It is often said that it requires a specialist to open the batting in Test cricket. You need a technically correct batsman, capable of seeing out the new ball in the toughest of conditions. You need patience. You need to know where your off-stump is. There are exceptions, of course, but the conditions required to be an opening batsman in Tests are arguably the toughest to be met.
But is One-Day International cricket any different? The most successful ODI openers are the ones who made the position their own by being specialists, of course, of a different kind. The ability to take on bowlers early on in an innings, the strokes to score runs all around the pitch, the courage to cut and pull fast bowlers... it requires the batsmen to be at their best from the word go and those who shine in that role are often regarded as the most important batsmen for their sides. (Unlike Test cricket where a side’s best batsman usually plays at No 3 or No 4).
In Indian cricket history, the best openers possess the aforementioned traits in abundance. The best of the best ODI openers for India, however, have another thing in common: they were not openers to begin with.
(Note: Scroll horizontally or swipe right to view all the columns in the tables below)
India's top 10 run-getters in ODIs (as openers)
Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and Rohit Sharma – the top four run-getters in the 50-over format for India – were all moved from the middle order to the opener’s slot; moves that paid rich dividends to Indian cricket. Each of those men were capable of winning the match single-handedly for India as openers, but each of them had to convince someone else or be convinced to take up that role.
ODI debut: vs Pakistan in Gujranwala, 18 December 1989 (Position: 5)
First innings as opener: vs New Zealand in Auckland, 27 March 1994
In March, 1994, when Navjot Singh Sidhu woke up one morning in New Zealand with a sprained neck, Indian cricket changed forever. And, arguably, ODI cricket too. Tendulkar, as he would recall, pleaded for one chance to show his abilities at the top of the order. In his 70th ODI, his captain Mohammed Azharuddin would let Tendulkar open the batting for the first time. The Master Blaster blazed his way to 82 off 49 balls and the rest... you know what they say.
“I went up to Azhar and our manager Ajit Wadekar, a former Indian captain and a leading batsman of his time, and pleaded with them to give me an opportunity at the top of the order.
“Why did I think I should open? Well, I had the ability to attack bowlers and play shots from the word go, and in the one-day game, the key was to take advantage of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs. I was sure that I just needed a chance to prove myself.”— via Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography 'Playing It My Way'
Tendulkar loved opening the batting and he was really good at it, in case you had not noticed from the numbers above. Later in his career, he would go back to the middle order briefly (and even enjoy some success) but his best days in India’s blue were at the top of the order. He scored a whopping 83% of his 18,426 runs as an opener for India.
Sachin Tendulkar in ODIs
|Not as opener||112||3116||140*||33.14||78.29||4||21|
As the graphs show, Tendulkar’s ODI career took time to get going (he scored his first century in his 79th ODI) but once he was sent to the top of the order the average kept rising before settling in the mid 40s.
Here’s Tendulkar talking about asking for “just one chance” to show what he can do as an opener:
ODI debut: vs West Indies in Brisbane, 11 January 1992 (Position: 6)
First innings as opener: vs South Africa in Jaipur, 23 October 1996
The words Ganguly and debut immediately bring back memories of Lord’s 1996 for Indian cricket fans. But it is easy to forget sometimes that Ganguly made his India debut in the ODI format back in 1992, when he played a solitary match in Australia against West Indies.
Back in the Indian set-up in 1996, Ganguly set about making his mark on Indian cricket like few others. After his successful initiation into Test cricket, the turning point for Ganguly in ODIs came in Jaipur, 1996.
My phone rang in the hotel room. It was captain Tendulkar. And he was urgently calling me to his room.
Life has taught me that the best things happen in an unplanned fashion. That day in Jaipur, Sachin calmly informed me that I would have to open in the tri-series. It didn’t matter whether I agreed or not. He had clearly made up his mind.
The series was beginning in just two days and involved the strongest nations – South Africa and Australia. That I had previously never opened in any of the representative matches only added to my worries.
In fact, I wasn’t totally convinced of Sachin’s decision. But he was my captain and I accepted the directive without any argument. I told myself that I had often played at No 3 in Test matches and that sometimes involved going in to bat in the first over. So what was new?
Two days later my journey as a one-day opener began and I didn’t disappoint by scoring a stroke-filled 65. In one-day cricket, I have never looked back.— via 'A Century Is Not Enough' by Sourav Ganguly
Unlike Tendulkar, Ganguly’s ascent to the top of the order was quicker. (One wonders now what role his own promotion back in 1994 played in Tendulkar’s decision to do the same for Ganguly). The left-hander formed an epic opening partnership with Tendulkar that remains the best in the 50-over format till this date. Ganguly’s glittering career saw him score 80.5% of his runs as opener in ODIs, slightly below Tendulkar’s percentage.
Sourav Ganguly in ODIs
|Not as opener||64||2217||112*||38.89||74.19||3||14|
Once he became captain, however, Ganguly moved up and down the order far more often and in the later part of his career, he featured at No 3 frequently as a certain Virender Sehwag took centerstage.
ODI debut: vs Pakistan in Mohali, 1 April 1999 (Position: 7)
First innings as opener: vs New Zealand in Colombo (RPS), 26 July 2001
Virender Sehwag was an enigma. For a batsman who thrived on attacking cricket, he was far more successful as a Test opener than in limited-overs cricket. Having started off as a middle-order batsman who could bat fearlessly irrespective of the game situation, Sehwag’s stroke-making ability caught the eye of his captain Ganguly. An idea emerged, that would redefine Indian cricket.
When Ganguly and coach John Wright wanted a change at the top of the order during a tri-series in Sri Lanka in 2002, Sehwag was asked to open. He stepped up in style.
“He opened in Tests the way he had batted in the middle order – still smashing it. He didn’t redefine his game because of his batting position. He redefined the position with his batting. I do not use the word genius casually.
“He made me sit up when he scored 58 against Australia in the Bangalore ODI. It was an innings of timing and confidence against bowlers like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. We moved him into the opening slot in ODIs in a tri-series in Sri Lanka for two reasons: we had opening problems, and Viru kept getting out trying to slog the spinners in the middle overs. He nailed opening the batting beautifully – with it, he solved our problems and found he could play his game at its fullest.”— John Wright via ESPNCricinfo
For someone as talented as Sehwag, the numbers in ODI were never truly exceptional but that is also a reflection of his batting style. It was his strike-rate that mattered more than the not-outs or average because he was a batsman whose only plan of attack was to attack. And he scored 90.9% of his ODI runs batting at the top of the order.
Virender Sehwag in ODIs
|Not as opener||33||755||114||25.16||100.66||1||3|
Unlike Ganguly and Tendulkar, once he became an opener, Sehwag stayed there for the majority of his career. His cumulative average started rising, of course, coinciding with his move to the top but he had his ups and downs later on in his career. Nonetheless, his role as one of India’s all-time greats is unquestionable.
ODI debut: vs Ireland in Belfast, 23 June 2007 (Did not bat)
First innings as opener: vs South Africa in Cape Town, 18 January 2011
In many ways, the move from middle order to the top made complete sense for the likes of Tendulkar, Ganguly and Sehwag. They had already shown how good they were in their careers leading up to the decisive move. There is no way to prove it, but even without the promotion to the top of the order, they might have gone on to have legendary ODI careers for India.
For Rohit Sharma, however, the move completely changed his life. Despite his obvious talent (that even made Virat Kohli somewhat jealous in their respective days in age-group cricket), Rohit was a struggling middle order batsman, who was barely getting enough runs to keep his place in the Indian side. His form in 2010 and early 2011 resulted in him being dropped from the squad for the World Cup.
And then, the turnaround happened in early 2013 against England during a home series when he was made the opener for good (he had opened the batting thrice in 2011). He followed that up with a steady show in the 2013 Champions Trophy and from there, there has been no looking back.
“I believe the decision to open in ODIs changed my career and it was a decision taken by MS Dhoni. I became a better batsman after that. In fact, it helped me understand my game better... react better according to situations.
“He just came up to me and said ‘I want you to open the innings as I am confident that you will do well. Since you can play both the cut and pull shot well, you have the qualities to succeed as an opener.’
“He told me that I shouldn’t be scared of failures or get upset by criticism. He was looking at the bigger picture as the Champions Trophy was scheduled in England that year.”— Rohit Sharma via PTI in 2017
Rohit Sharma in ODIs
|Not as opener||79||1967||114||31.72||78.58||2||12|
Before January 23, 2013 (when he opened against England), Rohit had an ODI average of 30.43 from 81 innings. Now, his ODI average is just a tad short of 50 and he has three ODI double-centuries to his name. That sums up his incredible turnaround. The rise of his average alongside the promotion in the batting order is clear from the graphs below and more significantly so than the three Indian greats above him (for now) in the run tally.
Here’s Dhoni talking in 2015 about his decision to make Rohit an opener, which has proved to be a masterstroke in Indian cricket:
Four greats of the game
And, as fate would have it, the four accidental openers of Indian cricket have redefined the game in their own ways over the years. While Tendulkar started off with the aggressive approach during powerplay, we have now, perhaps, come a full circle with Rohit taking the patient approach early on in an innings before stepping on the gas later on. The current Indian opener has made it a habit to play long innings and on an average, faces five more balls per innings than Ganguly and Tendulkar did during their days at the top of the batting order. Sehwag, as one can see, was not really a fan of hanging around even though he was the first man on the planet to hit two ODI double hundreds.
Balls faced per innings as openers
|Player||Inns||Balls faced||BF / innings|
Tendulkar and Sehwag, similar as they were in many ways, also have (almost) the exact same average ratio as openers and non-openers. For Ganguly, his batting average did not fluctuate much when he did not open the innings (just a difference of two points). However, for more evidence that Rohit’s promotion clearly changed his career, the average ratio tells you a tale: his batting average as an opener in 1.83 times higher than that as a non-opener (almost twice as high).
Avg comparison as openers/non-openers in ODIs
|Player||Career avg||Avg as non-opener||Avg as opener||Avg ratio (O/N-O)|
All said and done, Indian cricket must be thankful for the circumstances that made these four batsmen open the batting at various points in their careers. Have we not been entertained?
How would you rank these Indian openers in your list? Tweet to us @thefield_in.