On a smoggy Monday afternoon in Ghaziabad, just 10 days before the Test series against England, Virender Sehwag hit his first hundred in first-class cricket in two years. You could almost sense a collective sigh of relief, and it was not just from the approximately 5,000 people who had descended to watch the stars bat in the opening encounter of the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy season.
There was another sigh of relief, this time not so loud, but evident nevertheless. It came from Gautam Gambhir, Sehwag’s Delhi teammate and opening partner for a long time. The squad for the first two Tests, in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, had been announced, and both their names were on the list.
If this fact needs to be pointed out, it underlines the problem the Indian team has been facing with the top order.
“We still average 53 as an opening pair, which is one of the best when it comes to opening the batting in world cricket,” Gambhir had said ahead of the Ranji opener against Uttar Pradesh. “There are not many opening pairs who have played for such a long time and have an average of 53 per innings. If that (sic) isn’t good enough, I don’t know what is good enough.”
To give credit where it is due, the duo is only the fifth opening partnership in Test cricket to aggregate more than 4,000 runs. They have 4,110 runs in 81 innings, at an average of 52.69, with 10 hundred and 24 fifty partnerships, and a highest opening stand of 233 runs. In terms of runs, they are behind Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes (6,482 runs in 148 innings for the West Indies), Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer (5,655 runs in 113 innings for Australia), Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (4,711 runs in 117 innings for England), and Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya (4,469 runs in 118 innings for Sri Lanka).
Your calculators will tell you that in terms of average, the Indian pair trumps all four of them. Almost 12 runs per innings more than the English and Lankan openers, approximately just over five runs more than the Windies’ greats and just shaving the Aussie pairing by an extra run. Among Indian opening pairs in Tests, Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan are second-best by some distance, having scored 3,010 runs (at 53.75). Theirs are impressive figures, whichever way you look at them.
Perspective, however, is a double-edged sword and its sharp blade cuts Sehwag-Gambhir deep.
Dilute these statistics on the basis of where these runs were scored. At home, in 45 innings, they made 2,666 runs at an average of 60.59. Away, they put up 1,444 runs in 36 innings at 42.47. But when the term “away” encapsulates Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand and no other country, it gets downgraded to 522 runs in 19 innings at a mere 27.47. They have just one century stand during this period, 137 versus South Africa at Centurion in December 2010. And it gets worse.
In their last 14 innings (out of these 19), they haven’t crossed the 30-run mark even once.
This prompted a sharp reaction from former cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar just ahead of the New Zealand Test series in August. “The 10 Test matches at home (in 2012-13) before the South Africa tour provide the selectors the perfect opportunity to build a team that has the best chance to compete well overseas in the winter of 2013. To go with Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag as India’s opening pair again in Tests in South Africa would be a gamble,” he wrote on ESPN-Cricinfo.
His words give another dimension to this argument. India need to rebuild their batting order after the departure of Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman and the runs haven’t come easily from the openers’ bats. Should the selectors just go on a culling spree, negating a most successful opening partnership and the promise of guaranteed match-winners?
“As an opening pair, you average 50 per innings and if you are giving 50-run starts in every innings, you can’t do more and if people talk about not contributing, I will suggest they look at the stats,” challenges Gambhir.
In their eight years together, India have only lost the one Test at home when they have scored 50 or more runs in any one of the innings. That was against Pakistan at Bangalore in 2005, when Younis Khan and Inzamam-ul-Haq went berserk. The figure away from home is two, at Colombo in 2008 and that Centurion Test mentioned earlier. The “wins” department away from home cuts a sorry figure though—just two in Zimbabwe, back in 2005, and then three more in Galle (Sri Lanka in 2008), Chittagong and Dhaka (both 2010).
Individually, though, they have provided some fine memories. Sehwag was the weapon of choice for India when under Sourav Ganguly they challenged the might of England (2002) and Australia (2003). Gambhir gave a sharp account of his abilities in New Zealand (2009). To say they were instrumental in India’s rise to the top of Test rankings wouldn’t be a lie. Neither is the fact that their downward spiral is key to the team’s suffering.
Sehwag’s last Test hundred came against New Zealand in November 2010. His highest scores in five Test series thereafter were 63, 33, 60, 67 and 47. Gambhir’s woes tell a longer tale. The last of his five back-to-back Test hundreds came in January 2010, versus Bangladesh. He has now gone nine Test series without a hundred and his highest scores in the interim are 25, 2, 25, 78, 93, 38, 65, 83 and 34.
Clearly, form is not the only problem here, poor conversion rate and awry technique each have a role to play too.
“Whether I am back in form or not is not for me to decide. But I thought I played well enough,” said Sehwag after his Ranji hundred against Uttar Pradesh. With a century to shut up critics ahead of an important series, any other batsman in his place would have been jumping with glee. But that is the thing about Sehwag. His simplicity and genius walk hand in hand with his doom. It is not just a case of impeccable hand-eye coordination but also of prayer and hope, not necessarily in that order.
There is a school of thought that wants him to bat lower down the order in this supposed twilight of his career. But imagine Sehwag walking in to bat with India struggling at 30 for 3, on a green top, against Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel.
Suddenly that appears to be the worst idea in a long history of bad ideas. He has always been a man on the edge of losing control and recently has lost it more often.
Former India coach Greg Chappell is not alone in his frustrations with this batsman; they are shared by many Indians. Not even Sehwag could teach himself how to rein in occasionally, let alone another man—especially since he has tasted blood with two Test triple hundreds and a One Day International double hundred.
In that light, Gambhir’s advantage is that he is a less mercurial batsman and perhaps can compose his game all over again. He can go back to the basics and correct his balance. He can aspire to take long strides forward and practise not getting stuck to the crease. He needs to relearn where his off-stump is and the value of leaving alone certain deliveries. With ample time at the nets—and hopefully at the crease—he will again start scoring freely on the leg side, without falling over.
It is a tall order for both batsmen—especially with the 8-0 debacle, India’s recent losses in all the away Tests against Australia and England, still fresh in their minds.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.
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