India seek answers to starting problems

Cricket : Dhawan's poor show has put the team in a spot

India seek answers to starting problems

History shows great teams have always been served well by their openers. To mention just a couple here, the pairs of Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes from the West Indies and Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer from Australia had a big hand in their respective teams achieving greatness.

Closer home, we had Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir whose prolific form at the top of the order also coincided with India becoming the number one Test team in 2009.

With due respect, opening an innings is, perhaps, the most difficult job for a batsman. It requires a different set of skills. You need an enormous amount of patience, the right technique, the fortitude to tackle the conditions that you are absolutely unaware of and the confidence to stand up to the fast bowlers who are totally fresh.

These conditions, of course, don’t apply if you are a Sehwag or a David Warner. The problem for India is Warner plays for Australia and he is in the form of his life.

The other concern is that Sehwag is not opening for India. And most probably will never again. Shikhar Dhawan, who made a dream Test debut by smashing 187 against Australia in early 2013, was expected to play a similar role that his illustrious senior from Delhi had essayed. But since his knock in Mohali the left-hander has managed just two 50-plus scores (115 and 98 during the Zew Zealand tour) in 18 innings.

Dhawan’s failure to kick on has deprived India of a good start that is so crucial,
particularly in countries like South Africa, England and Australia. Dhawan, in fact, was left out for the last two Tests in England but his replacement, Gautam Gambhir did no better.

In fact, India haven’t had a 50-run opening partnership in an overseas Test since Gambhir and Abhinav Mukund put on 63 at Lord’s in July 2011.

India have played eight more Tests in England after that, five in Australia and two each in South Africa and New Zealand and they don’t have a single half-century stand in 34 innings.

The openers have aggregated a mere 602 runs at a pitiable average of 17.7 in 17 matches after the Lord’s Test.    

These numbers are indeed damning. No team can hope to do consistently well in Tests if its openers are misfiring. And it’s not hard to see why India have struggled to match their performances at home while playing abroad. Sehwag-Gambhir scored around 43 runs per innings in 20 away Tests and have had three 100-run stands apart from eight fifty partnerships. Even when India did well Down Under during the 2003-04 series, the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra pair had combined well at the pole position.          

“Every international team depends on the start,” Vijay said at the start of the current Australian tour when reminded of these numbers.

“We are looking forward and are really confident with each other’s games and in this tour both the teams will be banking on the starts. Conditions and the wickets will dictate that. A good start will give an advantage to the team. Shikky (Dhawan) and I are working to get our best abilities to the table and obviously we both are confident at the moment,” he had offered.

Dhawan, meanwhile, had declared: “We haven’t done it (good opening stand) but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. There is a lot of hope and lots of opening runs coming ahead.”

Only Vijay appears to have kept his promise. The right-hander struck a confident 53 in the first innings at Adelaide and then foll’owed it up with a 99 on a difficult fifth-day pitch. Dhawan and Vijay complement each other well. While Dhawan likes to go after an attack right from the word go, Vijay likes to wear the bowlers down before switching gears.
“I feel that you need an aggressive opener in today’s cricket, someone who can turn things around. I’d love to play that role, hopefully,” Dhawan had remarked.

The question is, is Dhawan willing to hang in long enough to turn things around? He started off positively in the first innings in the Adelaide Test but couldn’t prolong his stay. The 29-year-old can consider himself a bit unlucky in the second but bad decisions are part and parcel of the game. 

“I really enjoy both success and failure,” Dhawan said talking about lean patch in Tests. If he continues to pile up failures like this, one suspects, he won’t be around too long to enjoy much.

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