“We picked [Shikar] Dhawan because we wanted to look ahead. The lad has been batting consistently well in domestic cricket and has also scored big for India A. Also, we wanted to maintain the left-right combination (at the top).” – An unnamed selector to the Indian Express.
Shane Warne put it simply in his prescription for Australian cricket: you want your best playing XI on the field every time. You pick the best guys at each position; you back them and then you mould them into a team. That creates consistency and instills confidence.
The tricky part, of course, is picking the best players. Some will clearly stand out ahead of the rest of the pack. In other cases, the decisions will be marginal ones. What is important is that these decisions are taken in good faith and not on the basis of convoluted logic, as in the case of Shikar Dhawan and Murali Vijay.
Let's unpack the selector's statement. If India wants to maintain the left-right combination, then as the only left-hander Dhawan has to be the first name on the team sheet, ahead of Virender Sehwag and Vijay. If there is anyone who follows Indian cricket who believes that, then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. There is no chance of the selectors picking Sehwag and not playing him. So by that logic, Vijay is the odd man out.
Vijay’s Ranji statistics this season – already repeated many times over on this site alone - do not make for pretty reading: 138 runs from eight innings at an average of 17.25 and with a top score of 42. Yes, he made a century in the Irani Cup last week, but that one inning does not merit selection, especially if the left-right combination is to be maintained.
If a back-up opener was all that was needed (apparently for Sehwag), then Wasim Jaffer had to be the selection. His numbers stand head and shoulders above both those of Vijay and Dhawan: 835 runs at 75.90 with three hundreds, plus an 80 and an unbeaten hundred in the Irani Cup.
One argument that has been making the rounds is that Jaffer is too old to be selected, but he is less than a year older than Sehwag. If Sehwag can be picked, despite struggling over the last two years, especially by his own standards, then the age argument against Jaffer, who has done nothing but score runs over the last four years, falls apart. Jaffer is also been much more consistent and much more prolific than Dhawan. If you want your best XI on the field, then performance has to trump age, potential and an apparent preference for left-handers.
To be fair, a left-hand, right-hand combination does make it tougher on opening bowlers to find their line and length. But that argument only holds water if Dhawan actually plays, which is unlikely. Jaffer is also in superior form, and has played Test cricket, so he is not going to be overawed by the occasion.
The best opening combinations over the years have not been exclusively left-hand, right-hand combinations. What they have been is the two best openers available. Jack Hobbes and Herbert Sutcliffe, two right handers, averaged an amazing 87.81 per partnership in 38 innings for England. Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, two left-handers, dominated opposing attacks for Australia, and averaged 51.88 together. Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, two right handers, were the best opening pair in the world for the West Indies. For India, Chetan Chauhan and Sunil Gavaskar, again two right-handers, averaged 53.75 together.
India were lucky to have Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag gel as openers. Their success, however, was not down to their having opposite dominant hands. They were the best openers in India at the time. That was the reason for their success. If India want stability at the top of the order, that is the principle to follow. Anything else is most likely just a smokescreen, an explanation thought up after the fact to justify a selection that makes little sense.