India had sent 24 players to England for the WTC Final and the England Test series. Most nations would be stretching their list of top quality, international-cricket-ready players at that number. India then sent 20 more players to Sri Lanka for the limited overs series, the ODI leg of which is now done. In those ODIs, they handed debuts to seven players, five of which came in a single game. And despite this, they won the series 2–1. If ever there was a show of strength, this was it.
The T20I series is up next and because there wasn’t a clear distinction between the ODI and T20I squads, all players in the touring party will probably be available for selection. And that means, the two opening slots will have seven India openers competing for them (five if Prithvi Shaw and Devdutt Padikkal fly out to England before the start of the T20s). Seven India openers. For two slots. In one squad.
Let that sink in.
Before diving into each one of those seven options individually, let’s first have an overall view of what their numbers look like in T20s (T20Is and IPL) in the last 2 years.
Sanju Samson has been the most explosive among them, being the only one who strikes at more than 150. His dot ball percentage has been the lowest too, being the only one with a sub-30 dot ball percentage. Ruturaj Gaikwad meanwhile has had the lowest strike rate, and the highest average, touching 40. But these are overall numbers including all positions they’ve batted in. While Shikhar Dhawan and Prithvi Shaw have always opened, others have often floated around in the order. So let’s look at their numbers when they have opened.
Samson again stands out with the highest strike rate(165+), but his average is the lowest (<20) while opening. Ishan Kishan shines through in this regard, with a mind-boggling average of 86. Although he has played only 5 innings as an opener, his impact at the top has been unreal. He has also faced the most balls per innings as an opener among the six players. In fact, he is only one to face more than 30 balls. Shikhar Dhawan, Devdutt Padikkal, and Nitish Rana have been solid at the top, with averages in the mid-thirties and strike rates in the early 130s, while Prithvi Shaw has been typically swashbuckling, with a low average(25.4) and a high strike rate (~145).
Now that we’ve had a comparative look at each of the seven opening options India have, let’s have look at the strengths, weaknesses and playing styles of each of them individually, by breaking down their numbers in terms of which phase of their innings they are in.
Consistent and reliable at the top, Dhawan averages 40+ in his first 25 balls, and only gets dismissed every 30+ balls. He also rotates the strike brilliantly as his innings progresses, and does not eat up a lot of dot balls as can be seen by his sub-30 dot ball percentages and ~60 strike rotation percentages in the later parts of his innings.
When a batter has faced 25+ balls, he is expected to accelerate get boundaries relatively more frequently. This is where Dhawan falters a bit. His strike rate progression is decent at best. Even after facing 40+ balls, he only strikes at 154.2. His balls per boundary understandably increases in the 11–25 phase, but from there on, it should ideally decrease, which it doesn’t in his case. The fact that the balls per boundary in his first 10 balls and after 40 balls is almost the same, is a potential cause for concern.
Prithvi Shaw’s biggest strength is his unreal intent. He has the second highest strike rate in the first 10 balls(134.39) after Sanju Samson, while having played more than 7 times the number of innings Samson has played at the top. He is the best suited to maximize the Powerplay. It was on display against KKR in this years curtailed IPL where he smashed Shivam Mavi for 6 fours in the first over of the innings, and it was on display in the ODI series as well. While the difference between his strike rate in the first 10 balls and after 40 balls is less than 30 (Dhawan has a greater difference), it is not necessarily a weakness since he starts off with a bang itself. Unlike Dhawan, he does not need to do a lot of making up.
While Shaw has a high strike rate in the first 10 balls of his innings, he has the lowest balls per dismissal too among all other opening options in this phase — 15.83. He provides blistering starts, but seldom carries on to play big innings, as can be seen from his overall average of just 25. He has faced more than 40 balls in only 3 out of his 37 innings in the last 2 years. While his game makes it naturally difficult for him to hang around for long, if he can add a little more stability without compromising on his explosiveness, he can be the ideal T20 opener for India.
Very few people can match Prithvi Shaw’s explosiveness at the top of the order. Sanju Samson is one of them. Samson has opened in only 5 innings in the last 2 years, but in that small sample size, he has managed a strike rate close to 170 in his first 10 balls. He has the best balls per boundary in this phase among all the opening options India have — 3.33 — implying he hits 3 boundaries on average in his first 10 balls itself.
In typical Sanju Samson fashion, he has been very inconsistent and has the lowest average while opening among all seven players being discussed here. He has got in the first 10 balls twice out of a total of five innings, and has not played more than 25 balls even once. While his strike rates are elite, his averages are unfortunately not even decent. Like Prithvi, if he can manage to bring some stability to his game, he can be a trump card for the team.
Ishan has played only 5 innings at the top of the order in the last 2 years, but has created a huge impact in all of those five innings. His biggest strength is his how he paces his innings. His strike rate progression is one of the very best in the world, if not the best. To put it in perspective, his strike rate in the 11–25 phase(152.17) is better than Padikkal’s strike rate in the best phase of his innings (150 in the 25–40 phase). And the best part is, he has displayed incredible solidity to go with such high strike rates. He hasn’t been dismissed in his first 10 balls and averages 105 and 40 in balls 11–25 and 26–40 respectively.
The only real weakness is that he faces a considerable amount of dot balls. Most of his runs come from boundaries and if teams can manage to check his boundary scoring for a long enough period, chances are he will try to force things and might get out. Also, just to reiterate, he has opened only 5 times in T20s in the last 2 years. So his numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Like Dhawan, Padikkal’s strengths also lie in his stability and consistency at the top. He has the highest average(~45) in the first 10 balls of the innings among all opening options India have, who have played more than 5 innings at the top. And that average of 40+ remains constant in the 11–25 and the 25–40 balls phase of his innings too. While his balls per boundary is not elite, it is pretty consistent across phases, showing that his boundaries don’t stop coming as his innings progresses and as the field spreads.
His Strike Rate progression is a major concern. He starts off at around 120 in the first ten balls and only manages to accelerate up to 150 in the 25–40 balls phase. That surprisingly drops to 112 after 40 balls, suggesting he finds it difficult to find the next gear after settling in. His dot ball percentages are also on the higher side, especially in the 11–25 and 40+ phases.
Ruturaj’s strengths lie in the middle phases of his innings. Once he is settled, he strikes at 140+ in the 11–25 balls phase and at 180 in the 25–40 balls phase. His dot ball and strike rotation percentages towards the later half of his innings are world class. Couple that with balls per boundaries of less than 5 in the middle part of his innings, and you’d be in trouble if you are the fielding side and you haven’t managed to get him out early.
His biggest weakness are his first 10 balls. He has by far the lowest strike rate in this phase among all the options India have. And it’s not even close to 100, it as far down as 72. His average in this phase is his lowest too — 23.33 — indicating how nervous of a starter he is. His class is for everyone to see. If only he can manage to find a way to sort his start-of-the-innings blues, he can become a much bigger force to reckon with.
Following the trend of his fellow southpaw openers, Nitish Rana also provides stability at the top. He averages 30+ in his first 10 balls, almost 30 in balls 11–25, infinity in balls 26–40 and 20+ in balls 40+. He is a consistent boundary hitter too. With his balls per boundary crossing 5 in only the first phase of his innings.
Rana consumes a lot of dot balls throughout his innings. His dot ball percentage in the 11–25 balls phase is the highest among all his competitors, while his strike rotation percentage is the lowest(except Samson, who’s a different kind of batter and has played only 5 innings at the top). This is why his overall strike rate progression is not so great, ending up with strike rates of less than 160 in both the 25–40 and 40+ balls phase.
This was the breakdown of the seven Indian openers going into the T20I series against Sri Lanka. There are three more first choice players who are not playing in this series — Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli. Including them will take the tally to ten. They say a problem of plenty is a pleasant problem to have. Not sure about pleasant, but this problem of honing down on 3–4 players among the 10 available for the T20 World Cup will be a damn tough one for the selectors and the management.