The decline of the Sehwag-Gambhir duo has pitch-forked Vijay-Dhawan into the hot seat

Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have a gruelling job on their hands when they stride out as openers against South Africa in the two Tests, starting with the one at the Wanderers Stadium here from Wednesday.

They have to brave Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel’s searing pace, movement and bounce and also buck the trend of poor starts that have affected India on all its tours here since 1992-93.

The Indian openers have largely failed to string partnerships and that has often exposed the middle-order to the prying pace of men ranging from Allan Donald to Steyn. Across 29 innings in the land of the Proteas, India has only two century first-wicket partnerships — 153 between Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik at Newlands, Capetown, 2007, and 137 between Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir at Super Sport Park, Centurion, 2010. Among the rest, single digit alliances were witnessed in 10 innings while a 50-plus score was registered merely twice.

The decline in fortunes of the Sehwag-Gambhir duo has pitch-forked Vijay and Dhawan into a hot seat that is fine in India’s tropical warmth and placid pitches but can be more testing in the grassy ambience that permeates South Africa’s cricketing venues. Vijay has had modest returns in his earlier trips to South Africa, both with the senior squad and the ‘A’ team, while Dhawan did relatively better in his tenure with the ‘A’ outfit. On the current tour, Vijay has emphasised the need to free his mind and focus on the ball while Dhawan has been having long sessions in the nets.

Still in their nascent stages as an opening combination (they have opened together in three Tests), Dhawan and Vijay have had alliances of 289 (against Australia) and 42 and 77 against the West Indies. Those were runs scored at home but South Africa will provide a sterner test. Inherently any right-left duo like the one Vijay and Dhawan exemplify, can unsettle bowlers, who have to constantly vary their line and angles but it all depends on both staying at the crease for a long period.

If they can mesh well and tide past the first hour and lay the base, then a young middle-order can breathe easy else it will be tough to stabilise against the likes of Steyn.

In the recent ODIs against A.B. de Villiers’s men, India, albeit with another combination — Dhawan and Rohit Sharma — struggled with frugal opening partnerships of 14 and 10 and it left the door ajar for the South Africans to barge in and dominate.

India cannot afford its regular malaise of poor starts in South Africa but Vijay seemed confident.

“Actually Shikhar and I have opened in domestic (cricket) so we have a good rapport together. We have done it (well) in the one Test we played against Australia and had a good partnership. Obviously we have got a good rapport going. Hopefully we can pull it off here,” Vijay said. It is an optimism that needs to be matched by runs on the board.

During India’s forgettable Tests in England and Australia when both series ended in an identical 0-4 defeat, it may be recalled that the opening partnerships were 63, 19, 0, 6, 8, 3, 8, 49, 22, 17, 0, 18, 4, 24, 26 and 14. Even a seasoned middle-order, perhaps India’s best-ever, that did duty then, could not cope with such terrible starts and inevitably losses and hand-wringing followed.

There is obviously a direct correlation between poor starts and below-par team performances.

Vijay and Dhawan have an opportunity to erase India’s opening-aberrations across the seas. If they can perform with their contrasting blends of compactness and aggression and lay the building blocks in place, India will be well served against one of the finest pace-attacks in the world.

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