What is an opening batsman?

Nick Compton (above right) became the 868th player and 218th English cricketer to open the batting in a Test match in the recent Ahmedabad Test. He scored 46 runs from 181 balls, batting in a conventional opener’s fashion – even though the experience was unconventional with a spinner opening the bowling in both innings. Compton continued to impress in his second Test match with his solid defence, patience and judgement of when to play or leave deliveries.

In this third article on openers in Test cricket, I will examine the view that to face the new ball successfully a batsmen must necessarily have a conventionally correct technique and be risk averse. What is clear from the first two articles in this series is the importance, right now, of opening batsmen: the last two years have seen a slump in opening partnership performance, yet a partnership at the top of the order is not just a platform, but a springboard for the innings.

At the end of the English summer, with discussion around who would take Andrew Strauss’ place at the top of the England order, I asked a friend to detail what makes a batsman peculiarly an opening batsman. His answer I will refer to as the orthodox view:

Solid defence… Good judge of the ball to leave… Strong concentration… Expert against the short ball.

However, the orthodox view is neither true only of openers, nor is it true of all successful openers.

Batsmen whose games are built around a strong defence and the careful accumulation of runs may gravitate to the top of the order, but many of the finest exponents bat lower down. In recent years, Kallis, Dravid, Trott and Chanderpaul have been prolific and in the most part, measured scorers – perhaps benefiting from the efforts of their opener colleagues. Having a secure defence and a mind attuned to making big scores helps wherever in the order a batsmen is placed. If wickets fall early (as they very often do in a form of the game where the median first wicket score is 24), middle order batsmen need to display the same adhesiveness as the openers. Old ball (aka reverse) swing and the availability of a second new ball can also demand of the middle order circumspection and committed defence.

Nick Compton spent his first day of Test cricket watching Virender Sehwag (top left) roaring to a run-a-ball century, driving, flaying and carving shots to balls that many openers would watch carefully as they pass unimpeded past the off-stump to the wicket-keeper.

Sehwag, as an opening  batsman, is a unique talent (described so well on Different Shades of Green) and yet not alone as an unorthodox player at the top of the order. Jayasuryia, Gayle, Sehwag, Hayden, Dilshan, McCullum and Warner have recently all prospered at the top of the order with an aptitude for quick scoring. What each of these shares is the ability to take the attack to the bowling, rather than their defensive prowess.

I would argue that the orthodox definition of an opening batsman is one that preoccupies England more than any other major cricket nation. English cricket’s inability to embrace the unorthodox is exposed in a different context – the career of Maurice Holmes, mystery spinner, by The Spin in the Guardian.

The records of the most successful Test openers of the last ten years show that a high scoring rate is associated with strong performance, when measured by batting average. Each square in the chart below represents one batsmen with over 1,000 runs in the last ten years as an opener. England batsmen are indicated by the red squares, with Marcus Trescothick having the highest strike-rate of the four.

Batsmen with below sample average scoring rates are distributed across almost the full range of batting averages. Openers with above average scoring rates have middling and high batting averages, with Virender Sehwag recording the highest on both measures. Amongst opening batsmen with strike rates below the sample average only Neil McKenzie, Alastair Cook and Simon Katich have batting averages over 45.

This picture of success as an opener being associated with fast scoring is reinforced when the aggregate performance of opening batsmen for the eight major Test teams over the last ten years is graphed (NB this is based upon opening batsmen, not opening partnerships). Higher scoring rates are associated with higher averages. The line of best fit proposes that for every additional run per 100 balls, the batting average rises by 0.9 runs.

Moving to a comparison of strike rate by each position in the batting order for this period shows there is no common pattern across the Test teams. India and South Africa’s opening batsmen score faster than numbers 3-6. New Zealand’s innings pick up speed with the middle-order.

I posed myself the question, what is an opening batsman? The answer does not seem to lie in either orthodoxy of technique or attitude to risk. To try to pinpoint what is distinctive about opening batsmen, it’s important to consider exactly what they do that is different to others.

Opening batsmen begin each innings against the opposition’s bowling at its freshest. They face the new ball – firm and gleaming, which makes it bouncier and liable to movement off the seam and in the air. One in two Test matches they are the first to bat on the pitch prepared for the match. It can have moisture that makes the bowling lively, but it is unblemished and should offer predictable bounce. The start of an innings very nearly always brings tension: the first overs of a Test match, the start of a reply to a large total, the initial stages of a run chase or match-saving rearguard. Batsmen in other places in the order will have occasions when the match situation contributes little to the nerves they feel when starting an innings.

From these statements of fact, I propose the following as the elements that make a successful batsman an effective opener:

  • Experience of the role – the player who is brought up opening the batting and continues that role in the first-class game is well-placed to handle the pressure that goes with the role, at a greater intensity, in Test cricket.
  • Complement to their partner – left hand/right hand combinations are common because of the disruption it can cause to bowlers trying to establish the optimum line and length at the start of an innings. Another complementary pairing might be fast and slow scorer. Overall, I consider this to be the weakest factor of the four described here.
  • Not the best batsman in the team – the state of the bowling attack, ball and pitch all make opening the batting risky. It is in the team’s interest that its best batsmen are, if possible, held back until the initial push from the bowling side has abated.
  • Want the job – to rise to the challenge, the batsman should be willing. A reluctant opening batsman may cope less well with the pressure.

That is what I have concluded gets closest to defining an opening batsman. It is about having experience of the role, being a good fit to the other opener, being of the required standard but not the team’s star player and above all, an opening batsman needs to be a batter who wants to be an opener.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

6 responses to “What is an opening batsman?”

  1. Brian Carpenter says :

    I agree that there’s something in the idea that you have to ‘see yourself’ as an opener. Some players – even though they have the mental and technical qualities to open – just feel happier in the middle of the order, although in many cases it may just be down to where they started to bat when they were young.

    The subject came up on TMS at some stage in the first two Tests. I can’t remember the exact question or context, but Rahul Dravid (he was on with Agnew at the time) made it clear that he never really felt like or saw himself as an opener, evn though he did the job a few times in an emergency. And I think he might have touched on the fact that it may have been because he’d simply got used to batting at four when he was young.

    Another few names to consider when thinking about attacking openers are Herschelle Gibbs, and, from much further back in England, Colin Milburn (probably the exception that proves the rule about English conservatism). Also, from contemporary county cricket, keep an eye on the young Middlesex and Ireland opener Paul Stirling. I’ve only seen him a little, and he’s pretty average technically, but he hits the ball very hard. It’s perhaps hard to see him prospering at the highest level but people were saying that about Sehwag for years.

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, Dravid is certainly an authority to defer to on this subject. I had a twitter exchange with Shyam
      Balasubramanian, who pointed out that of India’s top four openers in Test history, only Gavaskar had started out as an opener. He speculates that there was less competition for the opening spots – and presumably a willingness on the selectors’ part to play quality players ‘out of position’.

      I had Gibbs on my list of lively openers but dropped him when I did the numbers. He’s the seventh blue square from the right on the first graph – a healthy, but not remarkable, strike rate of 57 (by comparison Graeme Smith’s SR is 60). He certainly could be a dasher, so it suggests he was able to adapt his game to the circumstances unlike, say, David Warner.

      I will look out for Stirling. Maybe he will continue Morgan’s example of Ireland introducing innovation to the England cricket team.

      Thanks and best wishes.

  2. backwatersman says :

    I suspect a lot of it is down to preference and habit – there are players who think of themselves as openers and would see it as an insult to their machismo almost if they were asked to move down the order – on the other hand there are those who don’t fancy facing the new ball and would rather come in later when the edge has been taken off the bowling a bit so they can bat more expansively (KP?). Cowdrey had a lot of the qualities to be a good opener, and did it quite successfully when he had to, but disliked it and avoided it if he could.

    Historically, Englands’s best batsmen (in the side at the time) have often been openers – Grace, Hobbs/Sutcliffe, Hutton, Boycott, Gooch, Atherton, Cook even – and they haven’t been that averse to experimenting with attacking openers, particularly when Boycott was at the other end – apart from Milburn, they tried Bob Barber, John Jameson and – a little later maybe Larkins (who, when he was on song and sober made Sehwag look like a tortoise).

    I think players can also become unprofitably stereotyped as openers. Matt Boyce has been playing for Leics as an opener for 5/6 years now and always seemed obliged to play defensively – as though his only role was to stay in and scratch around until the new ball had been seen off. He’s steadily averaged a little under 30 as an opener – but when he moved down the order last season he seemed to have more freedom to play his shots and started to make a lot more runs.

    • chrisps says :

      Very good to hear from you. I remember seeing a Gillette (or Nat West) Final in the early 1980s where Geoff Cook (solid, orthodox) won his place on the winter tour with a ton, at the expense of Wayne Larkins. The latter was selected for an Ashes tour a few years later, at Gooch’s insistence, I recall. His county average that summer hadn’t been above 30 and may have been closer to 20, which attracted a lot of comment.

      County cricket does still provide the space to try batsmen in different places in the order. I think another young E Midland batsman, Rob Newton, benefited like Boyce from a move down the order last season.

  3. Brian Carpenter says :

    Very surprised about Gibbs’ strike-rate. Cricinfo states 50.26 across his whole Test career. I was obviously guilty of thinking about his performances in one-day cricket (SR 83.26) and forgetting that he was more restrained in the longer game.

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