CricViz Analysis: India’s Opening Dilemma

CricViz analyses India’s opening batsmen options.

Since June 2016 India have used nine different opening partnerships in Test cricket and have had a new partner every 4.88 innings – the fewest among all teams. Although there has been some uncertainty surrounding their best pairing the main reason for the inconsistency has been numerous injuries which have forced reshufflings.

Two years on from then three players have clearly emerged as the candidates to open the batting: Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul. Unless India spring a surprise and shoehorned Rahul into the middle order only two of the three are likely to play against England.

There is little between them in terms of average. However there is a clear difference in terms of attacking shot percentage which translates into a difference in terms of strike rate. Dhawan is the most aggressive and Vijay the least aggressive, with Rahul somewhere in between. Notably Rahul is in the worst form of the three – across the last 12 months he averages just 31.20 while Vijay is nudging 50 and Dhawan is way up at 62.63.

Vijay’s less attacking method results in him being a more obdurate player. Since he made his debut back in 2008, only six openers have faced more balls per dismissal than Vijay.

It is clear that India value Vijay’s contributions at the top of the order, despite his reputation as a less than eye-catching option. From the 46 Tests that India have played since the start of 2014, Vijay has played in 37 of them, while Rahul and Dhawan have played in 24 and 25, respectively.

In recent times Dhawan has been in magnificent form in Test cricket. Since the start of 2015 Dhawan has the eighth highest average in Test cricket of 51.15, having scored 1330 runs in 27 innings.

Rahul’s stop-start Test career has been punctuated by some landmark innings and one superb patch of form. He scored three Test centuries away – one in Australia, one in Sri Lanka and one in the West Indies before scoring a mammoth 199 at home against England. In 2017 Rahul scored nine fifties in 11 innings – the majority of them on viscous spinning pitches at home against Australia. Rahul is regarded as one of the most talented batsmen in India.

Typically for Indian batsmen, but perhaps worryingly so for openers, all three players have higher averages against spin than pace. Indeed, since Rahul’s Test debut in December 2014 no openers in world cricket average more against spin than Vijay, Dhawan and Rahul.

There is also the trio’s respective records in England to consider. Rahul is yet to feature in Tests on these shores but Vijay and Dhawan had contrasting experiences during India’s 2014 tour. While Dhawan was dropped after three Tests, failing to register a half-century, Vijay faced more balls than any batsman on either side and was India’s highest scorer across the five Tests.

Although Rahul has never played a Test in England we can analyse his game against the likely challenge of the moving ball by looking at his career data and comparing it to Vijay and Dhawan. Although the sample sizes for Rahul are relatively small it appears that Dhawan and Vijay are better equipped to deal with the moving ball – particularly the swinging ball – than Rahul.

Overall the evidence would suggest that Vijay – India’s preferred opener and a solid presence at the top of the order – will get the nod, leaving Rahul and Dhawan to fight it out for the position of second opener. India will have to make the choice between the extra aggression of Dhawan to complement the stickability of Vijay, or the talent and potential of Rahul.

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