo Statsguru