Favourable home conditions, an opposition that poses no threat, and the freeing up of two batting positions held for a decade and a half by Dravid and Laxman — It was the perfect set-up to try out something new to fix the basic flaws in the team exposed during the debacles in England and Australia.
Instead, we chose not to think out of the box, happy simply to put the hapless Kiwis to the sword on an abrasive pitch with nothing for their pacers and everything for our spinners.
Nothing wrong with exploiting home advantages just like our rivals do when we travel abroad, but let’s not fool ourselves that the problems we had in England and Australia have gone away. Even on a friendly Hyderabad pitch, Virender Sehwag edged one between keeper and first slip, then miscued a pull which could have been caught, before finally perishing to a loose shot outside off-stump in his first knock of the New Zealand series.
Gautam Gambhir too played a few streaky shots which would have carried to the slips if we had been playing on grounds overseas. His dismissal was familiar, poking at the one outside off-stump he finds irresistible because of all the T20s and ODIs he plays.
Of the two, however, Gambhir has the tighter technique and this was evident on the England and Australia tours where he did not do quite so badly as Sehwag. He has a way to go to regain the form he was in a couple of years back, but at least there’s hope. It’s Sehwag who inspires little confidence, although he may well hit another triple century in his next innings here on an Indian pitch.
Each time Sehwag’s technique as a Test opener is questioned, people point to his 50-plus Test average, and the big scores he has got abroad. But that was a long time back when he was younger, with sharper reflexes, which perhaps covered up for the lack of footwork. These days, that average is being shored up with the runs he piles up at home. In the last two series overseas, he averaged a mere 21, and he hasn’t hit a century on foreign soil in four years.
Ironically, if you take away his vulnerability against the new ball on pitches with some bounce and lateral movement, he is the most destructive batsman in the Indian lineup.
Imagine a Sehwag in the middle order confronting the pace bowlers when the ball has lost its shine, or toying with the spinners whom he plays as well as anyone has ever done.
In fact, it was only because the middle order was reserved for the Big Four, that Sehwag had to convert into an opener and, thankfully for Indian cricket, his batting genius carried him through. But now, with captains and bowlers having figured out how best to bowl at him, his technique stands exposed on pace-friendly pitches. It would have made sense, therefore, to let him have VVS Laxman’s spot in the middle order where he should have been batting all along, anyway.
And when Sachin Tendulkar finally retires, he can move up to No 4. This would only be fair; after all, No 4 is where the best batsman in the team is placed, so that he is not exposed to the new ball and yet has time enough to play a big innings.
Sehwag’s shift to the middle order would also enable a search for a new opener, who can be groomed for the job while we play three back-to-back home series against New Zealand, England and Australia.
There is even the ideal candidate for it in Ajinkya Rahane, who was our reserve opener on the disastrous Australia tour but never got a look in.
Rahane has been a prolific scorer in the Ranji Trophy as well as the IPL. He played as an opener for Rajasthan and faced some of the leading international bowlers.
So what are we waiting for? Why doesn’t he get a chance in the playing eleven when he is at his best and when the circumstances too demand his inclusion?
The only hitch I can see is that if Rahane comes in and Sehwag moves to the middle order, captain MS Dhoni’s great friend Suresh Raina, who sneaked into the 11 after Laxman’s last minute withdrawal, would have to bide his time.
Raina’s a good player and deserves some reward for his good one-day showing in Sri Lanka recently, and maybe he will eventually get over his weakness against the short ball in Test cricket.
But it’s Rahane not Raina that India need at this point if we don’t want to repeat the same sorry story when we next play overseas. The opening is what needs fixing the most, not the middle order for which we have any number of players who can fit the bill.