The success of a side in Test cricket is almost exclusively predicated on the quality of the bowlers in it. As the adage goes, you need to take twenty wickets to win the game. But the structure of contest is such that no side can be declared the winner if they are not ahead of their opposition by at least a run in the final tally.
And hence the role of batsmen to put a sizable score on board, to achieve the target or bat the game to a stalemate, cannot be undervalued. The ability of a batting unit to stitch together a big innings is almost entirely down the efficiency of the men at the top of the order: openers and number three.
Matthew Hayden, the fearsome Queenslander who formed a long and fruitful opening partnership along with Justin Langer for Australia – one of the greatest Test sides of all time – called the top order, “engine room” of the batting unit. “In the Australian dressing room, the opening batsmen had a special title - "Buff removers", where they remove the shine off the ball and do the job of the engine room of the side. The one, two and three were called the engine room. From four down, they were all called the "interior decorators"... The drive train did the work. It saw off conditions, or saw them off till lunch. It took pride in holding the engine room together as long as it possibly could, and it allowed what was pretty and finished and capable of driving a great result for the team, and that is bringing to life the middle order for Australia and giving them opportunities to flourish.”
In the Indian side, for the interior decoration of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, and others to function optimally, the engine room in the last two years has featured several buff removers: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and to a smaller extent, Gautam Gambhir and Parthiv Patel. A remarkable occurrences of injuries to different players at different time has meant India has had to have six players partnering each other as openers.
Since the 2015 New Year's Test at Sydney, in which Kohli assumed the mantle of Test captain full time from MS Dhoni, India have played 21 Tests and have utilised eight different opening combinations. The Dhawan-Vijay twosome has been the most regular, and hence unsurprisingly most prosperous of the lot.
Even as Patel and Gambhir have been excluded from the Test side in 2017, and Abhinav Mukund has made a return, it is safe to assume that KL Rahul and Vijay would walk out in Hyderabad to face Bangladesh, and injuries notwithstanding, against the Australians as well. Dhawan who made an eye-popping debut the last time the Antipodeans were in India in 2013, is not even in the side picked to play Bangladesh. His poor run of eight Tests, beginning at home against South Africa, saw him average under 26 and score a single fifty.
KL Rahul for a while swung between feast and famine, scoring hundreds or very low scores. His expected partnership with Vijay for the next five Tests doesn't inspire confidence as this pair has averaged less than 24 runs together. That could have been at least mitigated if they had spent enough time together at the crease, taking the shine off the ball, be the buff removers, and not exposing the middle order to the new ball, but they don't. An average Rahul-Vijay partnership lasts less than eight overs – not even long enough for the opening bowlers to complete their first spells! The Dhawan-Vijay partnership boasts superior numbers but bulk of it is from one innings in Fatullah in 2015 when both men made 150's.
The opening combination, even though the batsmen themselves have respectable records since January 2015 (Vijay – 41.23 Ave, 3 100's; Rahul – 46.52 Ave, 4 100's; Dhawan 42.73 Ave, 2 100's), hasn't clicked for both the batsmen at the same time often enough. That has meant Pujara has been tasked with negotiating the new ball lot sooner than he would like, or is optimal. It is to Pujara's credit that he averages nearly 54 in the same time span while notching four triple digit scores.
The following table provides the returns of the opening partnership for the top nine Test nations since 1 January 2015. As can be seen, India's next two Test opponents' openers fair better than them, and so Rahul and Vijay have their jobs cut out for them.
If anything, it is this weakness that could be exploited, if not by Bangladesh who lack experience and perhaps quality too in the pace department, but certainly by Australia. Mitchell Starc during the tour of Sri Lanka last year routinely dismissed the Lankan openers on his way to bagging 27 wickets in the three Tests series. Josh Hazlewood is just as good if not better than Starc as a Test bowler and will pose tremendous problems to Rahul and Vijay as well with his accuracy and bounce, and therefore, to the rest of the lineup.
And so, the single Test against Bangladesh, which India should comfortably win considering the gap between the sides, should be the training ground for Vijay and Rahul to turn a new leaf on their opening partnership in a new year.