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Redefining the role of openers in one-dayers

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IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO: Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag played their parts to perfection while ensuring blazing starts for India in the ongoing ODI series.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO: Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag played their parts to perfection while ensuring blazing starts for India in the ongoing ODI series.

Nandita Sridhar

The batsmen are keen to make full use of the Powerplays

KOLKATA: There was a time when an opener’s role demanded him to remove some of the ball’s initial character, survive the most ferocious of opening spells, and appear as introspective as possible. How things have changed!

Today, the men who walk in first instil instant fury into the contest. There’s no time to discern the ball’s many moods and play in accordance. One looks back with nostalgia at the days when opening was a specialist’s art, but there’s no denying that modern-day opening requires its own sets of skills.

Inevitable

What’s been remarkable is the enormity of the change, and the fact that it looks set to acquire a greater degree of ferocity. The transformation itself was inevitable. Just like everything else in the modern world, cricket’s openers were meant to change with the times.

It all acquired legitimacy when Kiwi Mark Greatbatch in 1992 enhanced cricket’s vocabulary with the term pinch-hitter, which could now describe every second person in any playing eleven.

Sanath Jayasuriya, Adam Gilchrist, Chris Gayle, Matthew Hayden, Herschelle Gibbs, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar have all redefined the identity of the opener, with Sehwag, Hayden and Gayle remarkably doing so in Tests as well. Gilchrist and Tendulkar, however, have not had the opportunity to open in Tests.

Frenetic pace

India’s and Sri Lanka’s openers in the ongoing ODI series have scored at a frenetic pace. Tendulkar and Sehwag have had less of a combined success than Tillakaratne Dilshan and Upul Tharanga, but their individual roles have been undeniable.

What has been astonishing about the approach of the batsmen has been their ability to view each ball in its separate context. While Sehwag has made it an art over the years, watching Dilshan and Tharanga do the same reveals the mental make-up it takes to make the initial overs count. And they’ve certainly made them count.

Sehwag’s clear thinking and his disdain for technical complications is well known. There was a particular attempt to pull him into a discussion on swing and seam bowling, but he would have none of it.

The dismissive tone was lost in translation, but what he conveyed was, “batsmen these days are only interested in hitting the ball. They’re not bothered about swing and seam.”

A less talented and a less uncluttered batsman might not feel the same way, but Sehwag and the members of his ilk have been proved right often.

Tendulkar, for his part, has shown both sides to his opening skills. There’s the malleable approach that’s needed when batting with Sehwag. In their massive opening stand at Rajkot, Tendulkar was free to attack. At Cuttack, he was judicious and classy enough to bide his time before attacking.

But, the common thread that’s run through the four openers has been their approach to the field restrictions. One-Day cricket has always had the 15-over field restrictions, but the fragmentation and subsequent branding of these as Powerplays has added a certain grandeur to their mission.

With more documentation and more available statistics, it does seem like batsmen are hell-bent on exploiting the Powerplays.

In this series, the exploitation has been complete. India’s and Sri Lanka’s approach to the first Powerplay has set the tone for their opening stands.

India made 153 in 19.2 overs for the first wicket at Rajkot, to which Sri Lanka responded with 188 in 23.5 overs. In the game at Cuttack, Sri Lanka’s 65-run opening stand came in 6.1 overs, while India’s 55 came in 6.5.

The Lankan openers have been more consistent, managing a 102-run association in 13.5 overs at Nagpur as well.

Fitness factor

Besides the intrusiveness of limited-overs cricket, injuries to the quicker bowlers have changed the nature of opening. Sehwag and Tendulkar have never had to face the same opening combination more than once in this ODI series.

The Australian team, too, saw its fast bowlers getting injured during the series in India last month. It isn’t the same when the bowler gains the upper hand, only to quietly limp away.

The future of opening appears to build on the values instilled by the current openers. For a young cricketer, the template has been set by his illustrious predecessors. But, don’t bet against him to soon create his own.

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