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Starting trouble for India

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India_opening_partnership_openers_batting_problemsAfter Virat Kohli took over the reins of the Indian Test team, India has hardly done anything wrong. Following MS Dhoni’s retirement, India have lost only a solitary Test and Virat Kohli and his team have taken India to the pinnacle of Test Rankings.

The Indian team has been in transition since the retirements of VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, led by Virat Kohli, have done a commendable job of filling the big hole in the middle order left by those stalwarts. The lower order of Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja has come good, letting India bat fairly deep.

The transition, however, is not yet complete. The Virender Sehwag-Gautam Gambhir partnership at the top has been very difficult to replicate. In 87 innings, the Delhi duo added 4412 runs at an average of 52.52 with 11 century partnerships.

Though form eluded both Sehwag and Gambhir by the end of the 2012-2013 season, and they were eventually dropped from the side, these two were instrumental in helping India reach the top of the Test rankings in 2009.

 

For most Test teams, even those with a number of talented middle order batsmen, it is the dearth of openers that worries a captain the most. The Aussies have been finding it difficult to figure out a partner for David Warner over the years. In the 4 years since Andrew Strauss retired, England have tried as many as 10 different opening partners for Alastair Cook. A Cook XI can be made with just his opening partners from the last few years. The same can be said of South Africa, after the retirement of Graeme Smith.

India have found a resilient and determined gem in Murali Vijay, who many fondly call the Monk. He has quietly made the number 1 opener’s spot his own in the Indian XI. Even though Murali Vijay has been outstanding himself, same cannot be said about his partnerships at the top.

 

Partners Inns Runs Best Average 100 50
Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay 33 1124 283 35.12 1 5
Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul 5 171 87 34.2 0 1
KL Rahul, Murali Vijay 8 171 52 21.37 0 1
Gautam Gambhir, Murali Vijay 8 148 68 21.14 0 1
Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay 1 23 23 23 0 0
Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul 2 2 2 1 0 0

 

Since 1st November 2013, the Indian openers have collectively crossed the 100 run mark only once, against Bangladesh in 2015. Apart from that stand, things at the top for India have been pedestrian. Averaging a paltry 29.8 in 55 innings, Indian openers have been a major let down, putting added pressure on the middle order. During this period, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have done the bulk of the scoring, averaging 51.24 and 50.34 respectively. After a very indifferent year and a half, Cheteshwar Pujara is finally cashing in on his home form.

KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan, India’s top 2 choices for Murali Vijay’s opening partner, have averaged 33.64 and 34.51 respectively in this period. For perspective, R Ashwin has averaged 33.15 in 37 innings.

India’s coach Anil Kumble has backed KL Rahul to be India’s top pick for the Test opener’s slot along with Murali Vijay. It is early days for KL Rahul, who is only 10 Tests old, though he has showed a lot of promise. His numbers are quite binary. Until his 50 vs West Indies, he had crossed double figures only 5 times, going to score a century on four of those occasions from 11 innings. He has exhibited nervousness at the start of the innings. In the Kanpur Test against New Zealand he failed to convert his starts and got injured. His comeback was quite lacklustre, managing only 10 runs and a duck in the two innings against England at Visakhapatnam.

The numbers are glaring. While there is uncertainty over Shikhar Dhawan’s fitness, the other option for the openers slot is Gautam Gambhir, who seems a shadow of his former self. India should look at investing in a youngster, given their large pool of talent.

Having hosted South Africa, New Zealand and England in the last 12 months, with Australia to follow, it will soon be India’s turn to travel to all these countries with seamer friendly conditions. On tours, Virat Kohli has opted to play 5 bowlers, to remedy India’s traditional inability to pick 20 wickets in an away game. The failures at the top won’t go unnoticed for long, and if India is to win Tests abroad and justify their No. 1 tag, the openers have to come good as a pair, rather than individually.

 

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