Comparisons are complicated in ODI cricket because in the fifty years since the first ODI, the rules have changed several times, and there has been significant run inflation. A review of the history of ODI cricket shows that the role of opener, especially, underwent a transformation after the early years of the format in the 1970s and 80s [1, 2, 3]. This essay is about the six most prolific modern Indian ODI openers - Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan. Matches are selected on the basis of a modified ELO based rating system for ODI sides. Under this system, teams with a rating below 0.45 at the start of a match are considered minnows. A second type of evaluation considers matches in which India’s rating at the start of the match is lower than the opponent’s rating at the start of the match (i.e., under the terms of the rating, India were weaker than the opposition.) .
The table below gives the basic record against non-minnows. Note that ‘othave’ and ‘othsr’ gives the combined average of the rest of the team score (for eg. if a team scores 250/5 in 50 overs and a player scores 50(50) balls, then the player’s ave and sr are 50 and 100 respectively, while the othave is 50: (250-50)/(5-1), and othsr is 80: 100*(250-50)/(300-50)).
This table gives the record of the six openers in games where the opposition is rated higher than the Indian team. Not that while Tendulkar player 179 such games compared to 283 against non-minnows, Rohit Sharma has played only 20 such games compared to 116 against non-minnows. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan play in a significantly stronger Indian team compared to the one Ganguly and Tendulkar played in. Part of the reason for this is evident in Dhawan and Sharma’s records - they’re both consistent and quick scoring - a luxury India did not have in the Ganguly/Tendulkar era, in which Ganguly was not as consistent as Tendulkar, and scored very slowly compared to Tendulkar.
Shikhar Dhawan, with nearly 6000 runs as opener in 139 innings with 17 100s, is India’s finest left handed limited overs opener yet. Among the right handers, and even overall, Tendulkar remains unmatched, not just in India, but worldwide, all time. Its worth keeping in mind that Tendulkar’s record as opener was constructed over 18 years (1994-2012). His strongest phase was from 1994-2003, during which he made more than 11000 runs at 49/89 in 250 odd matches - more than the full careers of most players - while the other end produced runs at 31/81 (ave/sr).
If an all time Indian eleven were to be constructed with the stipulation that there be a left-right opening pair, it would have to be Tendulkar and Dhawan.
Dhawan and Rohit Sharma play in stronger teams than Tendulkar or Ganguly did. But its not clear that Ganguly would have made it into the current Indian squad given how slow his scoring rate was at the time that he played. Today India is arguably the best ODI side in the world and have built the strongest win-loss record against non-minnows in the past decade (Ganguly’s side had a losing record against non-minnows). That Dhawan and Rohit are good enough to be selected for the current India side is a measure of just how good they are. Prithvi Shaw and co. will have to earn their spots.