Weapons of Mass Destruction... Gautam Gambhir (left) and the ballistic Virender Sehwag raise hopes of nuclear powering the Indian innings with their presence at top of the order in the third Test at Birmingham © AFP
Weapons of Mass Destruction… Gautam Gambhir (left) and the ballistic Virender Sehwag raise hopes of nuclear powering the Indian innings with their presence at top of the order in the third Test at Birmingham © AFP

 

History bears testimony to the fact that great teams have been served by solid opening partnership. Some of the formidable opening partnerships in the last five decades include pairs like Bobby Simpson-Bill Lawry (Australia), Gordon Greenidge-Desmond Haynes (West Indies), Mark Taylor-Michael Slater (Australia) and Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer (Australia). Even the present English team, which is poised to take over as the No 1 Test team in the world, is powered by two of their finest players in Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, even if the two are not in the same league as the above-mentioned names.

 

Quality openers are tough characters whose mindset is way different from batsmen that follow down the order. Their importance right at the top can never be underestimated. Unlike the middle-order batsmen, openers have to be mentally prepared to walk in blind, so to say; they have no idea of the bounce factor or the kind of movement to expect in the air and off the wicket when they set out to face the first ball of a game. The bowlers themselves are fresh and have the energy to go full tilt at the batsmen. Even on tracks that are not bowler-friendly, the early pressure is on the openers. They not only have to see the new ball through but provide the kind of platform for the batsmen to follow to savage a tiring and/or demoralized attack.

 

Opening the innings is such a huge mental factor that given the option between opening the innings and coming out to face the second ball of the innings, a one-drop bat would invariably opt for the latter. Even that one-ball advantage plays a big part.

 

Opening the batting of a team batting second also brings in its own set of challenges. Imagine having to open the innings after nearly two days on the field and rushing into the pavilion to strap up and come out in the war zone, while the rest of the team is relaxing their tired limbs in the comfort of the dressing room. And if that innings commences in the dying moments of the day’s play, the pressure to survive heightens considerably. The tired legs may not move swiftly enough to get in time behind the line or the fatigue factor may impact the hand-eye co-ordination just that wee bit for the bowlers to capitalize on.

 

I’m not quite sure if Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have got their rightful due for their roles as an opening pair of substance in India’s ascendency in world cricket. Invariably the talk is of the Indian middle-order powered by Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.

 

Let’s place things in the right perspective by zooming on the value Sehwag and Gambhir get at the top by looking into the seven overseas victories India registered from Perth in 2008 till Durban in 2010. We are not factoring India’s win against West Indies on their recent tour because Sehwag and Gambhir were both sidelined by injuries.

 

Except two of the Tests, all the other victories were under Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s captaincy:

 

Partnership

Openers

Opposition

Venue

Year

57 & 45

V Sehwag-W Jaffer

Australia

Perth

2008**

167 & 90

V Sehwag-G Gambhir

Sri Lanka

Galle

2009

37 – XX

V Sehwag-G Gambhir

New Zealand

Hamilton

2009

XX – 39*

G Gambhir-R Dravid

New Zealand

Hamilton

2009

79 & 90

V Sehwag-G Gambhir

Bangladesh

Chittagong

2010***

103 & 2*

V Sehwag-G Gambhir

Bangladesh

Mirpur

2010

49 & 10

V Sehwag-M Vijay

Sri Lanka

Colombo

2010

43 & 42

V Sehwag-M Vijay

South Africa

Durban

2010

 

*unbeaten

 

** Anil Kumble was the captain

 

*** Virender Sehwag was the captain

 

Now, let us see how the absence of Sehwag and Gambhir impacted India in their recent downswing of fortunes. Both men missed the tour of the West Indies while Sehwag also missed the first two Tests in the ongoing series against England. Gambhir returned in time for the tour of England but missed the second Test with an injury.  

 

How the replacement openers served India in West Indies and England:

 

15 & 0

(M Vijay & A Mukund)

1st Test  vs West Indies at Sabina Park

1 & 26

(M Vijay & A Mukund)

2nd Test  vs West Indies at Kensington Oval

13 & 0

(M Vijay & A Mukund)

3rd Test  vs West Indies at Windsor Park

63 & XX

XX & 19

(G Gambhir & A Mukund)

(R Dravid & A Mukund)

1st Test vs England at Lord’s

0 & 6

(R Dravid & A Mukund )

2nd Test vs England at Trent Bridge

 

The above statistic is a powerful indicator how much the absence of Sehwag and his partnership with Gambhir has had a destabilizing influence on the India team. The only time the opening wicket got past the 30s in 10 innings was when Gambhir played in the first Test at Lord’s.

 

Sehwag is arguably the greatest destroyer of bowling in modern times. His strike-rate of nearly 82 is quite staggering for a batsman opening the innings and expected to build an innings — a rate that no batsman has come even remotely close. There is no bowler or any conditions that he fears, and he has annihilated every bowler. His mere presence at the crease has a huge demoralizing effect and rivals captains find it a huge challenge to set fields to a batsman who can put away a ball pitched perfectly on good length with utter disdain. Nor captains find it easy to time their declaration because Sehwag can make a mockery by hitting fours and sixes at will.

 

A Murali Vijay or Abhinav Mukund provides perennial hope for the bowlers with their loose technique and faulty footwork. In contrast, Sehwag tears every page of the coaching manual and the bowlers as only he can. When Sehwag is in the middle, it’s a different — and unequal — contest between bat and ball.

 

Already, the air is abuzz with expectations of Sehwag coming in and dismantling the well-oiled English fast bowling machine that has systematically brought down reputations — of individuals and the team. Sehwag went for the surgery right after the IPL and has been in the cold for quite a while. His form in the day game prior to the third Test will be an indicator what one can possibly expect of him. But there cannot be better news than Sehwag opening the innings with Gambhir at Birmingham. And the icing on the cake will be Zaheer Khan returning back to provide teeth to the Indian XI. The return of the troika could just be what the doctored ordered for the beleaguered Indian team. 

 

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)