Cricket

Open season in Indian cricket

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As India made a sensational comeback to win a second successive Test series in Australia early this year, their seemingly endless pace resources, following injuries to their senior quartet, made it a remarkable achievement.

There was another, quieter, revolution, at the other end of the scale so to say, that didn’t register in the manner of how India projected themselves as a pace power that is second to none in terms of effectiveness regardless of conditions.

That is the depth in their opening department.

Just like the pace bowling unit measured up to the demand, the opening department too withstood the churn, though the talk was more about technique of the personnel than discussion about growing options. It was Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal in Adelaide, Shubman Gill made his debut in the next Test at MCG and partnered Agarwal while Rohit Sharma took his place in the last two Tests alongside Gill.

KL Rahul waited in the wings for a chance that didn’t come, while Shaw had already started ironing out his technical flaws. At one level, a quality opener is like a “fox in the box” striker in football. The search is constantly on, and it is often about making adjustments. Indian openers are judged on how they perform in overseas conditions, where the ball swings, seams and bounces a lot more. The jury is still out on that count but it is a kind of overcrowding that actually gives the team management breathing space as far as finding better options is concerned.

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It has definitely ended a waiting period. The “who will be the next Gavaskar?” took more than a decade to be answered. Even then Virender Sehwag batted at No.6 or No.7 in his first five Tests before being pitch-forked to open in challenging conditions on the 2002 England tour. He opened for the rest of his 99 Tests. Among players weaned as openers, Wasim Jaffer, in 31 Tests between 2000-08, scored close to 2,000 runs. Gautam Gambhir played 58 Tests between 2004/5 and 2016/17, scoring more than 4,000 runs. Fellow left-hander Shikhar Dhawan got to play only 34 Tests from 2013 to 2018.

Although Dhawan’s Test career petered out on that 2018 England tour, he had started with the fastest Test century on debut. While IPL made fast bowling remunerative, career-wise and cash-wise, the T20 league has also showed the path for openers. Aggression and power pays in IPL, after patience and honing of technique at domestic level ensures durability and readies a batsman to face international bowlers.

Thus a jostling for the openers’ slots in the last few years.

Mayank Agarwal had to fight his doubts and score heavily at domestic level to be selected as India opener. He played a key role in the 2018-19 series win in Australia. His Karnataka, India and IPL teammate KL Rahul too has been an opener from the time he started playing as a young boy.

Rahul’s coach Samuel Jayaraj recalls: “He started coming to me at the Mangalore Sports Club from the age of 10-and-half years. He was always an opener. He opened in all age-groups for Karnataka—under-13, under-15, under-17 and under-19,” he said.

Among the younger brigade, Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill, who won the U-19 World Cup together in 2018, were both openers. Both are a great example of India’s junior programme—age-group and India A—helping young players settle down in their preferred roles.

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Shaw’s father, Pankaj, says: “When my son started playing in Virar (at a ground in Yashwant Nagar) as a seven-year-old, he used to go first to bat when he started playing matches with small kids. He continued to open when he started playing for his school team, and train at the MIG Cricket Club, Bandra, at an age of seven-and-half years. It just continued and he remained an opener. We never thought of middle-order. I didn’t even know what middle-order was until later.”

Devdutt Padikkal, the 20-year-old Karnataka left-handed opener who had a breakout IPL season with Royal Challengers Bangalore and then scored four centuries in the just-ended Vijay Hazare Trophy one-day tournament, has also started to push his case. His brief career is an example of youngsters willing to take the limited-overs route, until the first-class route in the past, to play at the highest level.

His father Padikkal feels his son’s impatience settled the non-debate about his becoming an opener.

“He made himself an opener because he wanted to bat first, that was the case. He didn’t want to sit (and wait) for a long time; first of all, he would get ready and bat first, that’s how he became an opener. From when he was seven-eight years old he was an opener. From the first match itself he opened. He put the pads on and even before the coach told him, went out and started batting.”

Wonder what India’s golden generation of batsmen, be it Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar or VVS Laxman who have all opened for India in different situations, would think of this eagerness.

The current Test openers though took a more conservative route.

Rohit Sharma, finally enjoying his conversion into a Test opener, started his India career in 2007 in the middle-order, one with great touch in his shots. His talent encouraged skipper MS Dhoni to promote him during the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy in the UK. That was the turning point in his career, as Sharma became one of the best openers in the world, especially in limited-over formats.

Sharma’s Test returns were subdued in the middle-order, but coach Ravi Shastri and skipper Virat Kohli successfully gambled by asking him to open in Tests. It is a story similar to the start of his career. His childhood coach Dinesh Lad says: “In our school team (Swami Vivekanand, Borivali) first, I played him as a bowler and lower-order batsman, but once I realised his batting potential, I made him open. For three years, he played as an opener. His success as an opener at the international level didn’t come as surprise to me,” says Lad. “When he started playing for Mumbai age-group teams, he started playing in the middle-order because a new player can’t decide for himself what number he has to bat.”

Shubman Gill, handed his debut at MCG and who impressed with the time he has to play shots–he was also left to analyse his technique by England bowlers in the recent home Test series–batted at No.3 in the U-19 World Cup. He scored 372 runs at an average of 124.00. But he started as an opener in 2014, scoring 351 runs in Punjab’s Inter-District Under-16 tournament. He even shared a record opening stand of 587 runs with Nirmal Singh.

What is really working for India in building a bank of openers is that the temperament-first approach has been long junked. T20 cricket has allowed young batsmen to find their way of dealing with the challenge of the new ball. Like how India got really good at bowling with it.

As for the trend of openers, Lad, who is also the coach of Shardul Thakur, says the opportunities are more batting at the top of the order. “You get more time in the limited overs game. You get scoring chances in the power play with field restrictions, and if you get seven-eight boundaries, you have a decent score on the board; after that you can pace your innings. It means, you have a better chance of getting noticed.”

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