Of openers and all-rounders
Shivaji Sengupta - 16 February 2002
With Gautam Gambhir's double century for the Indian Board President's XI against Zimbabwe, the selectors will now have an interesting problem to ponder over. As prone to dropping catches as his gloves were, Deep Dasgupta was settling nicely into the opening batsman's position with Shiv Sunder Das. Despite the persistent shadow of Connor Williams, who has been racking up the runs for Baroda, the comfortable line of thought was that Dasgupta could open with Das, and Ajay Ratra, at least for the present, could do duty in the one-dayers.
But man proposes and God disposes.
Gambhir, a 20-year-old batsman from Delhi, a cricketer with immense talent, has now scored a double hundred against, of all teams, Zimbabwe, the very team that India will take on shortly. What Gambhir's "untactful" ton has done, then, is throw the aforementioned comfortable logic into disarray.
A sense of expediency reasons that the Dasgupta solution placates anxiety. The man from Bengal is a decent bat, even if he is a less-than-mediocre wicket-keeper. But conscience suggests, in a whisper, finding a bonafide opening partner for Das. It reminds us that not since Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan have we had a durable and effective opening pair, and that was over 20 years ago. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, as Gavaskar's consort, was stable without being consistent.
But after that pair, opening the Indian batting has not exactly been as easy as open sesame. Lacking an emphatic statement from any of the domestic openers in the Ranji Trophy, the expedient, then, seems to be once again the way to go.
Of course, there are a couple of other reasons for letting Dasgupta open. India's batting is not deep. Lacking a couple of genuine all-rounders of the type that New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan possess, the Indian batting lineup seems to suddenly dry up, leaving the number seven man precariously alone. Assuming, for a hypothetical moment, that Dasgupta opens with Das, Virender Sehwag could then be slotted to come in at seven. It would be fine to have a talented and forceful shot-maker in that position, although, with Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Javagal Srinath and another paceman to follow, there is a distinct risk of Sehwag feeling a bit lonely. Dasgupta, in other words, is India's only pragmatic all-rounder - technically!
If Gambhir were to don the mantle of opener, then India might have to omit Sehwag - not a desirable situation, considering that he scored a century on Test debut - or go in with three bowlers and have the Indian captain open the bowling with Srinath.
But the problem is not confined to the upcoming Test matches. Rather, it lies in India's inability to produce a quality all-rounder, even a Mohinder Amartnath or a Ravi Shastri, leave along a Kapil Dev. An all-rounder is not just a player who performs two tasks well; by those two tasks, he should open up creative permutations that allow a team to attack the opponent.
Furthermore, all-rounders temperamentally have always shown more aggression with their presence on the field. Think, for a minute, of Keith Miller, our own Vinoo Mankad, Garfield Sobers, the famous quartet of Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev, the present lot of Chris Cairns and Lance Klusener - all these players have, or had, a unique trait of coming in late in an innings and completely changing the tempo of a game. Look at how Abdul Razzaq of Pakistan came in at seven and guided his team to a recent victory against the West Indies.
The same goes for their bowling. They have an uncanny ability to cause damage when the opposing captain has taken them for granted as "utility players." They turn a formality into a fight. India, thus, desperately need an all-rounder of such quality.
So what will the team composition be for the forthcoming two Tests? I think the selectors will prefer expediency to conscience and wax philosophic about the all-rounder question. They will probably select Dasgupta, who has been among runs. But we should know in a few days and then scurry to defend the elaborate logic laid out in this column. It was George Bernard Shaw who opined that a journalist's job is to say what will happen and then, when it does not happen, to explain authoritatively why it did not.
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