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The return of the traditional Test opener

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Opener_opening_Test_Cricket_BattingPerhaps the toughest art of Test cricket is the opening the batting in a Test. It is a real challenge that requires great gumption and skill.

At the turn of the 21st century, two opening batsmen – Matthew Hayden of Australia and Virender Sehwag of India – completely redefined what it meant to open the batting in a Test. Soon, it became a norm that several other cricketers followed.

Sehwag, with his nonchalant ways and extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination, began decimating attacks from the word go with extreme regularity. Hayden, meanwhile, dominated bowlers confidently with his supreme range of shots and burly frame. Both openers achieved great success in giving their respective teams an advantage early on with their attacking style of play, something very valuable in Tests. It was risky, it was exhilarating, and yet productive when it worked.

A template, then, had emerged for the modern age Test opener; and with T20 cricket making headway everywhere, attacking cricket became much sought after even for openers in the longest format. It was said that this approach brought more results in Test matches and that the game had moved on from the traditional Test opener who would spend hours at the crease and keep leaving the ball outside the off-stump just to see off the swing in the pitch.

But, ever so slowly, things are now taking a different turn again.

Opening a Test in the last few years has been rather intriguing. Several openers, it appears, are going back to the time-honoured approach of going about their job patiently rather than being all slam-bang about it. What’s fascinating is that many young batsmen are following this path and it is bringing about a refreshing change in Test cricket that might redefine this art once again.

A return to traditional Test opening batting

July 2014, Lord’s. India is battling England in a tense Test match. It’s the third day, and the pitch is acting up a bit. India needs a substantial lead to put pressure on the home side. Opener Murali Vijay, touring England for the first time, displays phenomenal grit and determination to score 95 off 247 balls – perhaps the most important knock of his life. On a somnolent afternoon, the crowd is on the tenterhooks, but the opener’s poise and monk-like tranquillity brings India back into the game.  

Then there is the example of 21-year-old Matt Renshaw of Australia, who has been a complete revelation with his sturdy approach to opening Tests. The left-handed opener, playing in his first Test series away from home against India earlier this year, battled stomach cramps and surfaces that spun and bounced viciously, to regularly provide solid starts to his team. The youngster seems to possess remarkable composure, and defended resolutely even as India’s champion spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – probed relentlessly at him.

KL Rahul is another fine modern Test opener who relishes, and indeed thrives, using the traditional method. In his short career, the 25-year-old has impressed all with his exceptional poise and maturity. A perfect example would be his resolute 110 off 262 balls at Sydney against Australia in 2015. It was Rahul’s first Test century and was an epitome of concentration, perseverance and patience. In the seasons to follow, the youngster has displayed similar traits, notching up runs in almost every part of the world - out of his four Test hundreds, three have come in Australia, West Indies and Sri Lanka. Today, Rahul has established himself as India’s first choice Test opener.

Were these just one-off cases, perhaps it wouldn’t have been significant. But virtually every Test team today has in its ranks an opener who excels by using the template of classical Test opening. Haseeb Hameed of England, Dean Elgar of South Africa and Kraigg Brathwaite of the West Indies fit this label as well.

Hameed, playing on a dry Rajkot surface against a resurgent Indian side in his very first Test for England, exhibited amazing grit and self-control to score 82 off 177 balls and take his team to safety. While the 20-year-old isn’t a part of the England squad at present, he is certainly a bright prospect for the country.

Kraigg Brathwaite and Dean Elgar, meanwhile, have been impressive in their roles as the rock solid openers for their respective countries and have played a vital role in helping the team achieve significant victories in the past few years.

More than the success in their numbers, this proclivity for the purist approach among the current crop of Test openers might be a catalytic moment in modern Test cricket.

It is a tad surprising, though, that in this age of slam bang cricket we are getting to witness a transformation in Test opening batting. Yes, there are still the likes of David Warner out there, but there is no denying now that more openers today seem to rely on the tried and tested formula of grinding it out and banking on patience rather than just hitting.

Can this phase now usher in a new era in Test cricket? An era where we can get to see the birth of some great classical Test openers in the mould of Sunil Gavaskar or Graham Gooch? These are exciting times.

A refreshing change

Test opening batting is an art. It requires a completely unique set of skills to survive on a green top and when a fast bowler is swinging the red (or pink) ball at pace. You may hit your way out of trouble once or twice, but to actually survive as an opener for the long haul requires a lot of forbearance. Hayden and Sehwag did find success with their aggressive style of play, but their skills were rare and should not be emulated as a set template for this art form.

It is thus truly refreshing to see this trait develop among the young Test openers of today. It must not be easy, especially given that most batsmen today play all the formats of the game. And with the game moving at such a breakneck speed these days, the compulsion to smite every ball must be tempting. But the fact that more Test openers at present are not choosing the easy route, and are willing to give their craft its due respect, holds world cricket in good stead.

So often these days we have indulged in bashing the modern day cricketer. But here we have a fine example of how cricket is such a beautiful game. Despite the concerns of T20 cricket ruining every other format, despite the fear that the modern day batsman will just become a caricature of an ultra-aggressive hitter in every format, things are coming full circle – for opening Test matches at least. How long this phase lasts, we shall see in due time. But it would do us good to cherish this period.

Say what you will about traditional Test opening batting being boring, there is a certain charm to it. Yes, swashbuckling batting might be exciting and it has its place as well. But the image of pure Test opening batsman spending hours at the crease to battle it out against a menacing pace bowler or a wily spinner and nullifying their advantage is something that makes Test cricket beautiful to watch.

There will of course be many batsmen who will emulate Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden every now and then, but for now, let us revel in the glory of classical Test opening batsmanship, as is being exhibited by the Murali Vijay’s and the Matt Renshaw’s of the world. For who knows how much time we have left to savour this glorious art?

 

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