AS a home series of mixed fortunes ends and an away series in South Africa and the West Indies beckons,the brains of Indian cricket face a familiar question: where do we find opening bats-men with the technique and temperament to battle Allan Donald, Lance Klusener, Fanie de Villiers and Craig Mathews; Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose and Ian Bishop? The answer: nowhere . The paucity of openers is not a problem peculiar to India. Only three of the top 20 batsmen on Wisden Cricket Monthlys latest world rankings are current openers (Mark Taylor, Saeed Anwar and Mike Atherton). Two others (Michael Slater and Shoaib Mohammed) have fallen out of favour with the selectors.
What makes Indias need to find quality openers more urgent is the tour of Mandela Country, with the first Test beginning December 26. According to a non-average-based ratings methodology pioneered by No Boundaries International, the Springbok attack with an index of 74 is the worlds best. The aging Caribbean attack is less venomous at 61 (Indias is midway at 67).
Although Indias batting index (66) is higher than South Africas (63), Donald & Co give the hosts a 60:40 advantage. Considering how Nayan Mongia and his opening partners (Vikram Rathore, Rahul Dravid, Sanjay Manjrekar, and W.V. Raman) fared against them on designer home pitches intended to help spinners, the African Safari on fast bouncy wickets offers little hope.
A good start for a good total is no cliche, and it can only be provided by good openers. But in the 55 Test matches since Sunil Gavaskar retired in 1987, there have been just five century-opening partnerships; four featuring Manoj Prabhakar and three Navjot Sidhu, both not in the selectors good books now.
Result: the five wise men dont have much choice. In the absence of specialists, they plumped for any middle-order batsman who they felt had it in him to partner Mongia (himself a stop-gap). But by giving each just one chance to establish himself, the selectors were evidently seeking instant results. Instant disaster is what they reaped.
If the intention was to test them all before they emplaned, the objective has been achieved. But as Dilip Vengsarkar wrote in The Hindu, the selectors ought to have groomed youngsters, but they refused to look beyond Sidhu and Raman. "By continuously chopping and changing, theyre not helping a players confidence," he wrote in his column.
Thats possibly how things will continue on the upcoming tour. Mongias partner will keep changing, although opening with 30-plus Manjrekar or Raman against the fastest is not the ideal prescription. Why is Indiawhich produced the 10,122 runs of Gavaskar and the stodginess of Anshuman Gaekwad, Chetan Chauhan and Arun Lalnot producing good openers any more?
In spite of fast bowlers mushrooming all over, Indian wickets continue to be prepared with spinners in mind. On flat tracks and underprepared pitches, the initial movement of batsmen is on the front foot. Which is fine against the trundlers and tweakers, but against top-class pacers, they are horribly exposed, as Karnataka was in Kochi and Board Presidents XI in Baroda.
Spin has become a potent weapon in domestic cricket; batsmen who can face the red cherry hurtling towards them at 100 kmph or more have become redundant. Its enough if an opener sees the first few overs through; the real battle begins when the spinners arrive. So theres a surfeit of good middle-order batsmen; only three of the top 30 runmak-ers last year were openers.
Also, writes Gavaskar in the Sportstar magazine, the rise in the number of quality new ball bowlers has made life difficult for openers: "In the West Indies too the sheer number of fast bowlers and pitches which are not always at their best have led to the lack of a settled opening pair since Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes."
But in a way, this is also the legacy of Ajit Wadekar and one-day cricket. In the name of maintaining the balance of the side—that is, to play a fifth bowler on killer wickets—anybody (Prabha-kar, Mongia, Ajay Jadeja) who could last a few overs was promoted up the order. Result: genuine openers with runs to their name, such as M.V. Sridhar of Hyderabad, were ignored or summarily dumped—like Rathore.
Mongia may have scored a big century in Delhi in the Test against Australia, and Prabhakar may have come good, but the exceptions prove the rule. That against quality pace attacks like South Africas, theres just no go for makeshift openers. As Geoff Boycott and Ravi Shastri said on ESPNs Inside Edge, opening an innings is a specialised job that requires specialised skills.
Both Boycott and Shastri started off as middle-order batsmen. The former began at number six, the latter in double digits. But they had the most important prerequisites to turn openers: the ability to stay at the wicket and wait for bad balls, the temperament to face the quicks and the technique to handle their pace. Manjrekar and Dravid showed they did. Gavaskar aside, other Indian openers have lacked one or the other. Or both.