The curious case of the 2nd Indian opener
Finding a formidable opening pair has always been a challenge for the Indian selectors. Sehwag and Gambhir gave them some respite while they amassed 4412 runs, making them the 5th most successful pair in Test history. Averaging 52.52 and compiling 11 century partnerships were no mean feats. But then the runs dried up as Gambhir went without a century for over 3 years (his last century was against Bangladesh on 17th Jan 2010) and Sehwag’s erratic form was too elongated to be ignored by this rather performance-oriented selection committee led by Sandeep Patil. While Murali Vijay has done well to get a Test century despite an unimpressive Ranji season which will allow him to keep his place for a few matches at least, Sehwag’s exclusion has opened up the debate on the 2nd opener for the remaining Test matches against the visiting Australians. Should it be Shikhar Dhawan or Ajinkya Rahane?
Ajinkya Rahane has been a part of the Test side since forever, it seems. He has travelled to Australia, been a part of the home series against England and now Australia. Earmarked as a middle-order batsman, Rahane has played as a successful number 3 batsman for Mumbai. Needless to say, his technique and ability to stay at the crease, which have helped him become a successful number 3 for the Ranji Champions, make his case strong for the opening batsman slot. Also, a batsman with nearly 5500 first-class runs at an average of 62 is too good to be deprived of a chance for such a lengthy period of time. It’s difficult to find six currently-playing batsmen in the country who are better than Rahane. With that argument, Rahane does deserve to play, and if the opening slot is the one currently vacant, then why not give him a chance there? This will also give him more confidence than just warming the benches across different grounds in India.
On the other hand, the selectors wouldn’t want him to go down the path which VVS Laxman traversed in the early part of his career. His domestic record was also too good to be ignored and despite being a middle-order batsman, he was made to open the innings. That he made a fluid 167 at SCG is a different story which speaks volumes of his class. By his own admission, Laxman said that playing as an opener was a compromise and he should’ve stuck to his strengths. The same is the case with Rahane. He might be lured by a vacant spot in the team, but is that what he has been aiming for all this while? It’s a question that he himself can best answer.
That brings us to Shikhar Dhawan. He has had an impressive Ranji season as an opener. In 8 Ranji games, he has scored 524 runs at an average of 48 and compiled 2 hundreds in the process. If one looks at his entire first-class season last year, he has scored 833 runs at an average of 56, including consecutive hundreds in the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Duleep Trophy. The numbers are not mind-boggling but impressive nevertheless. The fact that Dhawan is a specialist opener means that there are no positional changes that the batsman would have to go through when he faces his first ball in Test cricket. There will be fewer questions asked, the answers to which will be ready if Dhawan actually gets a look-in at Mohali.
The other reason weighing heavily in favour of Dhawan is the selection of Murali Vijay. Had the selectors wanted to field the best line-up for the Aussie series, Rahane’s selection would have been a much smoother decision to make. The fact that the team management and the selectors went ahead with Vijay speaks of their intent to play a specialist opener ahead of a better middle-order batsman in the top 2 position. If the same logic is applied, which it should if the selection panel remains consistent with its policy, Dhawan will be played ahead of Rahane.
It’s easy to imagine that Rahane and Dhawan would be facing rather sleepless nights – for entirely different reasons though. For one, it’d be the frustration arising out of the lack of any opportunity to play in the Test team and for the other, anticipation of the same opportunity.