All cricketers fail but if you are an Indian Test opener, the chances given to you to find your feet and stand up again are fewer than those afforded to others.
Take a look at what has happened on just this one tour of Australia: Rohit Sharma would have been the opener with Mayank Agarwal, but he got injured during the Indian Premier League. Since then, a game of musical chairs has been played. Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw were the preferred openers. That much was indicated by the team having Shaw come out to open ahead of Shubman Gill in the warm-up games.
Then, after looking technically loose in the warm-up games, Shaw was still given a go in the first Test. But two bad innings later, he was dropped and Gill was brought in to fill the breach. In the meantime, Agarwal, the most experienced of the lot, started looking like a walking wicket (Agarwal’s series so far: 17, 9, 0, 5) and experts started finding flaws in his technique.
All this was just in time for Rohit Sharma, who finished his hard quarantine after recovering from his injury, to join the team for Sydney. Now, he has been named vice-captain which probably indicates that he will play in the third Test and that might mean that either Agarwal or Gill could be left out or pushed down the order to replace Hanuma Vihari.
None of it is new but this has been, in microcosm, India’s opening policy in Tests over the last few years. It is rather ironic that there is so much instability in a position that is expected to provide stability; a base for the team to build on.
The table below lists India’s openers over the last five years. The top three names in the table don’t even figure in the opening argument anymore. Agarwal is the man the selectors were banking on to make at least one end steady and the others haven’t done the job long enough.
India's openers last 5 years
A different Rohit
Rohit’s struggles in Test cricket are well documented, as is his success in ODIs. But many will argue that opening in Tests, especially away from India, is a whole different thing. The red ball does a lot more than the white ball and it moves for longer.
Still, we have seen the right-hander’s Test average go up significantly in recent times. He now averages 46.54 in Test cricket, a number that will be considered very good for an opener. But all his opening numbers are a result of batting in India.
His numbers in South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia are very different.
Rohit Sharma's Test batting
Ravi Shastri and Co will want to believe that the experience accumulated over the years will help Rohit make the required adjustment for opening in Test cricket too. Even in ODIs, he now has a much more measured approach than earlier. He takes his time to begin the innings before finally pressing his foot down the accelerator.
Another reason to be hopeful is the manner in which Rohit plays the short ball. He has been a good exponent of the pull and the hook shot and has never been worried about the bounce. The moving ball is a different argument though.
Rohit in SENA countries
|in New Zealand||2014-2014||2||122||72||40.66||0|
|in South Africa||2013-2018||4||123||47||15.37||0|
Short term fix
But there is no denying that even Rohit will be little more than a short term fix. Unless the team management and the selectors can tweak their policy for openers, India will struggle to be at their best away from home where the need for good openers is highlighted over and over again.
Some might say that making the transition between opening the batting in white-ball cricket and opening in Tests is very difficult and it probably is. There is a mental adjustment to be made, the technique has to be tightened and the natural urge to play shots has to be suppressed as well. None of this is easy.
India haven’t been blessed with many great opening pairs in the past but it is no coincidence that some of the team’s finest runs in Test cricket have come when they have found stability at the top of the order.
India openers in Tests (1000+ runs)
|W Jaffer & V Sehwag||2002-2008||28||1031||36.82|
|M Vijay* & S Dhawan*||2013-2018||41||1757||43.92|
|S M Gavaskar & A D Gaekwad||1976-1984||49||1722||35.88|
|S M Gavaskar & K Srikkanth||1981-1987||34||1469||43.21|
|C P S Chauhan & S M Gavaskar||1973-1981||59||3010||52.81|
|V Sehwag & G Gambhir||2004-2012||87||4350||51.79|
The story for India is starkly different in ODIs. They have, somehow, managed to find the right people for the job in an unbroken run that almost extends all the way back to 1996 when Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly moved up the order. Incidentally, they never took up the opener’s job in Test cricket (Both players opened the innings in Test cricket just once).
But that stability at the top of the order has the cornerstone of India’s success in ODIs.
India Openers in ODIs (1000+ runs)
|S R Tendulkar & S C Ganguly||1996-2007||136||6609||49.32|
|R G Sharma & S Dhawan||2013-2020||107||4802||45.30|
|S R Tendulkar & V Sehwag||2002-2012||93||3919||42.14|
|V Sehwag & G Gambhir||2003-2013||38||1870||50.54|
|S C Ganguly & V Sehwag||2001-2007||43||1714||39.86|
|S M Gavaskar & K Srikkanth||1981-1987||55||1680||30.55|
|S R Tendulkar & A Jadeja||1994-1996||22||1315||59.77|
|S Dhawan & A M Rahane||2014-2017||18||1153||64.06|
|R J Shastri & K Srikkanth||1983-1992||32||1135||35.47|
The Indian team management won’t be thinking long-term at the moment. They will only want to find a way out of their current predicament; a way out of this dangerous game of musical chairs. And that would be the approach they should take too. But for new chairman of selectors Chetan Sharma and his fellow selectors, this should be an area of particular focus.
They need to not only find the right candidates but also find ways to ensure that those candidates get a long enough run to make the most of their talent. The job isn’t an easy one but that is precisely why they get paid the big bucks.
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