August 13, 2014

The complex art of picking openers

An opening pair requires good form and a happy blend of personalities to succeed. Perhaps Cook needs a new partner in the Strauss mould

Strauss and Cook are a hard act to follow for Cook and Robson © Getty Images

This is a series where both sides have played well, just not at the same time. It has been defined by the egregiously uneven nature of the contest: England were bad at Lord's, India even worse in Southampton and Manchester.

Symptomatic of these struggles is this run of figures: 33, 9, 49, 11, 22, 40, 12, 55, 17, 22, 26, 8, 21, 26. It is the chronological list of opening partnerships by England and India so far, and there's trouble at the top. There has been one stand of more than 50 - between Alastair Cook and Sam Robson in Southampton. which means that no innings from either side has begun from a position of strength. Between them, the five men to have opened this summer have batted 28 times for a return of one century and five fifties. Seventeen of those innings have resulted in scores of 25 or less.

Although two players, M Vijay and Cook, are averaging more than 40, only Vijay can really claim to have succeeded: his is the one century, and he has a 95 and one other half-century too. Cook made 165 runs at the Ageas Bowl and 54 from the other three matches. Shikhar Dhawan has flickered like a faulty bulb, his light extinguished each time it appeared to be coming on, while Robson has become so tightened by tension and fear that he can barely bat in any meaningful sense. The dimensions of his world have shrunk to mere survival. Poor old Gautam Gambhir pulled the really short straw - having had no cricket at all, he caught Stuart Broad and James Anderson at their very best in helpful conditions.

Opening partnerships are often emblematic of their teams. Stable sides barely have to think about them, and yet the chemistry is neither predictable nor repeatable. It is unique to each pair.

India and England are both trying to replace their most successful combinations. Cook and Andrew Strauss stand third on the all-time list of runs scored as an opening partnership - 4711 at 40.96, while Gambhir and Virender Sehwag lie fifth with 4412 at a spectacular 52.52. Yet there were few common reasons for their success, and their dynamics were wildly different.

Bowlers not only had to respond to Sehwag's immortal and irreducible credo of "See ball, hit ball", they had to adjust their line radically to trouble Gambhir. By contrast, Strauss and Cook not only stood the same way round, they had the same favourite shots: the cut, the pull, the clip off the pads. And yet they worked too.

Therein lies the dilemma of trying to find new openers. For a partnership to become established both need to be in reasonable form at the same time, and there must be a blend of personalities. England's problem with Nick Compton, for example, appears to be about temperament as much as technique.

It is a complex equation, made tougher in Cook's case by his duties as captain and the transition to becoming the senior partner in the pairing. The odds on his partnership with Robson survival are dropping. Aside from runs at The Oval, the schedule would seem to be its best hope. Test cricket disappears until the spring after that, and given the promise of all of the usual heartaches and traumas that visit England come the World Cup, a frictionless reintroduction in the West Indies may suit everyone. For now, the thought of him facing Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris next summer seems like car-crash viewing.

Cook has sought a like-for-like replacement for Strauss, but perhaps a new liaison with a shot-maker like Alex Hales or Adam Lyth would offer the captain a clean break with the past and a simple blueprint of how he himself should bat.

India meanwhile have found a player in Vijay, and given the conditions they have faced and the skill levels of Anderson and Broad, one out of two represents something of a result.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 14, 2014, 8:23 GMT

    Nick Compton is a very good player, but surely there are more compelling cases for others? . In his 12 Championship innings this year he has scored 651 runs at an average of 43.4. Alex Hales has 741 runs in eight games and an average of 52.9. Adam Lyth has 1013 at an average of 59.6 in 12 matches. Hales has the best strike rate of the three and Compton the worst. Lyth is the best fielder by a distance. Compton had a chance to establish himself as test opener, but failed to do so. For me, Lyth is next in line and should play, regardless of how many Robson might score on a flat Oval pitch against demoralised opposition.

  • Jonathan on August 13, 2014, 12:32 GMT

    Cook and Strauss - I wasn't keen on them as a pairing. Again, they were too similar.

    What Cook needs now - just as Strauss needed in the early part of his career - is an opening partner who will go for his shots as Trescothick did.

    Not another Cook, but another Banger (if you'll pardon the food metaphors)...

  • Dummy4 on August 13, 2014, 12:03 GMT

    When a batsman loses form like Robson what he can try to do is go forward as much as possible (front foot), it is difficult to do because there is risk of getting hit over the body if the delivery is not meant for front foot, also there could be various other kinds of complications by frequently going forward, but instead of meek surrendering again and again like this and getting out innings after innings like this it is better to go forward and try to neutralize the swing as much as possible. Currently doni seems to be the only batsman who tries go do this trick and try to neutralize that torturesome off stump line as much as possible with good success. But when a batsman is not in form sometimes no trick works, the way robson is playing it seems like he is totally out of form.

  • Tom on August 13, 2014, 10:02 GMT

    I remember the calls for Strauss to be dropped. Such an underrated player; I think there's an argument to be made that he was England's most important player of the last decade, even ignoring his captaincy. He's just spend most of his career overshadowed by Pietersen in the eyes of the media and the public. When he was out of the team in 2007-8, England were awful, and they've still failed to find a replacement after two years. Even when the runs dried up towards the end, he was still staying in for 40-odd balls and allowing Cook to get settled. His reputation for dourness is overstated, too - lest we forget, he won the MotM award for an ODI century in India where Tendulkar also got a hundred! Even in the 2005 Ashes where KP made his name, Strauss scored two centuries, including one to save the game at the Oval in the first innings.

    In any case, I hope England can work out their issues with Nick Compton, because I can't see where else another opener is coming from.

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