Now that the Virender Sehwag – Gautam Gambhir partnership has been all but terminated, can they be hailed as Indian cricket’s best ever opening pair?
The fact remains that with the perennial weakness against pace bowling especially in the formative years Indian cricket hasn’t exactly been blessed with very many successful partnerships for the first wicket. And yet ironically just as India were starting to feel their way around in international cricket the legendary pairing of Vijay Merchant and Mushtaq Ali hopefully provided the inspiration for the opening batsmen who would follow.
They probably wouldn’t make an all time list thanks to 'insufficient data' as the cliche goes since they figured together in only four Tests. But they had at least a half century stand in every match including a century stand and a double century partnership in their sadly truncated association.
In two matches in England in 1936 and two more in England ten years later, they aggregated 584 runs at an average of 83.42. Even if they do not make the all time lists for reasons I have mentioned they still remain a legendary pairing.
Unfortunately Merchant and Mushtaq could not provide the inspiration for opening batsmen who followed and more often than not over many years the start of an Indian innings was nipped in the bud, on numerous occasions on zero or single digits.
Ironically it was during this miserable run that Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy came up with their famous world record first wicket partnership of 413 which stood as India’s proudest statistical achievement for half a century before it was surpassed by Graham Smith and Neil McKenzie who raised the bar to 415 a few years ago.
It was only after Sunil Gavaskar entered the scene that Indian opening pairs were able to blunt the new ball attack and century stands for the first wicket became more and more frequent. Having inspired other batsmen to face up squarely to pace bowling Gavaskar was able to partner with three others – Chetan Chauhan, Anshuman Gaekwad and Kris Srikkanth – in partnerships that frustrated pace and spin bowling alike.
These three were Gavaskar’s long time partners. Gavaskar first struck up a durable partnership with the bespectacled Gaekwad whose guts combined together with Gavaskar’s famed technique blunted the edge of the bowlers and the two figured in four century partnerships for the first wicket in 49 innings totaling 1722 runs at an average of almost 36.
But it was with Chauhan another courageous batsman with whom Gavaskar was associated in an even more durable and fruitful association. In 59 innings that they opened together they figured in ten century partnerships finishing in New Zealand in 1981 with an aggregate of 3010 runs at an average of 53.75.
Finally it was with an unlikely partner that Gavaskar had his third durable association. Gavaskar and Srikkanth brought back memories of the Merchant – Mushtaq pairing – one technically sound and the other a swashbuckler - and proved to be surprisingly effective. In 34 innings together the two aggregated 1469 runs at an average of 43.20 with three century partnerships. The Gavaskar – Chauhan pairing and the Gavaskar – Srikkanth pairing had one double century partnership each.
It was only to be expected that following Gavaskar’s retirement in 1987 there would be a slump in Indian cricket’s fortunes as far as the opening pair was concerned. There were a few opening batsmen who performed admirably – Navjot Sidhu was perhaps the best - but no pair provided durability or stability for an extended period till Sehwag and Gambhir came together for the first time in 2004.
The two Delhi lads struck up a good combination knowing each other’s game over an extended period. They also made an interesting pair in the sense that both were attacking players, Sehwag even more so. Moreover it was a left hand right hand combination and that is why they attracted considerable attention for in the history of the game such pairings have been listed as among the greatest partnerships going by the feats of Allan Rae and Jeff Stollmeyer of the West Indies, Geoff Boycott and John Edrich of England, Trevor Goddard and Eddie Barlow of South Africa, Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson of Australia, Gordon Greenidge and Roy Fredericks of the West Indies, Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor of Australia and Sadiq Mohammed and Majid Khan of Pakistan.
In due course Gambhir and Sehwag took their place among the outstanding left hand right hand opening combinations in the game and were strongly challenging the Gavaskar – Chauhan pairing as the greatest ever Indian first wicket combination.
On figures Sehwag – Gambhir match Gavaskar – Chauhan for in 87 innings the Delhi pair have notched up 4412 runs at an average of 52.52 with eleven century partnerships and a highest of 233. The debate as to which pairing is greater could go on and on and be the subject of a prolonged and fascinating discussion.