They say it all begins at the top. But for India, in England, the only thing that happens at the top is the fall of an early wicket. Batting against the new ball is never an easy thing and it gets even more difficult in England where the weather can play a huge role in how much swing the bowlers can find on a day.
And then, there is the Duke’s ball which swings for longer than the Kookaburra or the SG balls. Only after the 60th over does the ball truly stop swinging and that is usually enough time for England’s bowlers, led by the redoubtable James Anderson, to skittle out the opposition.
But being an opener is a specialist job. They set the tone for the innings; perhaps for the tour itself. Keep the opposition at bay long enough and various other factors such as confidence and fatigue start to come into play as well. Over the last decade though, India’s openers have painted a miserable picture. They simply haven’t got going.
India 2011 opening stands: 63, 19, 0, 6, 8, 3, 8, 49
Avg opening stand: 19.5
India 2014 opening stands: 33, 49, 11, 40, 17, 26, 8, 26, 3, 6
Avg opening stand: 21.9
India 2018 opening stands: 50, 19, 0, 0, 60, 60, 37, 4, 6, 1
Avg opening stand: 23.7
Across three tours, not a single century stand between the openers.
In a nutshell, the challenge ahead of Rohit Sharma, who has had his issues against the moving ball in the past, and whoever is his partner (Mayank Agarwal or Shubman Gill) is an immense one.
As the legendary India opener Sunil Gavaskar once told The Hindu, “England demands something more special than say Australia, South Africa or the West Indies. The ball doesn’t move as much in Australia and the West Indies; in the air and off the surface.”
Gavaskar further added: “So England demands a lot more of footwork, patience to see off the new ball when it’s really swinging and seaming. Like in any grade of cricket you will get a delivery that can be scored off. But, generally one has to be a bit more watchful. Good old Vasu (Vasu Paranjape) used to say, ‘give the first half-an-hour to the bowlers, then the next five hours are yours’.”
In the recent past, we have seen Rohit Sharma do that but to do that when the ball is scything parabolas through the air and off the pitch requires a very different mindset; a mindset that allows you to focus solely on the next ball without worrying about what happened on the previous delivery.
If it is an overcast day, the ball might miss the bat more than it will hit, and on those days, you look to survive. By hook or by crook. And to be fair, the opener gets the worst of it. The new ball always swings.
Top 10 Indian openers in England
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None of India’s recent openers have managed to truly find their feet in England. Rahul Dravid, as an opener, was brilliant in 2011. His SR was 47.77. Murali Vijay topped the run-scoring charts in 2014. His SR was 38.14. They were patient and they waited for the bad ball; they waited for as long as it took.
Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t go for your shots. Virender Sehwag did that with limited success but very few players can play like him. Maybe Rohit Sharma can but it still requires the batsmen to be smart about how they want to attack. Push too hard and an edge will fly to the slips. Become too passive and you’ll be caught out by the swing anyway. Finding the middle ground is tricky but essential.
India's openers in England since 2011
Still, it can be done. It can be done by Indian openers. The last decade has been testing to say the least. But in the two tours before that, India’s batsmen found a way to score big runs in England and even the openers had relatively healthy averages.
India's openers in England from 2000 and 2010
The batting conditions were good as well but you still need to make the most of them and that is exactly what India did. The early end of the IPL, caused by the suspension of the tournament due to the Covid-19 pandemic, means that India’s batting line-up would have had enough time to find the right mental gear for the tour ahead.
India know that their bowling strength will ensure that they will be in with a good chance on the tour but Virat Kohli and Co will be desperately hoping that the batsmen come good and if the openers can come to the party as well then good things will truly begin at the top.
All stats courtesy ESPNCricinfo
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