The Test opener was expected to be a picture of serenity while setting the tone for the innings. However, the likes of Mathew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Tillakaratne Dilshan have defied those notions and brought the one-day approach to Test cricket.
Nishad Pai Vaidya writes on their similarities and how the trio are carrying forward Hayden’s legacy.
The advent of One-Day Internationals (ODI) and T20s has not only packed the international schedule but has also influenced Test cricket in a big way. While some may criticise the T20 format, there is no denying the fact that limited overs cricket in general has added new dimensions to Test cricket such as faster scoring rates, athletic fielding etc. However, over the last decade or so, the attacking opener has been a crucial component of a number of Test line-ups. The likes of Mathew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Tillakaratne Dilshan have revolutionised the approach to opening in Tests and have pulled out pages from the Sanath Jayasuriya book of one-day batting.
Tillakaratne Dilshan - career strike-rate of 65.93 in Test cricket
Dilshan’s recent knock of 101 against Pakistan highlighted his utility to this Sri Lankan Test line-up. Not the most consistent batsman, but when he gets into his stride, he can maul bowling attacks at will. A career strike-rate of 65.93 in Test cricket is a fantastic number and it reflects his approach to the classical game. The bowlers cannot commit the cardinal sin of giving him room outside the off-stump. The full face of the bat would lash hard at it and the ball would travel to the boundary at the rate of knots.
Dilshan wasn’t a natural opener and batted down the order in the first half of his career. However, the promotion has paid rich dividends to Sri Lankan cricket as he gives them the impetus at the top with Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene to follow.
Mathew Hayden-Justin Langer – the perfect mix
The sight of Hayden at the crease was intimidating as he stood tall before the bowlers. With a slight open-chested stance, the tall frame of Hayden stared right into the bowlers eyes as he ran in to deliver. Having struggled early in his Test career, he worked on numerous aspects of his game. During his remarkable run in India in 2001, one could see that he was nimble-footed to the spinners and wasn’t afraid to sweep. With Justin Langer at the other end, Australia had the perfect opening combination. This opening partnership set up big scores and a platform for Ricky Ponting and Co. to capitalise on – something similar to what Dilshan is doing for Sri Lanka.
Chris Gayle - Two triple hundreds in Tests
Gayle’s recent success in T20 cricket has probably overshadowed his exploits in Test cricket. He is a member of an elite club of batsmen who have scored two triple hundreds in Test cricket – Don Bradman and Sehwag being the other men. No ordinary batsman can score one triple-hundred – let alone two. It is an examination of stamina, skill and persistence. People may stereotype Gayle as a slam-bang player, but there is a lot of thought behind his game. Even in T20 cricket, he doesn’t attack with the word go and sees off the initial overs. It is probably the spell away from West Indies cricket which has helped him do a lot of thinking and work on planning his game.
Virender Sehwag – the most dangerous of them all
If one felt Gayle, Hayden and Dilshan’s career strike-rates (all around the 60 mark) were fantastic, wait till you hear Sehwag’s number – an astonishing 81.99. Normally, a strike-rate above 80 is the norm in one-day cricket, but to boast of such a figure in Test cricket is simply astonishing. The real effect of this figure can be perceived when one brings in entire career record into perspective. When coupled with the 8178 runs at an average of 50.79 spread over 96 Test matches – one can imagine the amount of destruction he has caused over the years. Like Dilshan, he wasn’t an opener and was thrust into the role in an inspired move.
The feared quartet has given the opposing captains a number of headaches over the years. Hayden has called it a day, but his legacy lives on with the other three carrying forward their school of opening batting. There are a number of similarities in their game which make them unique and undisputed wreckers in chief at the top.
Despite being openers, all of them play spin quite well. As discussed earlier, Hayden could sweep and charge to the spinners with ease. Dilshan has been brought up on turning tracks in Sri Lanka and is no different from his counterparts. He can cut the spinners with ease as he transfers his weight on to the backfoot easily. Sehwag may have minimal footwork against the quicks, but can be nimble against the spinners. He doesn’t have any signature shot as such and follows his uncomplicated principle – see ball hit ball. Gayle has a more stand and deliver approach and would generally use the crease instead of charging towards the spinners.
Even though, there may have been times when these players haven’t scored at their normal rates, their knocks can still have a devastating effect on the opposition. Once they play long, it has a very demoralising effect on the bowlers and it affects their game even against the batsman at the other end. The sheer audacity of the stroke-play can leave the bowlers bewildered as even their best deliveries can rocket towards the boundaries. A classier batsman may score the same number of runs at a similar rate, but it wouldn’t have the same psychological effect a Sehwag or a Dilshan knock would have.
Looking pretty at the crease isn’t their forte as they have a technique of their own. Sehwag’s footwork – or the lack of it - has often come under intense scrutiny. Gayle uses all power and muscle to maul bowling attacks. However, Dilshan is more graceful when compared to the others. A distinctive feature in their game has been the ability to play a ball on the rise outside the off-stump – they show little or no worry that they would edge it to the wicket-keeper. Hayden would walk down the wicket fearlessly and thump the ball over the head of the bowlers.
While Dilshan continues to be a move from strength to strength, Sehwag and Gayle have some work to do. Having failed in Australia, Sehwag has to do an encore of the magic of the past and return to his best. Gayle, on the other hand has made himself available for all three formats for West Indies and it would be interesting to see whether a long break away from the longer format has affected him. Interesting times ahead.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)