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The pre-Gambhir scrapheap: India’s early-2000s tried-and-discarded openers

India openers Sehwag Gambhir
by Sankalp Srivastava 6-minute read

In the five-year period between Navjot Singh Sidhu’s retirement in 1999 and the formation of the Virender SehwagGautam Gambhir pair in 2004, India went through a wide range of Test openers, but none managed to cement their spot.

After Sidhu retired, it wasn’t until Sehwag’s promotion to open the batting at Lord’s in July 2002 that India found a permanent solution to their opening problem. During that period, India experimented with 13 different openers while three more batsmen were given a go at the top before Gambhir’s debut in December 2004.

Sachin Tendulkar, MSK Prasad, Hemang Badani, Sameer Dighe, Iqbal Siddiqui and Yuvraj Singh were all asked to open the batting in a Test each while Parthiv Patel and Rahul Dravid opened twice in the period between Sidhu’s retirement and Gambhir’s debut. They aren’t a part of this list, however, as only batsmen who played four or more Tests as an opener during that period have been included.

Following their union in 2004, the Sehwag-Gambhir pair ultimately went on to become the most prolific Indian opening partnership. They added 4,412 runs together in 87 Tests at 52.52 – the highest average among partners who opened together in at least 70 matches – in an eight-year period between 2004-2012.

Sadagoppan Ramesh

Tests: 19, Runs: 1367 @37.97, 50s: 8, 100s: 2

Making his debut in the famous Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1999, Ramesh’s foray into international cricket started with a 41-ball-43 as he took Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis head-on. His next six Tests were reassuring – the left-hander hit five half-centuries and two hundreds – and India seemed to have solved one-half of their opening puzzle. But inconsistent performances and a failure to convert starts into big ones had Ramesh dropped after 19 Tests, all of which came in a two-year period.

VVS Laxman

Tests: 7, Runs: 370 @26.42, 50s: 1, 100s: 1

Ramesh’s opening partner in the Chennai Test, VVS’s first taste of opening came back in March 1997, alongside Sidhu. In the period between Sidhu’s retirement and Gambhir’s debut, Laxman played seven Tests as an opener. But he wasn’t quite cut out for the role with his best coming in the middle order, as became quite apparent later on in his career. February 2000 saw the last of Laxman as a full-time opener, though he did open again in his career – twice on India’s 2006 tour of Pakistan.

Devang Gandhi

Tests: 4, Runs: 204 @34.00, 50s: 2

Gandhi’s Test career started brightly with two fifties in two Tests – against New Zealand in Mohali and Kanpur respectively – but came to an abrupt end within two months. Glenn McGrath got the better of him in both the innings of the first Test of India’s 1999 tour to Australia in Adelaide, strangling him at 4 & 0,. He didn’t play international cricket for India thereafter, announcing his retirement in 2006.

Wasim Jaffer

Matches: 7, Runs: 261 @20.07, 100s: 0, 50s: 3

A first-class behemoth, Wasim Jaffer’s Test career never quite took off due to the Gambhir- Sehwag partnership. But interestingly, 24 of his 31 Tests for India came after Gambhir’s debut and that was when he brought out his best too, scoring 1,683 of his 1,994 Test runs with two double centuries.

Jaffer couldn’t cement a spot before Gambhir came in. He made his debut during South Africa’s visit in 2000 but was dropped after adding only 46 runs in two Tests. Two more opportunities came his way in 2002, on India’s tours against West Indies and England respectively, but he could only manage a high score of 86 in five Tests and was dropped again.

Shiv Sunder Das

Matches: 23, Runs: 1326 @34.89, 100s: 2, 50s: 9

Once considered India’s answer to their opening issue, Das got the longest rope before Sehwag-Gambhir took over. The right-hander’s technique was immaculate but like Ramesh, his failure to convert starts into big scores cost him his spot. All of his 23 Tests came between November 2000 and May 2002, and both his hundreds came against Zimbabwe at Nagpur in 2000.

Deep Dasgupta

Matches: 7, Runs: 306 @30.60, 100s: 1, 50s: 2

The wicketkeeper-batsman who is now a commentator didn’t start off as an opener, playing at number seven in both the innings of his first Test with Rahul Dravid asked to handle the opening spot. Yet, he became an instant hit while opening in his second Test, playing a match-saving 281-ball-63 second-innings knock against South Africa at Port Elizabeth. A maiden Test century against England in Mohali was followed by another half-century in Ahmedabad. Two fifties and a century in first three Tests as an opener promised a lot, but a high score of 30 in the next four Tests marked the end of his Test career.

Sanjay Bangar

Matches: 8, Runs: 327 @25.15, 100s: 0, 50s: 3

The former India batting coach, Bangar was renowned for his all-round skills in the domestic circuit – he took 300 wickets and scored 8,349 runs in 156 first-class matches. He started his Test career in the middle order before being promoted to partner Sehwag in the last eight Tests of his career but scores of 0, 1, 12, 1, 7 in his five last innings brought a premature end to his Test career. His ODI stint continued, however, for two more years.

Aakash Chopra

Matches: 10, Runs: 437 @23.00, 100s: 0, 50s: 2

The last opener tried before Gambhir made his debut in 2004, Chopra seemed to be cut out for Test cricket. But the issue of converting starts plagued him too. In 10 Tests, he had four scores in the 40s and crossed the 50-run mark twice but couldn’t get to three digits even once. He was included alongside Gambhir for a four-Test series against the touring Australian side in 2004, playing the first and third Test. While Yuvraj opened in the second match, Gambhir made his debut in the fourth.

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