Opening: downturn and upheaval
England will very shortly select a new opening batsman to partner Alastair Cook. India have been under pressure to jettison one or both of their openers who are without a century in over two years of test cricket. Australia keep a brave face on the situation five years after Langer and Hayden last opened together. New Zealand and West Indies can only call on their dominant forces at the top of the order when franchise cricket allows.
I listed these topical examples of downturn and upheaval in Test match opening batting off the top of my head. It persuaded me to a little research, which has spawned a short series of articles. This first post tests whether there is anything afoot with the top of the order in Test cricket right now. It will be followed by an analysis of how important the opening partnership is to a Test match innings and then my true quarry in this chase: what is an opening batsman?
The opening partnership can be the foundation of an innings. If it can blunt the keenest blade of the opposing attack, fairer batting conditions can be created for those that follow. It’s obvious, but I’ll state it nonetheless: the opening partnership is where a match and also a series begins. It has the potential to set the tone, establish an early advantage. How much of this is true, or even a reasonable expectation, I may address later. My starting point is that the opening partnership is important and that it is a weakness right now in Test cricket.
In 2011, the average opening partnership in Test cricket was 31. It follows ten years when the average never fell below 35 and pushed 45 in 2009 and 2010. In the 66 years of Test cricket since the second world war, the average for 2011 is the lowest bar only five years, the most recent being 2000 and the only one significantly below the figure for 2011 was 1963 (24.26). The figure for the first 10 months of 2012 has recovered a little, to 34.43. The average for the post-war period is a shade under 38.
A possible explanation could be that across Test cricket, run-scoring has become more difficult in the last two years. Looking at the same statistic – average completed partnership – for wickets two to five confirms that that is not the case. The second wicket average fell in 2011 but five of the previous 20 years were lower still. Each of the other wickets had an average partnership above the 20 year norm for at least one of 2011 and 2012.
Averages can conceal as much as they reveal. Every opening batsman from school cricket upwards knows that their principle task on taking guard is to see off the new ball (I am excluding limited overs cricket from my analysis and narrative). The effectiveness of a new ball wanes at different rates according to the ground and air conditions, make up of the bowling attack and brand of ball. I have set a score of 70 as the mark at which Test match opening partners can allow themselves a moment of satisfaction to reflect on a job well done, on the basis that more than 20 overs are likely to have been bowled and the best part of a session elapsed. Since World War 2, around one in six opening partnerships has reached 70. The chart below shows this percentage for each year since 1992.
This perspective suggests that 2011 and 2012 have not been very far from the norm. The most striking aspect of the chart is the halving of the proportion of opening partnerships reaching 70 between 2010 and 2011.
This piece concludes with a team-by-team review of opening partnerships since January 2011. Three aspects of performance are considered: stability (average tests per partnership), productivity (average partnership score) and delivery (% partnerships greater than or equal to 70).
Only Australia and South Africa have more productive opening partnerships than the post-war average. In terms of delivery, South Africa and Zimbabwe better the post-war proportion of opening partnerships seeing off the new ball (i.e. scoring 70 or more). Pakistan, by some distance, have had the most stable opening pair – Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar – although their record is unremarkable.
The data appear to support my anecdote and observation: the opening partnership in Test cricket is at a low ebb, though certainly not in crisis. Few teams have been able to count on stability in the recent past and perhaps only South Africa and Pakistan have strong reason to believe that their established opening partners will remain in post this time next year.
In looking for a cause, the obvious place to start is with the opening batsman’s direct opponent – the opening bowler. South Africa, England and Australia have all fielded strong fast bowling units in the last two years. But only one of these has not faltered in recent times and fast-bowling stocks are lower elsewhere in Test cricket.
Could the pitches be contributing? Experts reporting from these matches often criticise pitches for being too slow. Could groundsmen be compensating by leaving grass on the pitch? Even if true, this might only account for lower opening partnerships in the first innings of a match.
I wonder about T20 cricket. I have already mentioned how it has deprived West Indies and New Zealand of Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum [see comment below, which corrects my misapprehension that McCullum has missed tests for T20]. Could it also have eroded the virtues of batsmanship associated with effective opening batting in Test cricket?
What do you think could account for the downturn? Will opening pairs bounce back?