Australia will tour India in February and March of 2023 for four Tests as part of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The visitors will tour Pune,…
For 16 years from 1971 to 1987, Sunil Gavaskar remained a rock in the Indian batting line-up.
During this period the Indian selectors never had any problems with one half of their opening combination. But finding a suitable partner for him remained a great challenge. And they didn’t do any good to him by frequently changing his opening partner, often showing unnecessary impatience.
Overall, Gavaskar had 19 different opening partners in Tests, starting with his Bombay teammate Ashok Mankad and finishing with Krish Srikkanth from Tamil Nadu.
During the three-Test series in England in 1974, he had three different partners in three Tests, and in 1982 he had five different partners in opening.
Quite remarkably, a well balanced Test team can be formed by picking up members from the list of his 19 partners. I have to thank the Indian selectors for this, they often selected middle-order or even lower-order bats to open the innings with Sunil.
So, here is my team.
The brave Rajput never had the greatest of techniques against short pitched bowling, but one thing he never lacked was courage. In his 40 Tests he scored more than 2000 runs, but failed to convert any of his 16 fifties into hundreds.
But he was Sunil’s most reliable partner, sharing ten 100-plus opening stands. The most memorable of the ten was the 213-run stand in the fourth innings of the Oval Test of 1979. Chauhan made 80, and Gavaskar’s double hundred brought India close to what would have been a historic win.
The 165-run stand between the two at the MCG in February 1981 ended in controversial circumstances, but it started the fight-back that led to a great comeback win for the tourists.
For some unknown reasons, Chauhan was unceremoniously dumped after that season.
Among all his 19 partners, Srikkanth showed the attributes most opposite to those of the great man. Gavaskar was orthodox, solid and patient. Srikkanth was a dasher who frequently enjoyed lofting the ball over the infield.
He scored two Test hundreds for India. At the SCG, in January 1986, he smashed 116 from 117 deliveries. He was partly responsible for ending the career of Bob Holland. He hit the NSW leggie for 22 runs in one over early on the first day. A year later, he scored 123 against Pakistan in front of his home crowd at Madras. He smashed 18 fours and two sixes against an attack consisting of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir.
But while he was a great entertainer, he lacked the consistency expected from a Test opener. And he finished his Test career with a modest average of 29.88. Sunil’s retirement in early 1987 made him the senior opener, but he was not equal to his tasks. He had problems against short pitched stuff on quicker wickets, especially Wasim Akram often troubled him greatly.
Originally picked as a medium pacer all-rounder batting down the order, Amarnath’s impressive technique against fast bowling saw him become a highly successful number three in Tests. His only opening experience came in the second innings of the 1976 Test at Mumbai against NZ, when the absence of Anshuman Gaekwad saw him open the innings with Sunny. The Sunny and Jimmy combination didn’t work very well as both fell fairly cheaply.
While Amarnath had an excellent technique against fast bowling, his tendency to go for hook shots regularly often led to problems for him early in his career. He was dropped after the England tour of 1979, but a more mature Amarnath made a triumphant return with five centuries against Pakistan and the West Indies in 11 Tests during the 1982-83 season.
Things, however, evened out when in six innings at home against West Indies the following season, he managed only a single run.
Amarnath ended his Test career in early 1988. He had an unsuccessful stint as a Tiger coach during the 1993-94 season.
Vengsarkar emerged as a reliable number three for India towards the end of the 1970s. Though an orthodox batsman, he wasn’t always happy playing away from home. And after the return of Amarnath, he moved to the number four slot and looked more comfortable there.
During the 1976 tour to the West Indies, injuries to other players saw him open the innings. After Gaekwad was forced to retire hurt in the first innings of the ‘Bodyline’ Test at Kingston, he opened with Sunil in the second innings.
Gavasakar was dismissed cheaply, but he and Amarnath shared a second-wicket stand of 63, showing great courage against relentless short pitched bowling from Michael Holding. While Vengsarkar made a patient 21, Amarnath played a remarkable knock of 60 that included seven fours and three sixes.
Vengsarkar always enjoyed great success at Lord’s. In three successive Tests there from 1979 to 1986, he reached the three figures. His 126 not out at Lord’s in 1986 followed by 102 not out at Headingley played big parts in India winning the series 2-0.
His impressive record at Lord’s saw him get a chance in the bicentennial match in 1987, as a late replacement for Viv Richards. His record at Lord’s was dented a bit in 1990 with scores of 52 and 35.
For about 21 months during the late 1980s, Vengsarkar was officially ranked as the number one Test batsman.
Basically a middle-order bat, Gaekwad from the royal house of Baroda had to play most of his Tests as an opener. He never had the technique of an opener, but just like Chauhan, he too never lacked in courage.
Twice in difficult tours to the Caribbean, in 1976 and 1983, he showed plenty of determination while facing the hostile pace attack of the opposition.
It was an opener that he scored his career-best 201 at Jalandhar against Pakistan in the autumn of 1983 batting for more than 11 hours. But the series against West Indies later in the season proved to be far less successful.
He was a bit injury prone – at least on three occasions, his injury paved the way for others to open the innings with the Little Master.
Basically a middle-order bat, Ashok was tried in all the positions from one to eight in the Indian Test team. At Port of Spain in 1971, in the second Test of the series, he became the first opening partner for Sunil in Tests.
Initially the pair promised great things. After three successive half-century stands, they shared an unbroken 123-run partnership on the final day of the drawn third Test at Georgetown.
But then started a lean period in Mankad’s career and although he played his last Test in 1978, he was never a regular feature in the Indian team after 1971.
Farokh Engineer (wicketkeeper)
Given time the Farokh-Sunny combination could have developed into a very reliable one. The elegance and the aggression of Farokh would have complemented Gavaskar’s solid technique superbly.
But the pair only came together in the fifth Test in Bombay in February 1973. There was great interest about the Test in Bombay as it was Sunil’s first ever Test in front of his home crowd. And he didn’t let his fans down, scoring 67 in the second innings. But on this occasion, he was overshadowed by his opening partner Farokh, who scored 121 and 66 in the match.
Then at Lord’s, in 1974, Farokh (86) and Sunil (49) shared an opening stand of 131, but the middle order collapsed, and following on, India was bowled out for 42 in the second knock.
Sadly, Farokh’s career ended in a sour note. Opening the innings along with Gavaskar, Engineer bagged a pair at Wankhede in January 1975, falling victim to the left armer Bernard Julien on each occasion.
Shastri batted in the number ten position in his debut Test in 1981.
Brought into the team as a late replacement for the injured Dilip Doshi at the Basin Reserve, he took six wickets in the match including three for nine in the second innings.
But as his career progressed, he became an England-type spinner – accurate but nothing else. However, he continued to improve as a batsman.
And in Manchester, in 1982, he opened the batting with the Indian skipper. He started poorly in his role as an opener, getting two ducks in three innings. But then at Karachi, in January 1983, he scored 128 opening the innings with Sunny.
He mostly batted at number six or seven for India and openly expressed his reluctance to open in Test matches. But still he was entrusted with the opener’s job in 1990. And it was as an opener that he produced a marathon effort of almost ten hours at the SCG in early 1992. He scored 206 – his highest Test score.
Bombay-born Solkar was a left-handed all-rounder, often called the poor man’s Gary Sobers. As a batsman he was at his best at six or seven, and as a medium pacer he enjoyed bowling in English conditions, especially against Geoffrey Boycott. And as a fielder, he was simply brilliant in the short leg region.
The experiment to open with him in Manchester in 1974 didn’t work. He managed only seven and 19. He did score a Test hundred batting at number three against the West Indies at Bombay in the 1974-75 season.
Syed Abid Ali
At Port of Spain, in the fifth Test of 1971 series, Abid Ali opened both the batting and the bowling for India. This Test match, of course, is memorable for the batting of Gavaskar, who scored 124 and 220 in the match. Abid in contrast managed only ten and three.
But he enjoyed a good match with the leather, taking 1-58 and 3-73.
Abid Ali was an ideal cricketer for the ODI format. But his career was over by the time the ODI game got its foothold in India.
I mentioned in my article on the All Time Karnataka XI that Binny played somewhat different roles for his national team and his state side. For Karnataka he was a batting all-rounder, often opening the innings. For India, he was mainly picked as a new-ball bowler.
Nevertheless, with Chauhan unavailable, the selectors picked him to open against England in the Golden Jubilee Test at the Wankhede in 1980. There was a clear lack of understanding between the pair, and it resulted in Binny getting run out for 15 in the first innings. He was trapped LBW for a duck by Ian Botham in the second innings.
On an under-prepared wicket, Botham produced a superb all-round show to ensure a ten-wicket success for his team.
As a bowler, Binny normally enjoyed bowling in seamer-friendly conditions in England. He was a hero of the 1983 World Cup-winning team. And in 1986, he took 5-40 in the first innings of the Headingley Test as India recorded a massive victory over their rivals.
12th man: Manoj Prabhakar
Making his debut in front of his home crowd at Delhi in 1984, Prabhakar batted at number nine in the first innings. But an injury to Gaekwad meant that he partnered Sunil in the second innings. The change didn’t work. Prabhakar scored only five before edging Norman Cowans to the keeper.
This was the only time he opened with Sunil. However, Prabhakar did become a regular Test opener for India in the 1990s. He ended his Test career with a batting average of 32 with one century against the West Indies, but his bowling average of 37 is disappointing for a new-ball bowler.
As a bowler, he was more effective in ODI cricket where he was one of the early exponents in India of the slower delivery.
Special mentions: Sudhir Nayak and Ramnath Parkar
Both these players were Sunil’s teammates at Bombay. Nayak made his Test debut at Edgbaston in 1974. His first experience in Tests was watching from the non-striker’s end, Gavaskar edging the first ball of the match from Geoff Arnold to the keeper. He himself perished soon for four, bowled by Arnold. But in the second innings, he showed great technique and temperament in difficult conditions to score 77 in a losing cause.
This was the only time he opened with Sunil. He played two more Tests at home against West Indies in 1974-75, but Sunil missed both these matches due to an injury. The infamous sock incident badly damaged his prospects in international cricket.
Ramnath Parkar provides one of the saddest stories in Indian cricket. He played two Tests against Tony Lewis’ England in 1972-73. A natural stroke-maker and a brilliant cover fielder, he was unlucky not to make the Indian team for the 1975 World Cup. At least, he would have done much better than Sunil himself.
Following a tragic road accident on the New Year’s Eve of 1995, he went in to coma. Despite surgery and therapy, he never regained his consciousness and died in 1999 after spending 43 months in the coma.
The remaining ones
Five other players opened the batting in Tests along with Sunil. They are Parthasarthi Sharma, Hemant Kanitkar, Pranab Roy, Ghulam Parkar and Arun Lal.