Gautam Gambhir has stirred a hornet's nest in typical forthright style by emphasizing that he and Virender Sehwag are still the country's best opening pair. "We still average 53 as an opening pair which I think is one of the best when it comes to opening the batting in world cricket," he said in an interview the other day. "There are not many opening pairs who have played for such a long time and have average of of 53 per innings. And if 53 is not good enough I don’t know what is good enough."
The 31-year-old Gambhir has obviously been irked by recent reports saying that there is a question mark over the Sehwag - Gambhir pairing given that the runs have dried up for them of late. The guns are even more directly pointing at Gambhir who has been in particular poor form on his own. He hasn't got a Test hundred in almost three years and his average has hurtled down to 44 from his peak period in 2008 and 2009 when he could do little wrong. During that glorious phase his average surged from the early forties to the late fifties and he was regarded on form as one of the leading batsmen in the world.
This received confirmation by way of his being named the ICC Test player of 2009 and being the recipient of the Arjuna award. During his purple patch Gambhir scored eight centuries in 13 Tests topped by the 10 hour and 45 minute epic against New Zealand at Napier which helped India hold on to an honourable draw from an improbable situation. His partner waxed eloquence on him terming him "the second wall of India, this one from the north" and hailed him as the best Indian opener since Sunil Gavaskar.
Outstanding as all this was there was always the lurking fear that it was too good to last and sure enough the slide started first slowly and then sharply. How else can you explain the career average dropping so alarmingly? Since that last hundred against Bangladesh he has played 40 innings and has got only nine half centuries. But then this is the case with Sehwag too.
The only cricketer to have been declared as Wisden Cricketer of the Year for two years running he too could do little wrong during roughly the same period though in his case the fall has not been as rapid as Gambhir's. His career average has fallen from 53 to 50 and he hasn't scored a Test century for two years now. Since that mighty 173 against New Zealand at Ahmedabad he has played 30 innings and crossed the half century mark nine times.
Most important Gambhir and Sehwag haven't got their act together for a considerable time and that is the main worrying factor on the eve of a new Test season. Overall as Gambhir has pointed out they have a pretty impressive record. Their durability has seen them become one among only five pairs to cross the 4000-run mark in Tests and at a highly admirable average it must be added.
But the point Gambhir has missed pointing out is that there has been an alarming decline in their run production in tandem in the past couple of years. The nadir came about in the last series in Australia when the partnerships in the four Tests read a pathetic 22, 17, 0, 18, 4, 24, 26 and 14. This followed the associations of 8 and 3 in the only Test they figured in England. In between they have somewhat redeemed their reputation at home by partnerships of 89, 51, 66. 67, 19, 49, 5 and 77 – albeit against the much weaker bowling of West Indies and New Zealand.
However there is one operative word uttered by Gambhir that holds the key to the argument which finally ends in the favour of the tried and trusted opening pair. The word is "still" and while that may be a sad reflection on the reserve opening batting bench it is unfortunately true. Whenever Gambhir and Sehwag have not been around to open the innings the Indian top order has had a fragile look about it. In the West Indies last year both were unavailable and the highly spoken of Tamil Nadu duo of Abhinav Mukund and Murali Vijay got the big break. In the three Tests the partnerships were restricted to 15, 0, 1, 26, 13 and 0. Neither batsmen were among the runs while Mukund did not exactly cover himself with glory in England either in the two Tests when he opened the innings first with Gambhir and then with Rahul Dravid.
And that is why the Indian innings for the Tests against England at least for a start will have to be opened by Gambhir and Sehwag. They "still" remain the best bet with the failures of Mukund and Vijay and with other contenders like Shikar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane still largely unknown quantities even though they have figured with limited success in limited overs internationals.
One thing though is sure. India's finest opening pair after Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan – incidentally both have ten century stands and roughly the same average though the senior pair have played 22 innings less - will have to be on their toes and come up with partnerships that matter. They cannot afford to be smug any longer. One factor in their favour is the home advantage and they have eight Tests against England and Australia in the next few months to regain their form and re-establish their reputation.