January 03, 2008

Dravid and the opening conundrum

H Natarajan

There is nothing wrong in experimenting. But if an experiment is found to be largely unsuccessful, it only makes sense to look out for alternatives than persisting with the same.

The decision of the team management to be limpet-like in their stance to go with Rahul Dravid as an opener is questionable if only for his poor track record in this position. The argument may be put forward – and not without merit – that Dravid has the temperament and patience of an opener, arguably, more than any other member in this Indian side. There is also no questioning his technical brilliance to tackle the new ball. The resultant question would then force people to ask: Why the hue and cry about asking at No 3 to open?

Walking out to open the innings is a feeling that is vastly different than batting at any other number in the order. And that is something any opener at even a club level would vouch for. It requires a shift in mindset for any batsman down the order to open the innings. Unlike the rest of the batting order, openers don’t know what kind of help bowlers would generate from the wicket or the atmosphere. And if the team is batting second, then there is little respite for the openers, who have to pad up in a hurry and get out in the middle. The difference between opening the innings and batting at No 2 may seem marginal, but in reality opening the innings is a big ask.

There won’t be too many volunteers among non-openers to do the job. Taking on fresh bowlers with a new ball is a different ball game. The pressure is on the openers to lay the foundation in the face of high risks and low margin for errors.

The experiment to open with Dravid in the past was right, but the tactics needed to be revised in the face of a series of failures. Dravid has opened in seven series, but has succeeded in just one - on the 2005-06 tour of Pakistan when he got two hundreds. These two centuries give his status as an opener a veneer of respectability – an average of 30.00. If one set aside the two big knocks, Dravid has an average of 13.25 from 12 innings. He averages 57.26 at from 146 innings at No 3, 60.07 from 17 innings at No 4, 39.57 from nine outings at No 5 and 69.75 from four innings at No 7. So why sacrifice a man who has been India’s most successful middle-order batsman in recent years?

After five successive years of phenomenal, Dravid finished the year 2007 with moderate success. He has scored just two fifties in his last seven Tests with a best of 55. He has looked a man under siege since relinquishing the captaincy and his torment within is reflected in his struggles at the MCG in the first Test – five runs off 66 balls followed by 16 off 114 deliveries. Modern cricket has undergone a quantum change in terms of aggression and opening batsmen of the times like Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle and Sanath Jayasuriya, to name a few, exemplify the free-scoring nature of the era. When one has a defensive batsmen like Dravid at the top of the order, and at a time when he is struggling to come to grips with his mind, it negatively dictates the tone of the batting to follow.

Sehwag was a surprise inclusion in the team after being omitted from the short list. The inference from the rethink was that, despite not being in the best of nick, the selectors were willing to gamble on his past success Down Under and his potential to tear apart any attack. It’s inexplicable then to reduce him to a mere spectator and ask a reluctant and struggling non-opener batsman to do a specialists’ job. One cannot but feel sorry for Dravid who is now fighting for his international survival and getting pretty little help.

If Dravid can be asked to open, why not Tendulkar? There are more compelling reasons asking Tendulkar to open than Dravid. For one, the Master batsman has is in great form. Secondly, he has always relished the Aussie attack and many of his epics have come against them. Thirdly, and most importantly, he is not unfamiliar to the opening position. Tendulkar has opened 285 times in 397 ODIs with 37 of his 41 hundreds in this format coming as an opener. Yet Tendulkar – and Sourav Ganguly, his ODI opening partner – have batted just once each as openers in Test match cricket. Somehow, it doesn’t add up.

Even as one writes this column it’s apparent that Dravid will open the innings in the second Test at Sydney. Let’s hope and pray that this wonderful team man comes out his personal crisis that will reveal his true character.

Good luck, Rahul.