Openers are a precious commodity

IT WAS a sight for sore eyes. The young Shiv Sundar Das displaying both composure and technique on the seaming pitches of Zimbabwe. And India had discovered an opener of immense promise, a precious commodity, in this compact Orissa batsman. To the host of top-order batsmen pampered on the flat wickets of the sub- continent, it is a different ball game when the ball swings and seams. A rude awakening really.

Back home, the cherry will disappear into the far corners of the ground in a hurry. Here, it is a question of survival, as the ball whistles past the outside edge. Indeed, the technique comes under scrutiny abroad. In the sub- continent, they might get away by not leaning into their drives, outside it, the edges are bound to be gobbled up in the slip cordon.

Das was quite a revelation really in the two Tests, picking up the line quickly and playing only when necessary - the hallmark of a good opener in the longer version of the game.

By letting some deliveries go outside the off-stump, he was able to gauge the extent of the seam and swing and when the better directed deliveries came along he was ready. No playing and missing, no needless fishing in the `corridor'. Also on view was the decisive feet movement to counter the swing - he leaned into drives and shifted the body weight quite effortlessly to his right leg while rocking on to the back foot. Das revealed he had been guided by the legendary Indian opener Sunil Gavaskar and the Orissa batsman could not really have approached anybody better. Gavaskar concluded his glittering Test career with a masterpiece on a minefield in Bangalore against Pakistan in '86 and since then it would be interesting to look at the performances of the Indian openers. Not a natural by any means, Ravi Shastri did a fair job, putting a price on his wicket, and displaying courage, character and commitment away from home.

He played within his limitations, and to his strengths - the key really. Keeping the threatening deliveries away and when the pacemen erred in line, flicking them nonchalantly to the empty spaces on the leg- side.Shastri has to be given credit for showing the heart for the demanding role, and his hundred in the Barbados Test '89, where he countered the dangerous Malcolm Marshall & Co. with aplomb is among the better efforts by an Indian opener abroad.

The feature of that knock was Shastri's driving down the straightfield - he was never a strong cutter and a puller - and it was an innings sprinkled with a dash of aggression also.

Shastri was in his element in Australia too in 1991-92, producing a monumental double century in the Sydney Test, against a pace attack led by Craig McDermott, sharing a huge stand with a young Sachin Tendulkar in the process. But a knee injury proved Shastri's undoing, and the fact that he had rushed his comeback didn't help matters either. Perhaps, Shastri (3830 runs in 80 Tests at 35.79) had a couple of years left in him when he called it a day.Opening is a distinctly specialist role and Shastri, though a No. 11 when he began his quest in Tests, succeeded where some other more fancied names failed, because he showed a straight blade on more occasions than one.

Navjot Singh Sidhu, more strokeful in his methods, was brave too. The Sardar from Patiala was competent against pace, destructive against spin, loved the scent of a battle, and often took wing when the chips were down.

Rather unfairly, Sidhu is remembered more for his attacking ways against the spinners - he waltzed down the track with the grace of a ballet dancer - but then he had to answer searching questions from the pacemen first before wading into the spinners. A point many forgot conveniently.

On the flip side, Sidhu's footwork was not convincing early on in his innings - he took time to get into his stride - one of the reasons why the opener struggled in England. The persistent Angus Fraser did hound him in the Old Blighty, '90.Yet, he was solid off the back-foot against the quicks, effortlessly punching them in the arc between point and mid-off and flicking them when they strayed. And like Shastri, the sardar often showed the maker's name to the bowlers.

Sidhu will be remembered for two knocks overseas, both in the Caribbean, with the first being his best effort for India. Indeed, it was on a wickedly bouncing, double-paced pitch in Jamaica, 1989-90 that Sidhu made an outstanding Test century, keeping Marshall, Walsh and Ambrose at bay. Taking blows on his body, but refusing to be consumed, Sidhu conjured the innings of his life.

In fact, that knock was worth more than the double hundred that Sidhu, on a comeback trail, would make in Port of Spain seven years later. This effort was an epic in terms of patience and concentration, however, the strip was nowhere as lethal as the one in Jamaica and then there was no Marshall.With 3,202 runs in 51 Tests at 42.13, Sidhu can look back with a fair degree of satisfaction, though broken bones, at wrong times, played havoc with his career. A proud but humble soldier, he certainly was. Krishnamachari Srikkanth's best moments came as Gavaskar's opening partner, and when in mood he was explosive in both forms of the game - after the little master's departure, Srikkanth's career, in general, went into a period of decline. However, he still produced the odd breathtaking innings for India.

Like his sensational onslaught on the fiery Patrick Patterson in the Mumbai Test of the 1986-87 series where the swashbuckler from Tamil Nadu showed the way to the rest of the batsmen really, meeting fire with fire, his remarkable hand and eye coordination coming to the fore.Patterson had put fear into the minds of the Indians with his lightning quick intimidatory burst in the Delhi Test, but Srikkanth was fearless at the Wankhede Stadium, ruthlessly driving the Jamaican in front of the wicket. That knock captured the spirit of Srikkanth's (2062 runs in 43 Tests at 29.88) batting, his reflexes making up for the shortfalls in technique.Among others, Delhi all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar was a never-say- die cricketer and when given the responsibility to open in the early 90s, performed an adequate job.

Despite making news for all the wrong reasons these days, Prabhakar was a brave cricketer for most part and his battling hundred in the Mohali Test of 1993-94 series speaks for his combative attitude. There was a fair deal of assistance for the quicks in that Mohali pitch and Prabhakar stood firm before a nasty Walsh delivery found a way through the helmet grill to rearrange his nose. However, he had stood firm even as some fancied names bit the dust at the other end.

Yet Prabhakar, given his limitations, was not a long-time answer, so was Nayan Mongia, who despite his gutsy big hundred against Glenn McGrath & Co. in the one-off Test in Delhi, '96, was only a temporary solution. And Tamil Nadu's W. V. Raman, a smooth- stroking southpaw in the middle-order, was thrust into a role, he could have done without. In the subsequent period, men like Devang Gandhi prospered at home, only to be exposed outside the sub-continent and there were others like Mumbai's Wasim Jaffer who hardly received a fair run.

Hyderabad's V.V.S. Laxman, a super-talented batsman, smashed the Aussie attack to all corners of the ground in the third Test of what was otherwise a disastrous tour for India in 1999-2000. He too is a natural middle-order batsman, and his career was derailed briefly because of the selector's folly.

It is baffling why the same mistake continues to be made. The team-management was certainly not fair to Hemang Badani by asking him to open on his Test debut in Harare. In an emergency situation caused by an injury to the specialist opener Sadagopan Ramesh, why didn't skipper Sourav Ganguly, who performs the role with relish in the one-dayers, offer to take on the responsibility himself?

Truth to tell, Ramesh hasn't done badly making 1144 runs in 16 Tests (ave. 38.13). He began confidently in Chennai taking on the lethal Waqar and Wasim, and has had his share of success since then. The talk of discarding him altogether following a couple of failures is a load of rubbish, and Ramesh still has plenty of cricket left for India. It would make more sense to select a young reserve opener on tours, who can be groomed for the future. Mumbai's Vinayak Mane is a name that springs to mind. At least the Indians will have a viable option in the hour of need. The embarrassment of Harare can be avoided.