Jeet Raval is a pleasing personality, so much so that his Auckland team-mates call him the ‘Rahul Dravid of Auckland’ for his solid technique. That is a huge honour for Raval who adored Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid as a youngster and grew up watching the legendary Indian batsmen during his school days in Ahmedabad.
An unprecedented move to New Zealand gave him a realistic shot at Test cricket. His watertight technique and Kiwis’ eternal hunt for a reliable opener made Raval’s path easier but it was no bed of roses. He grinds it out in domestic cricket, consistently knocked on the selectors’ door and when the opportunity came grabbed it with both hands, scoring a half-century on debut against a potent Pakistan attack.
Seemingly, nothing could go wrong in Raval’s career as runs came thick and fast and an average of 47.61 after 9 Tests indicate the emergence of a terrific Test talent, particularly because all of his runs have come at home where conditions aren’t the ideal for openers.
Yet, just 14 innings into his Test career, Raval is being questioned for not getting the big daddy hundreds that is synonymous with openers of the modern era. All six of his 50+ scores have ended below hundred and his conversion rate is being grilled relentlessly.
On Saturday, he weathered the new ball spell of Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel and looked New Zealand’s best batsman at the crease. He was audacious with his pull strokes, outstanding in judgement, exemplary with his drives and showcased a temperament and maturity you associate with well-experienced Test match players. However, yet again as fate would have it, his innings was cut short on 84 by a Gabriel peach.
This brings us back to a fundamental question – What is the role of an opening batsman in Test cricket?
Traditionally, an opener was expected to take the shine off the new ball and prepare the stage for the bigger batsmen in the team, hiding in the middle-order, to take centre-stage. The openers were the ones who sacrificed. They got the rough deal ’cause they had to weather out the shiny, new ball when it swung and seamed. On 8/10 occasions they might fail. But when it clicks, the middle-order have a set platform to work upon.
Modern day cricket is different though. It has transformed so much from cricket in the early 80s and 90s that it seems unfair to even call this game cricket. It is now a meaningless blend of Punjabi bhangra and folk dance, with players shaking a leg to Shakira or Ed Sheeran.
The craziness has reached such heights that roles are being transformed. A certain Virender Sehwag walked in with the same mindset in all formats of the game and to his credit he has made two triple hundreds. Geoffrey Boycott, the most traditional of openers, made 151 scores of 100 or more in First-class cricket and not once got till the triple century mark. It kind of shows that amidst all the madness of modern day cricket, there is some sense after all.
That David Warner is the highest ranked Test batsman currently is further proof that the cricketing World has turned upside down. Warner is a modern day beast; one who could decimate opposition bowlers with a scything cut shot or a blood-sucking pull. He doesn’t just score runs. He scores them big. In 68 Tests, the Australian has 20 hundreds and 25 half-centuries, a conversion rate of nearly 50%.
That is modern day cricket for you. There is less of the traditional mindset bit more of a unique fusion of the old and the new. In this age and time, Jeet Raval is a traditionalist. He isn’t your man to announce war in a fourth innings run chase of 375 in 55 overs. He is more of the first innings opener who would make the opposition captain, who chose to bowl in a green mamba, scratch his head in frustration with a 65 on day one of a Test match.
Does that mean he isn’t a proper opener in the modern version of Test cricket? Does that mean his hard-earned half-centuries, that set the platform for the likes of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor to plunder runs, come to nothing?
Aakash Chopra, a silent spectator to Virender Sehwag’s carnage at the other end of several occasions, has an interesting view in his book, Beyond the Blues. The former Indian opener states that while his role was to take the sheen off the new ball and score those valuable 40-50 runs, such a role is fraught with risk. The moment you score a couple of single digit scores, your name comes under the scrutiny, which is kind of true when you look back on Chopra’s career, which number-wise, wasn’t too great. But did he do the job assigned to him? Hell, yes!
Going by Chopra’s experience, Raval’s task is cut out. He can be that hard-working opener who consistently lays the carpet for his captain and senior statesman but the moment he fails to do that a couple of times in a row, his name is bound to come under discussion in selection meetings. He may not adhere to modern day norms, but Raval might just need to ensure that his average remains in the high 40s even if the big daddy hundreds don’t come soon.