Unsettled openers settle into Test cricket - A tale of 5 cricketers
The past two weeks have seen quite a few openers go into their respective series with a question mark hanging over their international careers, and coming up with some place-cementing innings.
Murali Vijay has long been known for his infuriating inconsistency. But the way he took his time in the second Test against Australia in the morning session before kicking on in the next few sessions shows a lot of temperament on the Tamil Nadu batsman’s side. Especially considering the fact that he had had two failures in his home Test at Chennai and not many were convinced that he was good enough at the Test level.
Vijay is a stylish player at the worst of times and his 167 during his huge partnership with the ultra-dependable double-centurion Cheteshwar Pujara showed a lot of class, whether he was driving through the covers or lofting through mid-wicket and long-on. But the best thing was that he was decisive in his footwork, getting forward nicely while defending.
Vijay scored a second consecutive century (153) in the third Test while featuring in an astonishing 289 run-partnership with debutant Shikhar Dhawan, in which he played second fiddle. This innings was again full of strokes all around the wicket, which, combined with his solid defence, showed that he has finally found his feet in Test cricket.
Dhawan has been in the shadows of fellow Delhi openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir for a long time and it was the explosive Sehwag whose place he was taking in the third Test. Dhawan was the player of the tournament in the 2004 U-19 World Cup, but didn’t make any impact in the limited chances he got in ODIs and T20Is.
No surprise then that there were protests from former players and fans both when he made the 15 ahead of Gambhir and Wasim Jaffer and when he was selected ahead of Sehwag for the third Test. So, how did Dhawan deal with the pressure of replacing one of the best openers India has ever had? By scoring the fastest ever century by a debutant!
Dhawan got 187 in just 174 balls in one of the most attacking debut innings of all time. Xavier Doherty, Nathan Lyon and Moises Henriques all took a hammering as Dhawan looked incredibly assured, especially through the covers. There was an element of drama to start the innings when Dhawan was technically out before facing his first ball. The ball slipped out of Mitchell Starc’s hand in his delivery stride onto the stumps with the batsman outside the crease at the non-striker’s end. But luckily for Dhawan, the Australians chose not to appeal. After this, he raced to 100 without a single lofted shot. He brought up his century with a 5 (this must be a first) as he dived into the crease for a single and ended up getting four overthrows.
Dhawan and Vijay have made sure that it isn’t going to be easy for Gambhir and Sehwag to get back into the Indian team, but the real test lies not in this series, but when India tour South Africa later this year. Both of them will have to prove themselves again there and show that they have the technique to handle the world’s best fast bowlers on seamer-friendly pitches.
Ed Cowan is a very different left-hander from Dhawan, but like most other Aussie players, has had his head on the chopping block during the current India series. Cowan is a batsman who likes to take his time and scores a lot of his runs through the Point region. But he has developed the bad habit of giving his wicket away after getting a solid start. So, it was good to see him get a hard-earned 86 in the first innings of the third Test and for a predominantly back-footed player, his front-foot play was impressive, especially his forward defence.
Cowan was an exchange student at Oxford Brookes University and made his first-class debut in England for Oxford UCCE against a Middlesex side including future England captain Andrew Strauss in 2003. He has played for Gloucestershire and Scotland and has now signed up to play for Nottinghamshire following the India series. So, it looks like he will be used to the English conditions when he travels to England for the Ashes to open with David Warner.
Nick Compton has been around for some time in first-class cricket now and could have been forgiven for thinking that, at 29, the chance to pull on the England cap had passed him by. But a good season for Somerset and Strauss’ retirement gave him the opportunity to open with Alastair Cook on the spin-friendly pitches of India.
Compton, whose father Richard played first-class cricket in South Africa and whose grandfather is the legendary Denis Compton, didn’t do badly on that tour. But there were doubts whether he could get really big scores at the international level.
So Compton would have known that an average series in New Zealand might make the selectors look elsewhere for Strauss’ replacement. After the failure in England’s dismal first innings in the first Test, he must have known that the only a substantial knock would keep him in the team for the upcoming Ashes. That is exactly what he got, notching up a maiden Test century in the second innings of the same Test. He followed it up with another century in the first innings of the next Test. In the two innings, he shared partnerships with England’s two ‘Mr. Consistents’, Cook and Jonathan Trott, and displayed his brand of patient, off-side dominated batting to cement his spot for the Ashes.
Hamish Rutherford, 23, also comes from a cricketing family. Ken, his father, captained New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s and his uncle Ian played first-class cricket. Rutherford is the latest of a long list of players to be tried out for the opening spot in the New Zealand team.
But the left-hander wasn’t expected to take the playing field. It was the injury to New Zealand’s best opener Martin Guptill that ensured that Rutherford would made his debut in the first Test of the England series. He partnered veteran middle-order batsman Peter Fulton, who had been recalled to the national team after over 3 years, to open the innings.
A lot of people expected New Zealand to struggle against No. 2 ranked England, especially after their horrific series against South Africa. But after getting England all out for 167, New Zealand amazed the world with a brilliant 158-run opening partnership. Fulton did well to get 55, but it was Rutherford’s 171 which stole the show with some exquisite cover drives and excellent all-round batting. Amazing, considering that Rutherford was serving coffee in a café a year ago as he couldn’t get into the Otago team. So, it has been an unbelievable ascent to the highest level.
Though he scored just 23 and 15 in the second Test, it is clear that he has talent to last at the international level. If he can consolidate that promise with another couple of good innings, Rutherford Junior might just keep hold of the opening spot for a long time and should manage to get more than the 46 caps Rutherford Senior managed.
These five openers have a tough year ahead. India’s next Test series – an away-series against South Africa – is a long way off. Vijay and Dhawan need to stay in form to make the trip to South Africa.
With another New Zealand-England series coming up in England in a couple of months’ time, Compton and Rutherford get another chance to showcase their talent. Compton and Cowan could line up on either side in the first of the year’s two Ashes in England in June and maybe in county cricket before that.
Without doubt, all of them have their work cut out.
Follow me on Twitter @AshwathSampath1