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Contrasting Debuts! - Chetan Narula Column
by Chetan Narula
Mar 08, 2009
In recent testing times, the Australians needed good players to come up and quick, especially ones who are not just at the peak of their prowess having played domestic cricket for an eternity, but those who can provide them with the next decade of resplendent cricket that will be a justified continuation of their now past glory days. And it so happens that the two batsmen who made their debut last week in the first test against South Africa, in the return series, might just restore this jagged Aussie side to the top of the perch.

When one first saw twenty-year-old opener Phillip Hughes bat, there was just one thought in the mind: when was the last time a couple of right-handed batsmen opened for Australia? The answer is easy, for Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke recently did the honors against New Zealand. So let's just re-jig the question a bit. When was the last time a couple of right-handed batsmen opened the innings for Australia in tests?

It will be a journey seven years back, to August 2001, when in the fourth Ashes test against England, Michael Slater had opened with Mathew Hayden in a right-left combination at the top. That was his 74th test match, the last of his more than a decent career in which he scored 5312 runs at an average of 42.83. At the end of that run, he was drastically out of form and the Aussies had to replace him for the final test at Oval, when Justin Langer came in to form one of the best opening partnerships with Mathew Hayden in test cricket history.

But that's just one - we are looking for two, together! It is nothing short of a spectacle when two right handed batsmen open the innings for a cricket team, for invariably left-handed batsmen seem to be enjoying a monopoly over it at the moment, throughout the world. In the case of Australia, we have to traverse back to the time when Mathew Hayden was yet to make his famed comeback to the international fold.

Say the name Greg Blewett and immediately one thinks of a lanky fast bowler who opened the batting for Australia from time to time. Or was it the other way around - an opening batsman who also used to strut his medium pace for his country! Any which way, a reliable and consistent player for his country last played in the second test against New Zealand at Auckland way back in March 2000.

He scored centuries in each of his first two Tests, joining Bill Ponsford and Doug Walters as the only Australians to do so, was involved with Steve Waugh in one of the highest partnerships in Test history of 385 at Johannesburg in 1997, and accomplished the rare feat of compiling two 99s in Tests in the one calendar year. Blewett never established himself as a permanent member of either the Australian Test or ODI team, but he became widely recognised as a steely and dependable player whose capacity to play both defensive and attacking innings made him one of the stars of Australian domestic cricket. The particular match against the Kiwis was his last test, a career spanning 46 matches in which he scored 2552 runs at an average of 34.02.

Talk about the new opener, at the time of writing he had been jabbed badly by the South African pace battery bowling the short stuff, but he has been equal to the task so far, scoring his maiden fifty in the second innings of the first test and following it up brilliantly with a ton in the first innings of the second test. Clearly a find for the Aussies and considering that he is just in his early twenties, one can see a long path to success for the southpaw.

But it's his duck in his first test innings that takes the cake here. In three consecutive Tests in South Africa, Australia lost their first wicket without any run on the board - Matthew Hayden (0 in the first innings) at Durban in 2005-06; Hayden (0 in the second innings) at Johannesburg and Phil Hughes (0 in the first innings) at Johannesburg on February 26, 2009. The other debutant batsman got off to a slightly better start in his debut match. Marcus North came into an uncertain middle order that was suffering from the wobbles it faced at home against the Proteas. How would they fare when they go away was the big question as the Aussies were facing a confidence crisis amongst their batsmen, the likes of which has never been witnessed before. And it appeared to be another disaster story until the debutant came to the crease. While they gave the 'Baggy Green' to a relative green horn at the top, the Australian cricket selectors simply could not do the same for the middle order. Their tactic of getting well established domestic players, at the peak of their game, into the national side has paid rich dividends over the years. And they got it spot this time round too.

Marcus North (117 off 233 balls) posted a hundred on debut. He is the 18th Australian to accomplish the feat. North was involved in a partnership of 117 runs with Mitchell Johnson. This was Australia's best ever against South Africa for the eighth wicket, eclipsing the 96 between Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee at Sydney in 2005-06. Thanks to their antics, Australia reached 466 which is their third best total against South Africa at Johannesburg - their top two totals being 652 for seven wickets declared in 2001-02 and 628 for eight wickets declared in 1996-97. Clearly, North has records written all over him!

The coming of these sparkling batsmen is the heralding of a new beginning for team Australia and riding piggyback on these two new batsmen, they can only hope to have solved the riddles that have perplexed them throughout the last fifteen months.

(The columnist is a Mobile ESPN cricket commentator and sports writer based in New Delhi, India.)
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