x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cricket: Sun starts to set on India's premier partnership

As Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir fade India have few other options are available to the national team.

The gate may be starting to swing shut on the outstanding partnership of India teammates Virender Sehwag, right, and Gautam Gambhir.
The gate may be starting to swing shut on the outstanding partnership of India teammates Virender Sehwag, right, and Gautam Gambhir.

Opening batsmen have always had a special place in the annals of Indian cricket.

Syed Mushtaq Ali was the first to score a century overseas, at Old Trafford in Manchester, England, in 1936, against an attack that included Gubby Allen, Walter Hammond and Hedley Verity.

Ali's 112 spanned just 150 minutes - little more than a session - and such was his devil-may-care attitude that even the opposition cautioned him as he neared the landmark.

In his autobiography, he wrote: "As I moved into the nineties, Hammond came up to me and said, 'My boy, be steady, get your hundred first'. My hundred came a few minutes before the drawing of stumps, amidst thundering cheers."

Ali was the great entertainer of his day, but it was his opening partner who would come to be known as India's first great Test batsman.

Vijay Merchant played only 10 Tests over an 18-year career interrupted by the Second World War, and averaged 47.72. He, too, made a century in that Old Trafford game.

Merchant returned to England 10 years later and scored another hundred, at The Oval. He did not play again for five years. Returning to the side at the age of 40, he brought the curtain down on his career with an innings of 154 against England in Delhi.

Two decades on, another graduate of the Mumbai school of batsmanship went to the West Indies and scored 774 runs in his debut series. By the time Sunil Gavaskar retired in 1987, after a magnificent 96 on a square turner in Bangalore, he had become the first man to score 10,000 runs. His tally of 34 hundreds would be surpassed only in 2005.

Virender Sehwag bats as Ali must have done, trusting instinct and unfettered stroke play. Despite that approach, he averages 50.72 over a career that has spanned 98 Tests. Only three others have scored two triple-centuries in Test cricket. Sehwag's 284-ball effort against South Africa (2008) is by far the fastest.

He and Gautam Gambhir, his Delhi teammate, have aggregated 4,033 runs in 80 innings. The solidity and impetus they gave was a major factor in India's rise to the top of the Test rankings in 2009.

Since then, though, the wheel of fortune has turned for the worse.

Gambhir has not scored a Test hundred since January 2010 and Sehwag's last came in November of the same year.

With the downwards trend continuing in the series against New Zealand, questions are being asked ahead of visits from England and Australia.

Australia's young pace attack bullied them last winter, and an English pack led by James Anderson will take considerable heart from the manner in which New Zealand's Tim Southee and Trent Boult harassed them in Bangalore.

Others, most notably Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik, were given far fewer chances before being cast aside, and the reluctance to change the combination now has much to do with the lack of alternatives.

The Chennai duo of Abhinav Mukund and Murali Vijay have not convinced when given opportunities. Ajinkya Rahane did his chances little good with poor displays on the A team's recent tour of the Caribbean.

With an inexperienced middle order - only Sachin Tendulkar has more than 20 Test caps - decent starts are imperative if England and Australia are to be overcome.

A school of thought advocates moving Sehwag into the middle order, where he began his career. If the failures mount, Gambhir is unlikely to be offered a similar option.

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