Time to open with Virender Sehwag

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THE CRISIS MAN? India may require Virender Sehwag’s attacking batsmanship if it wants to improve its performance.
THE CRISIS MAN? India may require Virender Sehwag’s attacking batsmanship if it wants to improve its performance.

S. Ram Mahesh

It will help the Indian team unyoke Rahul Dravid

If Sehwag succeeds, he will likely provoke errors from Australia’s bowlers

The Fab Four will have to revive India’s fortunes

Sydney: Batsmen are a curious breed: picky, privileged, insecure, and worrisome. Not even the sunniest are exempt from dark, brooding moments. Adam Gilchrist, whose conduct suggests it’s all a lark (thanks to the security blanket of keeping wicket, no doubt), referred to the vulnerability of walking out to bat thus: “Every time you go out in front of millions watching in the ground and on TV, you put yourself in a position either to succeed or fail, and fail is a nasty word that can mess your mind.”

India’s batsmen know all about it. But, after the dejection at Melbourne, bowled out for fewer than 200 in each innings, it falls on the Fab Four to revive India’s fortunes. They have been four of India’s finest: two greats in Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid; a maker of defining epics in V.V.S. Laxman; and a gifted batsman who has rewired his game sufficiently to become India’s soundest over the last year in Sourav Ganguly.

How can a line-up of batting luminaries been party to India’s third-worst Test defeat in terms of runs? Peculiarly, they have also featured in the two worst. Ganguly didn’t play in Nagpur, withdrawing from the Test India surrendered to Australia by 342 runs in 2004, but the other three did. All four figured in the 341-run loss to Pakistan at Karachi in 2006.

The numbers are revealing, but not in the way those with axes to grind will like to believe. Let’s get this clear: the proud reputations are hard-earned. These four have paraded diverse batsmanship drawn from different schools, shaped in their unique personalities; and they have done it against the best.

Poor defensive batting

This isn’t to suggest they are without frailty. Indeed, the margins of defeat quoted above indicate one such: India isn’t the best defensive batting side in the world. The response to either combating patient, restrictive bowling or to batting time has lacked the conviction contained in attack.

The Australian bowlers subjected India to both in the Boxing Day Test. Ricky Ponting and his men have learnt from the series in 2003-04, when Steve Waugh chose unremitting assault. India’s batsmen cashed in on the bad balls that are often inevitable with the approach. The constant source of boundaries — so vital to the Indian sense of well-being — sustained momentum.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, as in the series in India in 2004-05, Australia choked runs. The length was brought back, but the cut shot wasn’t fed. The vast, heavy outfield was a co-conspirator, depriving strokes of their full reward and forcing the Indian batsmen into wheezing twos and the rare three. Nothing drains the virtuoso stroke-player so surely as watching the ball pull up short of the rope — and then having to earn the runs all over again. It’s like double taxation with the paperwork.

Versatile attack

The current Australian attack is coping without McGrath and Warne. Brett Lee’s evolution from an express bowler of two lengths (short and full) to an express bowler with a reliable and versatile radar has aided Ponting a great deal.

In Mitchell Johnson, Australia has the means to attack, and, just as importantly, strangle. His spell from the Members’ End to Dravid in the first innings, becalming the great man, laid bare the advantages of having a quick left-armer, even if he doesn’t consistently swing the ball.

The lefty angle slanting across the right-hander, particularly at high pace, is the most severe of challenges for front-foot play. To drive anything but the fullest of deliveries is to court the risk of exposing the blade’s susceptible outside half. And forcing strokes with the vertical bat off the back-foot are for none save the foolhardy.

Clark shows character

Stuart Clark has already shown in his brief career that he is much more than the poor man’s McGrath — he was the most persistent threat in the first Test. Not for nothing has Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, compared the trio (and Shaun Tait) favourably to England’s Ashes-winning attack of skill and variety.

So, how do the India’s batsmen turn it around against this attack? Virender Sehwag’s introduction is a step in that direction. It’s a gamble, but the payoff is worth it. There’s no point, at any rate, in leaving it any longer, having picked him in the squad in the first place. He can do no worse than India’s openers (in terms of scoring runs) at the MCG, and if he succeeds, he will likely provoke errors from Australia’s bowlers.

Moreover, it unyokes Dravid from opening. Whichever way you look at it, Dravid is key. His role as emancipator has been discussed before — by batting assuredly and resolutely (and not necessarily defensively), he frees India’s other batsmen to play naturally. A cruel irony therefore that it is Dravid who seeks liberation.

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