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The coveted art of opening the batting and the best two in two and a half decades

Since its inception, test cricket has witnessed great opening batsmen. The pre-world war era saw some magnificent fast bowlers torment batsmen and at times, the batsmen tormented them with some godly skill! A skill that a few possessed and a fewer made it unbelievably simple! Does opening the batting come naturally to people? Or does one have to hone one’s skill to be a supreme force to reckon with? Or is it a combination of both?

 

 

With the limited amount of cricket that I have played till the under 16 level and a brief stint at university level, I more often than not would open the batting for the teams that I played and at times would come in 1st drop and I can tell you, there is no better feeling than to witness the red cherry fly off the bat when it makes contact with the sweet spot! There’s no better song than the sound that your hear when willow makes contact with that hard shiny piece of leather. With the ball so new and hard, it just took a mere push into the gaps and if the bowler was really “express”, a defensive stroke was all it took for it to make it to the fence.

 

 

Having followed the game over the last 20 odd years, I can clearly tell you that it is a skill set that men of a very different mettle possess. It certainly isn’t something that demands only “great technique”. It’s beyond textbook stuff. It is more mental technique than physical. It involves a large heart and a keen understanding of playing with a bowler’s psyche and at times holding on to your horses. Opening batsmanship needs courage, patience, anger management, technique and plenty of confidence. I can go on with this but I will come to the point in talking about the best opening batsmen that I have watched in the last 25 years and here I’m talking of just test cricket as it involves more skill than ODIs, particularly in this department.

 

 

Once again, this has been my observation and having discussed this with another cricket enthusiast,  with whom I have played a considerable amount of cricket, I’d like to credit him in helping with identifying the best opening batsmen from 1990-2014 or should I say, the 2 best openers across the world. It would be easy for some to make your picks, but each opener in this list comes with a unique attribute and hence needs a lot more micro-observation. Again, I would love your involvement here, in debating on your best openers and as I mention every time, we all are passionate about our favourites and have the right to express our views right?

 

 

Here is a list of best openers that the world has witnessed from 1990 out of which; we need to pick just 2. I am bringing in names of batsmen, who have played a considerable no. of games in the last two and a half decades. Ideally, they should have played at least 70 test matches between 1990 and 2014 and performed considerably well. By that I don’t necessarily mean statistically great batsmen, but players who have created an impact in their team’s cause.

 

 

This list of openers is in no particular order:

 

1). Mark Taylor: A gutsy, cool customer who made opening batting a deft art and held Australian batting together for 10 long years scoring 19 test 100s as an opener alone. That for me is a commendable achievement! He played under all conditions with supreme ease and put up some breathtaking performances.

 

2). Virender Sehwag: He is swashbuckling, aggressive, erratic and classy at the same time! These were attributes that took Sehwag to the helm and he proudly proclaims the same. Why not? He is one of the very few batsmen who has the ability to turn a match on its head and one who can single handedly win a game for his team and was pivotal in bringing India to the no.1 spot in test cricket in 2010!

 

3). Mathew Hayden: Very similar in approach to Viru, Hayden was the most feared opening batsmen in the world. He could be a bowler’s nightmare on his day and I certainly can find you confessions from legendary fast bowlers that they hadn’t slept the night before a test match, thinking about how to tackle Matty Hayden! Stylish and aggressive, Hayden walked down the pitch to the fastest in business and tonked them around the park as though he was playing in his backyard!

 

4). Alistar Cook: When Cook finishes his career, he will certainly have statistics that might have to be framed and placed on his wall. Having said that, it isn’t his statistical genius that has made him a modern day legend, but the pure ease with which he acclimatizes to various playing conditions. Cook has been instrumental in a plethora of England wins and I’m sure, plenty more to come!

 

5). Graeme Smith: Big built, Smithy’s 27 test 100s have never failed South Africa! Pushed into captaining the team very early in his career, Smith has carried the legacy of yet another batting hero of South Africa, Gary Kirsten, in the opening department with utmost success at the top level against top attacks across the globe! As Jaques Kallis said, the whole nation must celebrate Smith’s career!

 

6). Andrew Strauss: One of the unsung heroes of England cricket, Strauss, within a bat of an eye, played 100 test matches for his country. He hardly played 10 years of test cricket and yet managed the feat which is testimony to the value he added to England cricket. He also managed 21 test centuries which is staggering for an opener, who held the country’s hopes together for 8 consecutive years!

 

7). Justin Langer: Talk about gritty batsmanship and Justin Langer would feature right up there! He was the anchor Australia needed at the top of the order. He had a relatively long stint in terms of no. of years played, but he did complete justice to that by putting up extremely crucial partnerships with openers that he batted alongside, particularly Mathew Hayden mustering up 23 test centuries.

 

8). Chris Gayle: The doldrums that West Indian cricket was in, the 2000s saw the exit of a few greats and the batting was left in the able hands of three southpaws-Lara, Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle. Gayle, with his aggressive, batting and masterful arrogance, held one of the opener’s spot for his entire career. He however stands at 15 test centuries, out of which 2 are triple hundreds and on his day, can maul the best of attacks! Gayle is currently going 103 test matches strong!

 

9). Gary Kirsten: Ever since South Africa made a comeback to international cricket, they have witnessed openers come and go. Kirsten was there to stay! Apart from Graeme Smith, Kirsten was arguably the best opening batsman South Africa had and his performances speak volumes. Gary Kirsten was gritty and yet aggressive but was a real tough nut to crack! Players who played with and against him will respect this man for all what he has done at the top of the order.

 

10). Sanath Jayasurya: The name strikes terror and he played the game in the same fashion ever since he was promoted up the order by his then captain, Arjuna Ranatunga. What a master stroke that was! The rest is history. Ever since his retirement, Sri Lanka is yet to find an opening batsman of substance in the longest format. With a few good performances by Thilakaratne Dilshan though, Jayasurya still happens to be Sri Lanka’s best opening batsman till date!

 

11). Michael Atherton: Any test match openers’ list can never be complete without including this gem of a cricketer! A batsman with a large heart and the will to grind it out session after session made him a real force to reckon with. He played the game with a lot of pride, though he did take one too many blows on his body; an attribute, that makes you salute his legend! He played over a 100 test matches for England and really showed the world, the meaning of grit!

 

12). Michael Slater: A swanky batsman, Michael Slater for a major part of the 1990s until early 2000s, was a great talent for Australia. Alongside Mark Taylor, he did string plenty of great opening partnerships and gave his team the required impetus at the top of the order! He often fell prey to his own “rush of blood” and hence in 74 tests, ended up with 9 scores in the 90s (dismissed). Slater was also a magnificent batsman to watch!

 

13). Marcus Trescothick: After the exit of Gooch, England found it an ordeal to get a reliable opening foil for Michael Atherton. Marcus Trescothick was a blessing for England! It seemed like their worries had ended, but it was just too late as Atherton very soon stepped out. However, in his 76 test matches, he managed close to 6,000 test runs @a shade below 45 with 14 centuries and played the game hard!

 

This list looks quite ominous already doesn’t it?

 

It is quite a task to filter batsmen further down as every single name mentioned have performed at the top level consistently. This list however has to be filtered down to just two names as that is one of the reasons I am writing this blog. To find the two best opening batsmen in the last two and a half decades.

 

Looking at all their performances, my friend and I did with a heavy heart manage to pick up two names. Of course, I say “heavy heart” purely because, the rest of the batsmen are all top quality players and in no sense, will we discount their contributions. My top two hence are:

 

Mathew Hayden : In 103 matches, he managed 8,625 runs @ 50.73 with 30 centuries and 29 half centuries.

 

Virender Sehwag: in 104 matches, he managed 8586 runs @ 49.34 with 23 centuries and 32 half centuries so far.

 

Now these two names weren’t picked only for their staggering numbers, but the manner in which they came. While most other names mentioned in the list did play the game well and some are still playing well, these two legends showed the world how to tear bowling attacks apart with brutality at the top of the order. By doing what they did (In sehwag’s case, he still hasn’t retired), the bowler, no matter how aggressive he is, mentally gets disintegrated. This technique of mentally disintegrating the bowler right from the word go, was used by a lot of batsmen in the 50 over format. In test cricket, you seldom found anybody who did it with so much ease and consistency.

 

I am not saying old fashioned cricket is no more required. I still maintain that, Sunil Gavaskar is the best opening batsman the world has ever seen and there can be nobody like him! All I am trying to say is, these two batsmen possess a talent that is very unusual and it is not that they don’t work on their game. In spite of all that, Sehwag has still to prove his worth by playing domestic cricket and Mathew Hayden decided to call it a day. But when they played the game, they were the Lords of the game and we as cricket fans, need to be proud to have witnessed such superior batsmanship in our era!

 

I hope you had a good read. I might have missed out on a few names and I would love to see your thoughts expressed on the same as well!

 

PS: Cricket is the reason I breathe! This is an article written purely out of passion. Have a good day folks!

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The curious case of Pragyan Ojha

3 decades had gone by and golden arms had deserted us forever it looked like. The classic trajectory with revs and revs and revs on the ball until that beautiful piece of leather reached the batsman just to bamboozle him completely was like a long forgotten dream. Bishen Singh Bedi had  set a benchmark for subcontinent left arm spinners or for that matter left arm spinners world over. But since the subcontinent was better known to have produced some phenomenal spinners and India in particular almost had it as an idiosyncrasy, eyebrows often used to raise.

India from the mid 1970s until the late 2000s had some stellar spinners who backed themselves up with statistics to die for. However, the ‘left arm spinner box’ was somehow left empty. This box needed to be ticked. Maninder Singh, Nilesh Kulkarni, Ravi Shastri, Venkatapathy Raju, Murali Karthik all did their bit and all looked very delightful. But there was a zing that went a begging. That ‘x’ factor was missing. There is a reason it is called ‘left arm orthodox’. It should in fact be called ‘left arm vintage’. Until 2009, India waited and it finally received its messiah. Or at least that is what the nation thought.

A certain Pragyan Ojha made his debut against neighbours Sri Lanka. He had a moderate outing, but the ones who understood the game and in particular who savoured classical left arm bowling would have an orgasmic sense of pleasure while watching him bowl. He was technically so perfect.  His arm was so beautifully aligned to send in those revolutions and allow the ball to dip on the batsman. He literally epitomised left arm orthodox. Pragyan’s however was a curious case. Having just played 24 test matches Pragyan Ojha has touched 31. His last test was 4 years ago which was quite an epic in itself as the God of cricket was bidding adieu. Quite apt for a cricketer who, by the look of it might have already played his last test partially due to his injury woes and partially due to his lacklustre batting technique, that final test match of Sachin Tendulkar was as close as it could get to a fairytale ending for Pragyan and we can just helplessly see a sovereign cricketer’s career plunk into the horizon!

Whilst all this was happening, the no.6 void created by Sourav Ganguly was still haunting Indian cricket. On the back of 2 big triple centuries, the selectors decided to pick up Ravindra Jadeja to  strengthen the lower middle order and to keep company to Dhoni, Ashwin and co. What do you know? Ravindra Jadeja would soon begin to disappoint with the bat but to add to Pragyan’s misery,  had begun to do exceedingly well with the ball to trouble batsmen from all over the world. Pragyan wasn’t particularly bad at that time. In fact, he was really good. But the psychological advantage the team had with Jadeja around because he could bat especially with him contributing in big chunks with the ball made him the obvious blue eyed boy of Indian cricket. Jadeja is a highly gifted fielder as well. This obviously meant bad news for Pragyan Ojha. Soon Jadeja began to do reasonably well with the bat too and that was the last nail in the coffin.

With 113 wickets from 24 tests to Ojha @ 4.7 wickets per test match as opposed to 155 wickets to Ravindra Jadeja in 32 tests @4.84 wickets per test match, Jadeja has already won the selectors’ and teammates’ confidence. I haven’t yet mentioned Jadeja’s batting average which is a touch under 30, to go with 8 half centuries. Ojha doesn’t come close in that department. Ojha however will be remembered for his monumental effort in that test match against Australia where he was such a great foil to VVS in 2010. But sporadic heroics don’t stick in the minds of people for too long. With a long overseas season ahead, one would imagine we have just seen the last of a name that could have been taken in the same breath as that of Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh or even the famous spin quartet of Indian cricket. If Ojha was handled a little better, could he have played longer? As much as we ponder over the ifs, and wish to have seen more of Pragyan Ojha, the famous cliche comes to mind-If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!

The gambler who never counted his chips

’You never count your money, when you are sitting at the table..There’ll be time enough for counting, when the deal is done’. Sounds like Kenny Rogers doesn’t it? But hey! When cricket comes to the fore, all of this can be thrown out of the window. And why not? After all you read game situations as per your chips right?

Well that was true until Indian cricket saw the arrival of a long haired, burly young man who could finally perform the dual role of a bullish striker at any position and one who could dawn the gloves with razor sharp reflexes behind the stumps. India had found a permanent solution to a problem that used to chivvy for a long long time.

MS Dhoni was the answer to more than a problem that started and ended in dossiers. MS Dhoni was hope and MS Dhoni became the heart beat. If ever ‘Sachin Sachin’ was enough reverberation, ‘Dhoni Dhoni’ or even ‘EMM-ESS-DEEE…..EMM-ESS-DEEE’ was as pulsating if not more. How did this happen? How did a nation who once said ‘Cricket is our religion and Sachin is our God’ also say ‘Sorry Sachin, but for us Dhoni is God’? How could they commit such a cardinal sin?And how did a certain MS Dhoni have ‘The God’ himself say, “Dhoni is the best captain I have played under”?

It all began when a small town boy with dreams larger than life started playing games with his own mind. It started when he believed that instincts could have the better of time-honoured methods.

MS Dhoni is a cricketer who plays situations without really looking at ‘what ifs’. We seldom see players who are in their ‘zone’ all the time they walk out to the middle. Because in sport, you win some and you lose some. When that kind of thought process sinks in, you begin to enjoy the game and never really are in pressure. ‘You win some and you lose some’ becomes a way of life. That is when you begin to appreciate the process more than the result. A belief that MS stood by throughout his career. He backed his strengths, worked on his weaknesses and took risks that could have backfired.

How else? How else can you explain the manoeuvre of throwing the ball to a 120 something Kmph (like Geoffery Boycott would say) dobly-dubbly bowler who could be pummelled by anybody’s grand mum in a crucial WT20 final against arch rivals Pakistan in the last over when they were going hammer and tongs? Especially when Harbhajan still could have spun a few?

How could you explain the man himself who had an indisposed campaign throughout with the bat push himself ahead of the eventual man of the series just because his instincts told him to do so? You could argue that Murali was in the attack and MSD did not want to expose the two southpaws  in Yuvi and Raina to the away turning deliveries. But remember, if the move had flopped, the entire nation would have called for MSD’s neck. Remember it was a World cup final.

How else could you explain MSD’s ploy to continue with an Ishant Sharma who was lacklustre in that particular CT 2013 final?

How do you have the nerve to bounce out opponents in their backyard when you know your team doesn’t have the greatest reputation at facing chin music? And when there was a counter attack, you continue with the ploy in the mecca of cricket?

How could you explain the moving around of Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan in that crunch game against Bangladesh at deep midwicket in the WT20 2016? Or even the famous glove removal and sprint to run out Fiz (Mustafizur)? Or the last over being given to Virat Kohli in the same tournament against West Indies in a semi-final encounter defending just 8 runs?

There is an explanation for all this but only certain men justify them. Because such men come once in a generation.These are decisions taken by men who are a combination of being astute readers of the game and gamblers by instinct. Ones who have the tenacity to back their sixth sense and ones who have the fortitude to take things on themselves when the chips are down. Because such men never count their chips! Such was one gambler called MS Dhoni who led the nation for close to a decade with utmost finesse and who never counted his chips, when they were up or when they were down.