Aus v Ind KL Rahul

Published on December 17th, 2018 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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The enormous holes at the top of the Indian order

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In this calendar year, in the 10 overseas Tests, Indian openers have averaged 18.27 in 40 innings, with one solitary fifty-plus score….

At the end of Day 4, India are practically 8 down with miles to go.

The scoreboard reads 112 for 5, but the men to follow are four No 11s. We have already covered that aspect of the batting line-up in some detail.

Even today the last two Australian wickets added 45. It is difficult to picture the Indian tail doing anything approaching that.

For India to even come close to the target of 287, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant need to put on a partnership that will be recounted in odes of gallantry for decades to come. In short, the task ahead crashes through the borders of the proverbial ‘next to impossible’ and falls well into the category of the miraculous.

Perhaps the best news for the Indian odyssey in Australia came from far-off Wankhede, where Hardik Pandya scored 73 from No 5 and captured 5 for 81 and 2 for 21 opening the Baroda attack against Mumbai. His being flown in will perhaps add some of the all-round balance to the side, no matter how many snide remarks about Kapil Dev emerge on social media.

But the Indian problems start way, way before that unproductive tail. It begins right at the beginning of the innings.

The tail is composed of some wonderful bowlers, some of the best fast men in the history of Indian cricket. Their primary job is to get wickets. It is merely for the balance of the side is it necessary for one or two to start scoring some runs as well.

But there are some men entrusted with the job of scoring runs. Nay, they are responsible for more. Providing starts to the innings.

Also Read: Murali Vijay: End of the Road?

Starts are important … they are incredibly important. Look at any great side, and they were spearheaded by excellent opening batsmen. Otherwise the brilliance of the middle order and also the excellence of the bowling firepower, such as what is available with the Indians at the moment, often come to nought. Because without a good start, the team goes through elaborate sessions of catching up. They just cannot get ahead.

Be it Arthur Morris and Sid Barnes for Bradman’s Invincibles, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes for Clive Lloyd’s West Indians, or either Mark Taylor and Michael Slater or the pair of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer for the great Australian sides during the turn of the century, every great side, I repeat, have had superb opening combinations.

Even during that unusual high India enjoyed during the last days of the previous decade and the first few days of this one. They were briefly at the top of the Test world. While they did have to thank Sachin Tendulkar for his remarkable second wind, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh for some of the best phases of their careers, VVS Laxman for some of his exhilarating magic … the starts were consistently provided by two gentlemen called Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.

Sadly, that is one area in which India has struggled for a while now.

Let us put things into perspective by using data.

In this calendar year, a chequered one for India, they have played 10 Tests on foreign soil, including this one, winning three and losing six (and it looks likely that it will be 3-7 by this time tomorrow).

Granted, the conditions have been as difficult as they get, with the wickets in South Africa, England and now Australia not really being ideal for batsmen.

In spite of that allowance, one has to say that the Indian openers have been pathetic. And that is being polite.

Four opening batsmen (three actually, Parthiv Patel has opened in one innings) have been used during the course of the year. We are considering foreign soil only, so Prithvi Shaw is not one of them. India have thus had 20 starts to their innings overseas. The openers have put on 418 runs in all, at 20.90, managing a highest of 63 and putting up 50 partnerships just four times.

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The teams they have been up against, in South Africa, England and Australia, have taken 601 runs against them in the 20 innings they have essayed, averaging 31.63 per opening stand. There, 10.53 runs per innings, or roughly 21 runs per Test match is accounted for.

But that is if we consider partnerships. What about the runs the openers get individually? Their job is not really over once one of them get out.

It is even more alarming. In the 40 innings that the Indian opening batsmen have played abroad this year, they have managed just one 50-plus score. Admittedly it was more than just a 50-plus score, a mammoth 149 at The Oval by KL Rahul. But other than that one outlying effort, not one of the openers have managed a half century in the other 39 individual innings they have batted.

Individually, they have scored at 18.27 runs per innings in the 10 Tests, bringing forth 731 runs. In those same matches, the opposition opening batsmen have totalled 1065 runs at 28.78 with a hundred and 6 fifties.

Not great figures from the opposition, which points at the difficulty of conditions and the brilliance of the Indian bowlers. However, the numbers amount to a difference of 334 runs, which is 33.4 runs per Test match.

Add that to the most unproductive tail India has produced in a long time, and we are left with a batting unit that is all middle. Like one of those hit-me toys we had as kids. A few well-directed blows at the middle and the balance is destroyed. The only difference is that unlike a hit-me toy, the batting unit cannot get back on its feet immediately on being knocked down.

Indian Overseas Tests in 2018 T R Ave 100 50
Indian opening batsmen 10 731 18.27 1 0
Opposition opening batsmen 10 1065 28.78 1 6
Opening Partnerships
India 10 418 20.90 0 4
Opposition 10 601 31.63 1 4

The woes of Murali Vijay have already been dealt with in detail and the current Test match has done nothing in terms of redemption. His 7 Tests overseas this year have brought him 177 runs at an average of 12.64.

KL Rahul has figures of 344 runs at 22.93 from his 8 Tests.

Shikhar Dhawan, who has played in 5 of the Tests, has 194 runs at 19.40.

And Parthiv Patel scored 16 in the only innings he opened in.

If Shaw was fully fit, it is doubtful whether the team-management would be brave enough to go forward with two inexperienced openers at the top. But given that all the experience have resulted in downright atrocious numbers, there may not have been much of an option. With Prithvi Shaw ruled out for the rest of the series, the options are even less. But there does not seem to be an alternative to Mayank Agarwal being there at the crease when India start their innings at MCG.

When KL Rahul hovered in indecision and managed to deflect Mitchell Starc on to his stumps off the fourth ball he faced, the opening conundrum could literally be solved by the cliché “something is better than nothing.” With Murali Vijay hearing the death rattle with Nathan Lyon’s sharp break off the footmarks going through the enormous gap between bat and pad, the clamours for a complete revamp do sound very appropriate.

Shaw’s injury complicates matters, but perhaps Agarwal cannot be ignored any longer.

With just Boxing Day Test to go after the formalities are completed on Tuesday, India have just one chance to set the opening record straight for the calendar year. Perhaps the way forward into the next year is to give an untried youngster the vote of confidence to kick the innings off at Melbourne.

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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