Sport can be crazy, cruel, unforgiving. It can be a Sadagopan Ramesh, sitting on the bench counting the runs his rival is making.
For two years prior to the start of the Australia tour, when India was on its seemingly endless hunt for an opener, the obvious choice was Ramesh -- obvious to all, that is, but the selectors.
They didn't pick him; their reasons had to do with matters other than cricketing ability and potential.
Sehwag, Chopra give India fine start
Shortly before what was his last tour before this one -- the 2001-2002 tour of Sri Lanka -- coach John Wright took him aside and gave him what for. He was told, in the sort of straight language that penetrated even his lackadaisical demeanor, that if he did not put a premium on his wicket, this would be his last tour.
The talk hit home; in that series, his average was next only to Rahul Dravid. More to the point, he cut out the casual air at the crease, and began to focus on longevity. In the second Test, he was 5th out for a painstaking 47 off 95; he saw Das, Dravid, Ganguly and Kaif come and go. His 31 in the second innings as India chased a total was even more labored, off 105 deliveries.
He played two more watchful innings in the third Test -- and then, thanks to injury and a host of factors he could do little about, he lost his place.
Between then and now, he went through personal hell; he pretty much stopped practicing. Early last year, he married Aparna -- and she proved the making of him; she talked him out of his disillusionment, pushed him into restarting his practice and taking cricket seriously.
The result -- he fought his way back into the side, and given his showing in the side games at the start of his tour, must have felt himself unlucky to have missed out on a starting place for the first Test.
Three Tests later, he probably knows that he is destined to be a sorry footnote in India's cricket history. Akash Chopra has made runs, and shown remarkable stickiness, on the toughest tour of them all; that guarantees him an extended run with this team.
Others have had great first tours, and faded away -- the name of SS Das comes immediately to mind. But there is something about Chopra's play -- most especially, a tightness in defense coupled with an ability to grit it out against the stiffest examination -- that indicates he is a survivor; that as he gains in experience and in the resulting freedom to stroke more freely, he could become an opener for the long haul.
Ergo, exit Ramesh; taking with him one of life's bitterest lessons -- to most of us, opportunity comes just once; use it or lose it.
India in the recent past has had openers; it has never had an opening combination. In Chopra and Sehwag they appear, most fortuitously, to have unearthed one.
Their styles are different, yet so complementary. Chopra is -- more accurately, is developing into -- the classical opener with the tight front and back foot defensive shots coupled with good judgment around off and the patience required to see off the initial threat of the new ball.
Sehwag is the dasher, willing to go from ball one; his see-ball, hit-ball game is suitably uncomplicated for a player who believes cricket is a simple game, who says if he wanted to do cerebral, he would have taken up chess instead.
(Sehwag's neck or nothing style, incidentally, gives Chopra an additional job -- he is the wet blanket, the cold shower constantly dousing his opener's rushes of blood. Thus, each time Sehwag plays one of his blinding shots, Chopra is quickly over to touch gloves, congratulate his partner -- and then harangue him on the need to chill.)
Their first sessions, both in Melbourne and here, were patterned on the classical textbook for openers -- give the first hour to the new ball bowlers, open out in the second. Evidence in point, they have survived a torrid time against Brett Lee and Gillespie with the new ball in conditions that aided seam; at lunch, they are 98 to the good without being separated.
On this tour, they appear to have built a rapport; nowhere is it as evident as in the way both in Melbourne and here, they taken the sort of short singles (20 singles in the lunchtime score of 98/0) that exasperate the bowlers, irritate the fielders, and keep the board ticking over constantly.
In the process, they have also exposed a facet of Australia's attack no one suspected existed the bowlers, judging by the evidence thus far, take way too long to abandon Plan A and shift to Plan B, assuming there is one.
The line and length Lee and Gillespie bowled (and the one the Aussies bowled in Melbourne) indicates that against the Indians, they have fashioned a simple game plan keep the ball back of good length and outside off, sit back, and wait for the Indians to go fishing. Chopra's and Sehwag's real success has been in the way they have blunted that play Chopra confidently, Sehwag at times ludicrously, have kept letting deliveries through outside off; the Aussies have ended up wasting their energies, and the new ball, and for the second straight Test in the series have gone wicketless for the opening session.
The morning session has seen Sehwag take on an interesting role he appears to have elected himself to meet Lee's fire with flame. Lee bowled 45 deliveries to Chopra, of which 36 went unscored of. To Sehwag, Lee bowled 7 deliveries and was taken for 16 runs, including a slashing six over point and two superbly struck fours.
Gillespie has earned more respect than his pacier colleague. To Chopra, Gillespie bowled 12 balls for four runs; to Sehwag, 39 balls for just 14 runs, with the dashing opener content to play the new ball bowler watchfully.
The first session has validated Saurav Ganguly's decision to bat first (a decision that demonstrates a fair degree of trust in his openers) and set it up quite nicely; on balance, the second session should be the time for consolidation and acceleration.
If the Indians can play to theory, they would have taken the first of five steps towards ensuring that Steve Waugh's last Test, like his last one-dayer, ends in less than fairytale fashion.