The docile yet effective Test opener
The importance of a steady Test opener who can buy time and remain unfazed like a rock is vastly underrated.
Kraigg Brathwaite and Haseeb Hameed aren’t the most eye-catching opening batsmen to follow a generation that saw Matthew Hayden, Virender Sehwag and then David Warner. But if you are an ardent Test cricket fan, you know that the sound that the ball makes while coming in at over 140 km/hr and meeting the dead bat is a delight in itself.
In showing commitment to be beaten by the swing, hit on the body as well as respecting the bowlers when they are on top of their game, these two young men have taken novice cricket followers by surprise and romantics back in the years.
However, their success does also make you realise how important keeping the floodgates closed is, and how easy it is to forget the primary responsibility of the unfortunate Test match opening batsman.
The legend of Sunil Gavaskar is built on the foundation that he could weather a storm on the opening day of a Test match be it Lords, Antigua, Chennai or Melbourne. It is said that he was hit on the head by a bouncer all but twice in his long and esteemed career. Add to this, he played without helmets for most part of his career and on uncovered pitches; one has to wonder the kind of application levels he possessed.
The way he loses his cool when the Gen X batsmen fail to have their eye on the ball while ducking bouncers gives us – the less fortunate ones who never saw him bat – an idea of the superlative levels of technique and composure required. It was this grit to stay through the tougher periods of the day that made the greats from yesteryears stand out from their peers.
Geoffrey Boycott, Gary Kirsten, Andrew Strauss, Chris Rogers, Alastair Cook and Murali Vijay are some other names that come to mind when one thinks of playing with a dead bat with grace, and wearing down the opposition.
The one thing common with all of these greats is that they had a more stylish counterpart in the same team who would hog the limelight on the day. But somehow, these were the dependable “farmers” around which the flashy “hunters” prospered.
So when the West Indies team, which has produced numerous quality T20 players, presents someone like Brathwaite to the world, there has to be pressure. The pressure of shying away from the new way of approaching the game in the post-Gayle era in the Caribbean. However, pressure is a thing that Brathwaite has dealt with effortlessly, right from the time he made his debut as a teenager.
That was on display in the farewell series of Sachin Tendulkar, where he batted for 70-80 balls with very little to show. The dogged defence has remained the same, the unfazed manner of coming down on the ball with soft hands hasn’t changed, and nor has the ability to take a blow or two in pursuit of a long stay at the crease.
The 142 not out, followed by 60 not out in the Sharjah Test against a formidable Pakistan attack, were a bit like classroom sessions for the other famed West Indian batsmen who came and went.
Brathwaite's ability to soak in all the pressure against the world class spin bowling of Yasir Shah, and his playing of the ball with a straight bat and a non-flamboyant technique, show that matches can still be won with an old-school, orthodox technique.
Hameed, on the other hand, had to just look across 22 yards for inspiration. In Alastair Cook, he had the perfect role model to execute a time-buying innings of 25 in 144 deliveries at Vishakhapatnam last week. Easier said than done, especially when you are 19 years old, in your 2nd Test match and in Ravichandran Ashwin’s backyard!
However, the young batsman stuck to the plan and kept it simple by defending everything put at him, even enduring a few body blows with great aplomb. It is very early to take a call on the “baby Boycott” nickname dished out to him, but if his early days are to be taken into account, cricket seems to have found a new torch bearer for the romantics’ opener – the batsman who is self-assured of where his off-stump lies.
These are just a few instances, and only time will tell if these two youngsters will last or perish. However, their performances have brought to light the importance of a traditional opening batsman who knows he is the one who will face the new ball, stand up to the toughest bowling spells, and come to the rescue of the big boys in the middle order.