Gautam Gambhir, captain of Kolkata Knight Riders, plays a shot during the IPL Twenty 20 cricket match against Chennai Super Kings at MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai. HT/Gurpreet Singh
The wickets of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir are prized enough to trigger wild celebrations among any bowling attack. But on most occasions, the celebrations used to be restrained as it only meant more hard work ahead with Rahul Dravid at No 3, Sachin Tendulkar at 4, Sourav Ganguly at 5 and VVS Laxman at 6.
Looking ahead to the first Test at Hyderabad starting on Aug 23, the New Zealand bowlers will be happy in the knowledge that an opening breakthrough will mean half the job done as India will play their first match without the retired Dravid and Laxman.
While the end of the era of India’s Fab Four was inevitable, the reality has hit harder than expected. The best of replacements were going to be dwarfed when compared to Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly, but the line-up assembled for the first Test makes the Indian cupboard look eerily bare.
Getting the balance right in the middle-order will be skipper MS Dhoni and coach Duncan Fletcher’s biggest challenge of the season. They have only two certainties — Tendulkar and Kohli.
Among the options available for the opening Test, S Badrinath and Suresh Raina have been tried earlier, but didn’t cash in. Only Cheteshwar Pujara evokes some confidence as he has already played a couple of knocks of significance. He is on a comeback after undergoing knee surgeries. Ajinkya Rahane is yet to make his Test debut.
There is another interesting option which is worth considering by the Indian think-tank. Sehwag is the man who lent a new dimension to the opener’s role by always looking to put the new-ball bowlers on the backfoot. However, he started his career as a middle-order batsman and has many times said that in future if spots are open he wants to bat there. In fact, on the eve of India’s last Test, at Adelaide in January, Sehwag was asked about giving up the opener’s role. “Not in this team because, you know, we have a very good middle-order. So when they retire, then I'll think about it.”
Sehwag is the closest to the Fab Four in terms of experience and stature. He could be an option for No 3, a position which requires skills of both the opener and that of a middle-order batsman.
A couple of years ago, he had expressed the same wish: “I was a middle order batsman. I like to bat in the middle order. But currently, team demands that I open the batting and I am doing so,” Sehwag said.
However, if his record is taken up, Sehwag’s average as an opener is 51.65 (157 innings), at No 3 is 5.00 (1 innings), at No 6 is 70 (3 innings) and at No 7 is 27.33 (6 innings).
However, expert opinion is divided. Former Test batsman Sanjay Manjrekar feels Sehwag should drop down while Chetan Chauhan said it wouldn't be advisable to tinker with a successful opening combination.
In his column in a cricket website, Manjrekar reasoned that India’s main aim should be getting the combination right for overseas series. “To go with Gambhir and Sehwag as the opening pair again in Tests in South Africa (2013 series) would be a gamble after what happened in England and Australia,” observed Manjrekar, suggesting that India try out Gambhir and Rahane as openers.
Chauhan told the Hindustan Times, “Sehwag and Gambhir are a settled combination, they have a fine understanding and Sehwag has scored so
many runs as opener. We shouldn’t change the opening combination.”
If he plays down the order, the main adjustment Sehwag will need to make is in the mindset. At the top of the order, he has relished attacking against the hard, new ball and making the most of the gaps in the attacking fields. Down the order, it will have to be a waiting game.