Test cricket is undergoing changes with the Decision Review System (DRS), day-night encounters and the pink ball all coming in over the past few years but what has remained fairly consistent since the inception of the game is the kind of temperament, stability and composure that openers need to display to survive in the arduous longer format.
The likes of Virender Sehwag, David Warner, Graeme Smith, Brendon McCullum and Tilakaratne Dilshan questioned the importance of technique for openers in Test cricket by going the unconventional route, and it is worth noting that the more pitches have got flatter, the more such batsmen have flourished.
So in modern day Test cricket, flair and flamboyance over tenacity and grit is becoming a trend. Teams these days tend to go for players with X-factor at the top of the order rather than the dour group that bats in a bubble. In fact, they are looked upon with rose-tinted glasses.
190, 12, 14, 81, 35, 57, 119, 85. These are the scores made by Indian Test openers — Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Abhinav Mukund — on their last Test tour to Sri Lanka a few months back. Two hundreds and four half-centuries in three Test matches is outstanding in a country where openers have traditionally struggled a touch.
Interestingly, before the start of the tour, Dhawan, who made 358 runs at an average of 89.50 in the series, was not even India's back-up opener in the squad.
But Dhawan surely has X-factor. He is that marauding opener who pounces on the weakness of bowlers and smashes them so much as to make them regret choosing cricket as a career.
Murali Vijay — the dour, old school Test opener — was returning from injury and was the first-choice opener alongside KL Rahul with Abhinav Mukund picked as the reserve opener for the tour of Sri Lanka.
All that changed when Vijay pulled out during a warm-up game after experiencing pain. Dhawan, who had an exceptional Champions Trophy, was roped in and stole the limelight with a series of remarkable performances.
Now as Vijay returns from injury, India have an opening conundrum at the top. Dhawan and Rahul were immensely successful in Sri Lanka and against the same opposition should ideally get another look-in.
But Vijay has been key to India's revamped performances outside the sub-continent in the past few years. He ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane in the Test team for his stellar contributions in situations of strife, but rarely gets deserved recognition.
A five-month break following a wrist injury meant Vijay was virtually in a pickle and needed to prove his match readiness by playing in a few Duleep Trophy and Ranji Trophy games. This materialised and he was set to get a short rest before the India squad regroups in Kolkata for the first Test that starts on 16 November.
He was not even part of the initial 16-member Tamil Nadu squad for the Odisha match. Alongside Ravichandran Ashwin, he was given a brief rest, but the management wanted to see Vijay gain more match-practice, and the opener duly responded with a s hundred (140 in 273 balls) on the first day of the game.
So does that mean he replaces one of Dhawan or Rahul?
After being out of action for close to five months, and given the kind of performances Dhawan and Rahul have put in, the Tamil Nadu batsman should ideally remain on the bench. The age-old practice in cricket is anyone who comes back from injury has to bide his time if the incumbents perform well.
Does that apply to this situation? Or rather, should that apply to this situation?
India are set to play a lot outside the sub-continent in 2018 with the new year seeing Virat Kohli’s men travel to South Africa for what is expected to be a gruelling test to their no.1 ranking in Tests.
A glance at Shikhar Dhawan's record outside the sub-continent will make Test purists cringe.
He averages 27.83, 20.33 and 19.00 in Australia, England and South Africa respectively. Importantly, the Delhi batsman was found out against the short and moving ball the last time he toured South Africa, and a similar test awaits the southpaw if he faces a Proteas attack expected to include Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel in addition to Kagiso Rabada.
Vijay, on the other hand, enjoyed a rather successful tour of South Africa in 2013-14, scoring a classy 97 in Durban and getting a start in Johannesburg. He also has a pretty good average in Australia and England — 60.25 and 40.20.
The only place Dhawan has had better success than Vijay is India. Everywhere else, Vijay has led the way with remarkable numbers.
KL Rahul is another batsman who could make way, but the youngster has shown so much promise — he made seven half-centuries in the trot against Australia and Sri Lanka — in his short Test career thus far that he should be at the top of the order against the islanders and South Africa.
Besides, he has a pretty solid technique and gets behind the ball quite well, a style which is tailor-made for batting on greener wickets. Whether he succeeds is an altogether different question but it is only fair that he gets a chance first-up.
This leaves Dhawan and Vijay to battle out for one spot. There is actually little to ponder over given the manner in which Vijay has fared in Test cricket, but he probably lacks the swagger and panache that one is likely to see in Test openers of the modern era.
However, is that a quintessential requisite to be a good opener? The plain and clear answer is a big no.
Nicknamed ‘Monk’ (although for completely different reasons), Vijay has the icy steel composure that is associated with the best ever openers in Test cricket over the years. He has exemplary judgement outside the off-stump and defends with the kind of technique that textbooks on cricket batting strongly recommend.
Vijay understands that he is in a tussle with Dhawan and Rahul for two spots in the side. But the opener has matured enough to think beyond these spot-battles. "I am competitive about improving my game, about going about my cricket in a stronger manner than where I left. These are the things that are more of a kick for me rather than thinking about fighting for spots”, Vijay had said prior to returning to Ranji cricket after injury.
The kind of batsman that he is, Indian management shouldn't even think twice before giving him back his first-choice opener privilege despite Dhawan's recent form. The Sri Lanka series should ease Vijay back into the rigours of Test cricket and by the time January comes, the Tamil Nadu opener would be more than prepared for stiffer challenges. As he says, “The climb up the mountain is hard, but the view from the top makes it worth it.”