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August 2, 1997


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Open and shut case

Harsha Bhogle

The great hassle with reality is that it always returns to confront you. You put a blindfold on and when you peep over the top, it's still there. You go to see a movie and three hours later, it is waiting for you near the exit gate. You take a couple of extra drinks and it brings a hangover along for company.

India's selectors are discovering that, as they try and fiddle around with the opening pair. Nayan Mongia is their weapon to fight reality with. Every time they want to hide from the real world, they push him up front and quiver behind his back. Sadly, when he moves aside, everyone stands exposed.

The elusive balance that most international cricket sides look for consists of a pair of openers, three middle order batsmen, a number six who can bowl a bit, a wicket keeper who can bat and four bowlers, at least one of whom should not be a dummy.

If you have four great bowlers, you can do with a pure batsman at number six. But if you want to play five bowlers, you must have a wicket keeper who is good enough to bat at number six.

Clive Lloyd's great West Indies side was lucky. Every time they wanted to play a spinner like Roger Harper, they could afford to bat Jeffrey Dujon at six. Otherwise, they had six batsmen (with an outstanding opening combination in Greenidge and Haynes), a great wicketkeeper/batsman and in Malcolm Marshall, a fast bowler who could bat.

In an earlier era, Deryck Murray often batted at six and Rodney Marsh did that for Australia in the mid-seventies when they wanted to play a second spinner. Both Murray and Marsh could bat one spot above normal because they played in teams with established openers. As a result, they hardly ever had to open the batting, leaving them fresh to keep wickets.

India's search for opening batsmen has seen them use eight openers in the last ten months. We started with Vikram Rathore and Nayan Mongia and went through with Sanjay Manjrekar, Rahul Dravid, Woorkeri Raman, Navjot Sidhu, VVS Laxman and Ajay Jadeja. One part of the problem was Sidhu's non-availability, and the other part was an inability to play with four bowlers. It was possible to get away with it in home conditions, but the moment India went abroad, the need for genuine openers was felt. And very little had been done at home to build up an opening batsman.

Now Mongia is back in the job, and no one knows how much longer we can push reality away. There are seven more Test matches this year, and four of those are against Sri Lanka who do not have a particularly fearsome attack. This would be a wonderful opportunity to blood an opening batsman. Ideally, India should have played Laxman but, having picked Gagan Khoda, it is imperative that we search for ability there. Remember, Sidhu doesn't have too many years left in him either, which means we will soon have to look for two openers. Looking for one is a good way to begin.

One of the arguments offered in favour of Mongia at the top is that you must play a horses for courses team. I am all for it, so long as the course doesn't get too long. That is, when you need a real horse, not someone who does a very good impersonation. Remember too, that Mongia at number seven is a very dependable batsman, handy in case the second new ball is taken and a decent partner for number six, who otherwise sees Kumble coming in and Kuruvilla putting his pads on back in the pavilion.

One solution is to use a lot more of Ganguly who I believe, is a far better bowler in Test cricket than he is in one-day cricket because he pitches the ball up and gets it to move. With field restrictions in place, and a much smaller value attached to one's wicket, he can be slogged back over his head. That is not likely to happen in the Tests, and if he can bowl two spells of six overs each, he can take some load off the lead bowlers.

Playing five full bowlers is a luxury in international cricket, and it often means that the captain is not confident of his bowlers.

That is the reality that is haunting Sachin Tendulkar. Till such time as it does, I suspect Nayan Mongia will be constantly changing one set of pads for another.

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