We are in an era of Test cricket, or a mini-era at least, in which opening partnerships are struggling almost as much as they ever have. In only two half-decades since the Second World War have opening partnerships averaged fewer than they have since 2011.
Since January 1st 2011 opening partnerships in Test cricket have averaged 35.07, which is 2.52 runs fewer than the historical average for the first wicket and more notably 6.05 runs fewer than the half decade between January 1st 2006 and December 31st 2010. An even sharper decline can be traced back to the first half decade of this millennium in which opening partnerships averaged 41.60, 6.53 more than they have in the most recent half a decade. The fall of 6.05 runs from the last half decade is considerably greater than the overall fall in average for all wickets of 2.09, suggesting that the decline in the average for opening partnerships is not only the product of an overall decline in averages.
|Period||Opening Partnership Average||Overall Average|
The last half decade of opening batting in Test cricket has been defined by the relative lack of consistently successful players. Since January 1st 2011 only Alastair Cook (4839) and David Warner (4277) have scored more than 3000 Test runs as openers while in the half decade before that Cook (4363), Virender Sehwag (4305), Andrew Strauss (3990) and Graeme Smith (3855) all scored well over 3000 runs, and in the decade before that Matthew Hayden (6366), Marcus Trescothick (5162), Justin Langer (4631), Herschelle Gibbs (3955), Chris Gayle (3476), Smith (3332) and Marvan Atapattu (3136) did so too. This abundance of successful openers established a relative golden age for opening partnerships between 2001 and 2011.
|Sehwag & Vijay||10||798||79.80||3||1|
|Hayden & Jacques||11||784||71.27||2||6|
|McKenzie & Smith||27||1664||66.56||5||8|
|Gambhir & Sehwag||61||3505||60.43||10||19|
|Hughes & Katich||11||604||60.40||2||4|
|Jaffer & Karthik||14||744||57.23||3||2|
|Gibbs & Smith||56||2983||56.28||7||10|
|de Villiers & Smith||30||1646||54.86||5||6|
|Katich & Watson||28||1523||54.39||3||10|
|Petersen & Smith||14||759||54.21||2||5|
|Strauss & Trescothick||52||2670||52.35||8||12|
|Hayden & Langer||113||5655||51.88||14||24|
|Farhat & Umar||15||754||50.26||3||1|
Therefore, principal among the reasons for the sudden and dramatic decline in the returns of opening partnerships since 2011 has been the retirements of many of these hugely successful opening batsmen. Namely, Smith (last Test 2014), Sehwag (2013), Strauss (2012), Hayden (2009), Gibbs (2008), Langer (2007), Atappattu (2007) and Sanath Jayasuriya (2007) as well as the inconsistent selection of Chris Gayle for the West Indies who has only played 27% of West Indies’ 43 Tests since 2011.
Replacing such prolific batsmen was of course never going to easy; but every team—perhaps with the exception of Australia—have failed to do so. Since 2011 nine of the ten Test match teams have averaged less than 36.66 for their opening partnership and only Australia, with an average of 48.66, have managed more.
The struggles of opening partnerships since 2011 is reflected in the relative instability of them. Since 2011 the average number of innings per opening pair is 7.17 which is the shortest life-span of an opening partnership since the half decade between 1996 and 2001.
|Period||Innings||Number Of Opening Pairs||Average Innings Per Opening Pair|
Of course, replacing players of the quality that retired was never going to be easy, but teams have almost universally struggled to do so. Since the turn of the decade only Warner has emerged to join Cook as a consistently successful Test match opener.
Perennial strugglers Zimbabwe have predictably fared the worst, averaging just 22.96 since 2011.
Sri Lanka and West Indies have tried fourteen different opening combinations, more than any other team, [Sri Lanka, West Indies] but have only given more than ten innings to two and one of those combinations respectively.
Dimunth Karunaratne appears to be a promising prospect for Sri Lanka, with a Test average of 35.97, including a healthy average of 49.66 in bowler-friendly New Zealand, but they are yet to find a partner for him, with Kithuruwan Vithanage the latest to occupy the spot.
West Indies meanwhile are desperately missing Gayle who is 461 runs shy of becoming his country’s most prolific opening batsman ever but is nowhere near the team currently. Kraigg Brathwaite is, and has now played 25 Test matches. With three ducks in his last six innings and five single figure scores in his last ten, he is far from consistent but 94 in his most recent innings against Australia and an average of 33.76 suggests he is worth persisting with. Rajendra Chandrika is Brathwaite’s latest partner.
Similarly to Sri Lanka and West Indies, Pakistan have tried a lot of opening combinations: 13 to be precise, and have had a few relatively successful pairings. After Cook and Warner, Mohammad Hafeez is the next most prolific opening batsman in this half decade and he takes up one spot at the top of the order, leaving Azhar Ali, Shan Masood and Ahmed Shehzad to fight over the second spot.
New Zealand, who possess the third worst average (30.48) for opening partnerships after Bangladesh (28.55) and Zimbabwe (21.72) since the turn of the millennium, have the makings of a successful pairing in Martin Guptill and Tom Latham. Guptill’s Test record is uninspiring but the Kiwis will hope a century last week against Sri Lanka in Dunedin can be the beginning of him translating the quality he has displayed in limited-overs cricket into the Test arena. Latham meanwhile is arguably the most promising Test opener in the world. In Dunedin Guptill and Latham recorded 50 partnerships in both innings of the Test—the first time a New Zealand opening partnership has done so for six years. Admittedly, the Sri Lankan bowling attack is not the most threatening, but perhaps a corner has been turned.
Ostensibly India appear to have finally solved their opening partnership conundrum which has seen them attempt thirteen different combinations since January 2011. Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan have now opened together on 33 occasions and average 46.20. However, that average is inflated by huge partnerships of 289 against an Australian team that would go onto be whitewashed by India and 283 against Bangladesh. Excluding those two partnerships Vijay and Dhawan average just 23 together. With a Test average of 41.09 overall, 47.75 this year and and 45.93 since 2013, Vijay looks to be a solid option for India. It is Dhawan, who has an average of 29 outside of Asia who remains something of a concern. Admittedly, India’s problems are not as serious as those facing other teams, but it would be wrong to assume the Vijay-Dhawan axis is a stable one.
England’s opening problems have attracted a lot of attention, possibly because they have attempted seven combinations (excluding Moeen Ali & Jos Buttler’s cameo in Abu Dhabi) in just 19 Tests since Andrew Strauss’ retirement, but in fact their first wicket average of 35.41 since Strauss’ retirement is merely in line with the global average of 35.07 since January 2011. Indeed, the downward global trend makes England’s decision to axe Nick Compton, who averaged 57.93 with Cook, all the more surprising. None of the other opening partnerships attempted by England since 2011 have averaged more than 36.60. Alex Hales is expected to be the next to be given an opportunity.
Bangladesh have only played 25 Tests since January 2011—only Zimbabwe have played fewer—but their first wicket average of 35.58, is only bettered by South Africa and Australia. In that timeframe, Tamim Iqbal and Imrul Kayes have the best average of opening pairs who have played more than ten innings together. However, the only time they batted together outside of Asia was against Zimbabwe.
Despite never appearing to be totally secure Alviro Petersen managed to form a fairly strong partnership with Graeme Smith for South Africa, and at least gave the top order some consistency. However, with Smith and Petersen now retired, neither opening position is safe. It is expected that Stiaan Van Zyl will partner Dean Elgar against England next week with Temba Bavuma, who opened in the final Test against India, lurking down the order. It is apposite of the age that the weakest link of the world’s number one ranked Test nation is their opening batting.
With Chris Rogers and Warner, Australia were the only team in the world with a stable and consistently successful opening partnership. Now Rogers is gone not one team can claim to have two openers who are assured of selection. Joe Burns has made a promising start to his career, but it is far too early to pass judgement on his new axis with Warner.
Without diminishing what Warner and Rogers achieved it is revealing that they are the most prolific opening partnership of this half-decade with just 2053 runs. In the half-decade before that Cook and Strauss scored 3678 runs together, and in the half-decade before that Hayden and Langer scored 5122 runs together.
Rarely in the history of Test cricket have opening batsmen struggled as much as they are now. The extent to which that is self-inflicted is uncertain but what is certain is that as selectors and coaches itch to make changes to their struggling partnerships they should bear in mind that statistically at least, opening the batting has rarely been harder.
The seeds of success at the top of the order are there for most teams; but they will need patience and care in this harsh age.
With inputs from Patrick Baatz.