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November 12, 1997


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Open and shut

Prem Panicker

Here we go again -- new season (or rather, new tour), same old debate. To wit, who should open for India?

Why only openers? Why not debate the entire team lineup? Simple. If you look at the regulars in the side, you find that the entire lineup falls into place once the question of the opening batsmen is solved.

When I say "solved", I need to add this -- if this side is ever to settle down and begin showing results, we have to stop living this hand to mouth existence, stop thinking from Test to Test and series to series. Any decision taken now, at the start of a season that sees three Tests each against Sri Lanka and Australia, has hold good for the foreseeable future. In the period between March 1996 and May-June 1997, we had 13 openers tried out, at various times. The consequent uncertainity has done enough damage to the side, and I would submit at this point that it is time a final decision were taken.

Look at the question this way. Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly are automatic picks for the side, agreed? Now add two openers, say X and Y, to that lineup and you have a six-strong batting lineup. Plus wicketkeeper, makes seven. And that immediately restricts you to just four bowlers -- either two each of pace and spin, or three pace and one spin.

If you choose the first option and pick just two pacemen, you reduce Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, the obvious choices, to the role of stock bowlers. And that, keeping in mind the recent breakdowns by both bowlers, is obviously stupid.

What if you pick Kuruvilla, say, as reserve pace bowler, get Saurav Ganguly to bowl 10, 12 overs per innings to provide relief to the frontmen, and go in with just one spinner? The argument against that would be, India is goiant move -- but does it necessarily follow that he has to figure in the Test squad as well? I think not.

Anyone else I've left out? Ah yes, two other possibles -- Gagan Khoda and V V S Laxman. Against Khoda, the same arguments that applied for Jaffer can be recycled: if we are going to go with him, the time to do so would have been now, at the start of the season, and not later on. And the fact that Khoda has been picked for the Board President's XI is in itself sufficient indication that the selectors are not going to consider him for the first Test, at least.

Laxman is an interesting possibility. Every time he has gone out there, he has looked solid. Technically sound. Mentally strong. Temperamentally suited to digging in, playing the long innings, not crumbling under pressure. And yet, I am reluctant to name him to open, for the very good reason that Laxman makes a wonderful option for the middle order. He has the ability to play the defensive grind when situations demand such an innings, and at the same time to effortlessly accelerate, to play strokes, if that is the need of the moment. Pushing him up to the number one slot could end up damaging his immense potential, and I would hesitate to take that risk.

So that brings me to my preferred openers. Not just against Sri Lanka, not even till the end of the tour here by the Aussies, but for some time to come.

And they are Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly.

Think about it. First, they are easily the most successful opening combination in the one day game that we have found in quite a while.

Second, the left-right combination is of immense advantage when going up against top class quick bowlers. Let them settle into a length and line, and the likes of McGrath and Gillespie, not to mention Reiffel, will destroy you. Force them to change their line every other ball, force the fielders to keep switching places, and you take a very vital advantage into your hands.

Third, both batsmen are very comfortable against fast bowling. More, both are the kind who do not let the bowlers dominate -- which, again, is a vital asset for opening batsmen.

Critics of the suggestion will argue that it is dangerous to risk Sachin Tendulkar that early in the innings. To which my counter question would be, why so? The suggestion that he is at "risk", in the first place, denigrates his batting skills and suggests that he needs cotton-wool packing and a big sign reading "Fragile" round his neck as he goes out to bat. Which, to my mind, is silly -- recent failures notwithstanding, Tendulkar remains one of the best in the world in terms of technique and temperament, and I suspect that in the next three months, those who have been writing him off are liable to get indigestion from eating their own words.

The other reason why I don't hold with the "risk" theory is that Tendulkar is wasted coming in at number 5. He can't, at that point, afford to build a long innings -- if there has been a collapse before his arrival at the wicket then it means that he has to fight his way out of it with just the tail for support, and if the earlier batsmen have done their job, he comes out to bat with one eye on the clock, and more than half his mind on the question of when to close the innings. Send him at the top of the order, and he is ideally placed to guide the pace and tenor of the innings. And, in the process, to ensure that opposing bowlers don't get their tails up starting operations against less talented batsmen.

Assume you buy my arguments. Then take a look at this lineup: Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid (at first drop, he provides a buffer against a collapse in case either Tendulkar or Ganguly go early), Mohammad Azharuddin, V V S Laxman, Anil Kumble (I would put him up the order in order to make him shoulder more of the responsibility with the bat), Nayan Mongia, Abey Kuruvilla, Nilesh Kulkarni (I would pick him because his greater height will advantageous on bouncier tracks, and he does have the knack of picking up wickets), Debashish Mohanty (preferred to Harvinder for greater accuracy, pace and variety) and Venkatesh Prasad. With Sunil Joshi, Harvinder Singh and Vinod Kambli being my reserves, making up the squad of 14.

This gives Tendulkar the option of using Srinath in short bursts, nursing him along so that each time he picks up the ball, he is fresh and able to bowl flat out. The same with Prasad. While Kuruvilla and Mohanty, with Ganguly chipping in, play the role of stock bowlers and Kumble and Kulkarni add variety with their contrasting styles of bowling.

Okay, that's my take on the side. What's yours?

Prem Panicker

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