Rome was not built in a day. Same analogy applies to innings building in Test cricket. In the battle between sides the foot soldiers who take most of the brunt from the opposition are the openers. The openers face the best bowlers from the opposition on an untested pitch and in the most difficult conditions. Sunil Gavaskar, arguably the best Test opener in the history of cricket says, opening the batting is a specialist’s job. Specialist openers must have techniques, patience, perseverance and approach to succeed at the highest level. The jury is still out on that school of thought. Many middle order batsmen have made the transition to open the innings in the 50 over format and have had great success. But when it comes to Test cricket barring few odd success stories like Virender Sehwag, many have been found tested. Sehwag is an exception. With audacious mental strength and “see ball, hit ball” approach, Sehwag compensated on his lack of watertight technique, an opener should have. An accomplished batsman like VVS Laxman declined to open and went on to say “I would never ever open again even if it meant sitting out” – thus losing out a spot in the team to Shiv Sunder Das.
In the recently concluded 5 test match series in England, one of the many important factors that has been overshadowed amongst the collective debacle of team India is the abject failure of Indian openers. Test opening has been a perennial problem for India. Though Sunil Gavaskar holds the record of most runs scored by an opening batsman, his partnership only with Chetan Chauhan can be regarded as successful where the pair scored on an average of more than 50 runs an innings. Three decades later, India found another pair in the form of Gambhir and Sehwag who went on to become India’s most prolific Test openers.
Gambhir and Sehwag’s partnership started to wane during the England tour of India in 2012. In the home series against Australia that followed, Gambhir was dropped for Murali Vijay and two Tests later Shikhar Dhawan replaced his Delhi team-mate Virender Sehwag. In their first attempt the Vijay-Dhawan pair put up a record 289 runs opening partnership, and Dhawan made one of the most thrilling Test debuts, scoring the fastest Test century by a debutant. The Wisden went on to describe Dhawan’s knock as a ruthless, risk-free innings. The absence of Sehwag was soon forgotten. But the fall of the pair is equally spectacular. Apart from the 289, the pair has only one fifty run plus partnership in 17 innings.
Since 26 December 2010, playing overseas, Indian openers have scored a solitary 50 plus partnership (Lords 2011) in 44 Test Innings using 8 different combinations. The average opening stand is even more astounding – standing at paltry 18.73. Since the start of the “Farewell Tendulkar” Test series against West Indies last year, in 20 innings Indian openers have put up just one fifty plus partnership. At this juncture, going back to Gambhir again, who has not done anything spectacular in the domestic circuit, was a serious retrograde step for Indian cricket.
The dearth of quality Test openers is not a very unique problem that India is facing today. Rather, this problem is endemic for all other Test nations too. The last opening pair to have an average of more than 50 is Sehwag and Gambhir (minimum of 2000 runs). Australia which has the most robust domestic cricket structure, has dabbled with 15 opening pairs in 85 Tests, since Justin Langer’s retirement in early 2007. West Indies which produced the most successful and prolific Test opener pair (Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes) in the history of cricket have used 23 different opening combinations since 2007 in 68 Tests. The cherry on the top is that, only one pair has scored more than an aggregate of 500 runs. No pair from New Zealand has played more than 12 tests together since 2007. South Africa’s future in test opening is yet to be tested after Grame Smith’s retirement. England is the only team which has had relative success since 2007. The Strauss – Cook partnership lasted for 62 Tests at an average of 41.73. But after Strauss’s retirement in 2012, things have looked ominous. Cook has yet to find an able partner for the long run.
So, have the Test openers become an endangered species? There is no clear answer yet. But conjectures are many. As a race we humans are ever increasingly becoming impatient– the one most vital virtue a Test opener ought to have. Technology, instant messaging, life in 140 characters have not helped us to develop that trait either. Proliferation of many Twenty20 leagues, financial benefits, instant recognition attached to the success in the shortest format of the game has made Test cricket look tedious and un-glamorous. But it is certain that cricket will be poorer without quality Test cricket. It’s a testing time for Test Cricket – and so for the breed of Test openers too.