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Opening pairs in a slump

The average opening partnership has fallen significantly in the last three years, and in 2014 it's lower than the averages for all the other wickets except the ninth and the tenth

S Rajesh

August 8, 2014

Comments: 20 | Text size: A | A

Alastair Cook and Nick Compton were a pretty solid opening pair for England, but since Compton was dropped England have struggled at the top of the order © Getty Images

In the last 25 opening partnerships in Tests, there have been only two stands of 50 or more, with a highest of 70. The last seven read as follows: 21, 8, 24, 4, 26, 22, 17. The last century stand for the first wicket came 45 innings ago, when Chris Rogers and David Warner added 123 in Cape Town in March this year. Since that game, the average opening partnership in Tests has dropped to 28.07. In 2014 so far, there have been only five century partnerships for the first wicket. Clearly, these haven't been great times for opening pairs, and the malaise has extended to most teams in international cricket over the last three years.

In the 2000s, several teams had settled opening pairs. Australia had the solidity and flair of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, England had Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, and then Strauss and Alastair Cook, India were well-served by Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, while South Africa had Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs. At the same time, the 2000s was also a period when fast-bowling resources were a bit thin for most teams. The combination of the two resulted in a period that was bountiful for openers.

The opening partnership average between January 2001 and December 2010 was 41.36, which is more than the corresponding averages over all the previous decades going back to the 1950s. In the 1990s, when fast-bowling resources were more plentiful around the world, the average opening stand was about six runs fewer, with a century partnership every 13.4 innings. In the 2000s the frequency of century stands increased to one every 10.4 innings, but since 2011 it's dropped to one every 15.3 innings.

Opening partnership stats over the years
Period Inngs Average 100/ 50 stands
1951-1960 632 34.58 36/ 106
1961-1970 653 40.13 52/ 42
1971-1980 816 38.14 58/ 159
1981-1990 948 36.20 68/ 153
1991-2000 1327 35.25 99/ 212
2001-2010 1687 41.36 162/ 314
2011-Aug 7, 2014* 551 33.91 36/ 75
* Updated till the first innings of the Old Trafford Test between England and India

The team-wise stats for opening partnerships in these two periods - between 2001 and 2010, and since the start of 2011 - show which teams have slipped up over the last three-and-a-half years. Between 2001 and 2010, South Africa and Australia both had opening partnership averages of more than 50, while India were almost there as well. In the period since 2011, though, both South Africa and India have slipped by about 15 runs and landed up in the mid-30s, which is the most significant drop among all teams. Australia have slipped too, but their average of 42.61 is still better than all other teams during this period; between 2001 and 2010, four teams had a higher average than that. The other team which has slipped up quite significantly is England - from 46.58 to 36.90 - thanks to Strauss' retirement and Cook's poor form.

Team-wise stats for opening pairs, between 2001-10, and 2011-14
  2001-2010 2011-2014*
  Inngs Average 100/ 50 stands Inngs Average 100/ 50 stands
South Africa 193 52.21 24/ 42 52 37.52 5/ 6
Australia 218 51.54 26/ 54 71 42.61 8/ 15
India 201 49.64 30/ 37 63 33.44 3/ 9
England 241 46.58 29/ 56 78 35.90 5/ 11
Pakistan 152 37.32 12/ 29 52 31.60 5/ 5
West Indies 180 36.76 15/ 30 58 30.58 3/ 6
Sri Lanka 161 35.17 11/ 29 67 34.92 3/ 10
New Zealand 140 30.89 7/ 20 60 28.83 3/ 7
Bangladesh 132 26.40 4/ 14 30 25.40 0/ 4
Zimbabwe 67 23.88 4/ 3 20 27.60 1/ 2
* Updated till the first innings of the Old Trafford Test

In the ten years before 2011, there were seven pairs who batted together at least 20 times and averaged 50 or more; in all, there were only 17 pairs that opened 20 or more times, which shows how lucrative the opening position was then. Neil McKenzie and Smith were in smashing form, averaging more than 66, with 13 fifty-plus stands in 27 partnerships. Admittedly, the average was boosted significantly by a 415-run stand against Bangladesh in Chittagong, but even otherwise they were prolific at the top, getting century stands in India, England and Australia. Smith had a rollicking time at the top with two other partnerships as well - he averaged 56.28 with Gibbs, and 54.86 with AB de Villiers.

All three of those South African pairs are in the top four in the list below, and the one pair that squeezes in among them is India's Sehwag and Gambhir - they averaged 60.43 from 61 innings, with 29 stands of 50 or more. Fifty-one out of those 61 partnerships were in Asia, where they averaged 60.87. They didn't bat together much outside Asia, but one of their best stands was in the second innings of the Centurion Test in 2010, when they put together 137.

Hayden and Langer formed an outstanding partnership for Australia, averaging 51.88 in 113 innings, and after their departure Shane Watson and Simon Katich shone too in their briefer association, adding 1523 runs in 28 partnerships.

Top opening pairs in Tests between 2001 and 2010 (Qual: 20 p'ships)
Pair Inngs Runs Ave stand 100/ 50 p'ships
Neil McKenzie-Graeme Smith 27 1664 66.56 5/ 8
Gautam Gambhir-Virender Sehwag 61 3505 60.43 10/ 19
Herschelle Gibbs-Graeme Smith 56 2983 56.28 7/ 10
AB de Villiers-Graeme Smith 30 1646 54.86 4/ 6
Simon Katich-Shane Watson 28 1523 54.39 3/ 10
Andrew Strauss-Marcus Trescothick 52 2670 52.35 8/ 12
Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer 113 5655 51.88 14/ 24
Marcus Trescothick-Michael Vaughan 54 2487 48.76 6/ 15
Herschelle Gibbs-Gary Kirsten 29 1406 48.48 4/ 4
Alastair Cook-Andrew Strauss 86 3678 43.78 10/ 14

Since the beginning of 2011, the number of success stories have diminished considerably. Of the 18 pairs who've batted together at least ten times during this period, only two average more than 50 per partnership. One of them features a player who seems to have been discarded by his team's selectors: Nick Compton and Cook averaged 57.93 in 17 stands, with six 50-plus partnerships. In their last stand together, against New Zealand at Headingley, the pair added 72. Compton scored only seven of those runs though, and that coupled with his earlier failures - he'd scored only 47 in his previous five innings, but centuries in two successive innings before that - led England's selectors to believe that they could dispense with him. Since Compton was dropped England have struggled with their opening partnerships (though that's also because of Cook's loss of form): his ten stands with Joe Root have averaged 26.60, and ten with Michael Carberry has averaged 25. In 30 opening partnerships since Compton was dropped, there's been only one that exceeded 72 (which was the last stand between Cook and Compton) - 85 between Carberry and Cook in Perth last year.

Sri Lanka had a decent time with Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, averaging 50.84 in 13 innings, before Karunaratne was dropped following a string of innings when he failed to convert starts. The pair also got starts for the opening wicket each time they batted together in England, adding 54, 25, 37 and 40 in four innings. Most of the other pairs have had less success. India's Murali Vijay and Dhawan have averaged 42.47, but in 14 overseas innings they've averaged only 22.42, with a highest stand of 49. Gambhir and Sehwag averaged 15.16 from 12 overseas partnerships, compared to an overall average of 34.88 from 26 opening stands during this period.

Top opening pairs in Tests since Jan 2011 (Qual: 10 p'ships)
Pair Inngs Runs Ave stand 100/ 50 p'ships
Nick Compton-Alastair Cook 17 927 57.93 3/ 3
Dimuth Karunaratne-Kaushal Silva 13 661 50.84 2/ 2
Chris Rogers-David Warner 20 911 45.55 4/ 3
Ed Cowan-David Warner 28 1256 44.85 3/ 6
Chris Gayle-Kieran Powell 17 707 44.18 1/ 2
Shikhar Dhawan-Murali Vijay 17 722 42.47 1/ 1
Phil Hughes-Shane Watson 11 438 39.81 1/ 3
Alviro Petersen-Graeme Smith 38 1354 37.61 4/ 4
Tino Mawoyo-Vusi Sibanda 12 422 35.16 1/ 2
Tillakaratne Dilshan-Tharanga Paranavitana 19 668 35.15 1/ 4

The average partnership for each wicket in Tests in 2014 shows that the opening stand has done worse than all except the last two wickets © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

A comparison with the partnership stats for other wickets shows how drastic the fall has been for the opening partnership, even as the stats for other wickets have remained largely unchanged, or changed by a much smaller percentage. In 2014, the average opening stand is smaller than the stands for all other wickets except nine and ten, while in the period between 2011 and 2014 it's sixth among the ten wickets; in contrast, it was ranked fourth-best in the period between 2001 and 2010. Clearly, the openers need to raise their game.

Partnership stats for each wicket
  2011-2014 2001-2010
Wicket Inngs Average 100/ 50 stands Inngs Average 100/ 50 stands
1st 551 33.91 36/ 75 1687 41.36 162/ 314
2nd 542 39.78 48/ 109 1649 43.37 188/ 303
3rd 532 41.41 46/ 102 1610 45.71 192/ 293
4th 517 43.74 59/ 83 1577 44.63 188/ 288
5th 499 45.20 62/ 98 1524 40.20 156/ 259
6th 487 35.27 39/ 72 1465 38.41 112/ 273
7th 458 28.65 21/ 54 1404 28.62 60/ 175
8th 438 22.68 4/ 57 1337 22.57 32/ 118
9th 420 17.50 4/ 25 1276 17.93 9/ 97
10th 395 16.19 5/ 16 1181 13.81 7/ 38

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Posted by Dummy4 on (August 14, 2014, 17:52 GMT)

I have read numerous articles on debates about opening pairs and middle order, however, one of the greats, Sunny Gavaskar said, "give first hour of the day to the bowlers and rest of the day will be yours". When we talk about Sehwag, he has been like this from day one, his technique and style has nothing to do with T20. We have seen aggressive openers and steady batsmen as well in Hayden, Haynes and the likes of Gary Kirsten and David Gower. But its the temperament that puts them in a different league of their own. Look at the openers today, and we hardly see someone moving feet and anticipating the pace / swing of the ball. James Anderson, Steyn, Morkel, Peter Siddle, Junaid Khan, Zaheer Khan are all brilliant new ball bowlers, but the lack of support from other end puts their plans in jeopardy. Same ways it goes with batsmen, Cook might feel if he has a steady partner who plays well, then it could be England all the way in coming games against any given team.

Posted by Friend on (August 10, 2014, 2:31 GMT)

@Robert Henderson, are those names listed your colleagues? Because no one outside England and maybe Australia would know them. Fact is since the last 40 years or so England have not produced any batsman who averages over 50. England have not produced any bowler who averages below 25 either. These numbers are the cut-offs that separate the best from the rest. Even Sri Lanka have produced couple of batsmen who average above 50 in that period and one bowler who averaged in the low 20s. And people always criticize that India never produces good bowlers. Even though in the same period we produced Kapil, Srinath, and Zaheer. Bhuvi Kumar looks like he will get into that elite list too. He has better average and strike rate than any of the England bowlers. And he is only 24 and will only get better. If he played most of his tests in England he will probably end up with a better record than even your greats.

Posted by Friend on (August 9, 2014, 23:55 GMT)

@Chris_P, Rogers the best opener, hahahaha. Why don't you also say Steven Smith is the best batsman, Haddin is the best wicket keeper, and Lyon is the best spinner. lol. Rogers and Haddin are England bullies and that also only in their backyard. Take a look at Haddin's record other than England. It is laughable. This Rogers is also like that. He has scored mainly against England only and mainly at home. Let him play one test in the sub-continent and then we will see how he does. Since Oz fans think scoring in sub-continent is so easy, Rogers should have no problem. But history says otherwise. Oz just lose their previous series in India 0-4. They even lost to England away 0-3 just last year, rotfl. Funny Oz fans, they win one Ashes series at home and they think they are the best ever.

Posted by David on (August 9, 2014, 15:58 GMT)

One reason may be that stonewalling openers are now frowned upon (the likes of Nick Compton and Ed Cowan may feel slightly aggrieved to read these stats). With bowling attacks more moderate in the 2000s and pitches better prepared, the openers role has become less about taking the shine off the new ball than tacking the game to the opposition at the earliest opportunity - hence the rise of so many attacking openers at the same time - Langer, Hayden, Smith, Gibbs, Sehwag, Trescothick etc It's almost an extension of the rise of the pinch-hitter in the 50 over game in the 90s. The WI were the first to experiment with such a combination at test level when they briefly picked Wallace & Lambert c 1998 to open like one would in a 20 over game (though obviously such players also need a proper defensive technique against the best bowling). But I'd like to see players like Finch tried as test openers, and perhaps Hales for England (the latter need a more attacking foil for Cook).

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 9, 2014, 0:23 GMT)

Personally I think the DRS have made batsman play more balls then they would have liked, as well as bowlers are taking their chances by bowling more on the stumps.

Posted by Philip on (August 8, 2014, 23:52 GMT)

Chris_P - agree totally. Old school openers are now rare. Compton got the flick from England - don't know why. He wasn't great but he was serviceable. India won't open with Ashwin. Rogers nearly got a pension and a bus pass before he was given a second Test. But as for Gambhir currently, I'll quote a conversation I had the morning after his first innings (I hadn't seen it) - "Guess what happened to Gambhir" "Got caught I suppose ... for nothing or nothing much" "Yes, but where" "On the crease" "Yes, but where on the field?" "I dunno, gully I reckon" "Now, why would say that?". With apologies to Gambhir - I don't really mean to single him out. Dhawan hasn't done enough either and the idea proposed by some fellow Aussies that Warner and Finch should open together is a recipe for 0/100 in ten overs or 2/10 in ten overs.

Posted by Peter on (August 8, 2014, 19:52 GMT)

As some have pointed out, a falling down in technique due to T20 has got to be one of the main reasons. The most solid opener now is Rogers & he is from the old school. This is going to be an ongoing trend.

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 8, 2014, 19:15 GMT)

This just underlines the utter stupidity of dropping Nick Compton. Cook had an opening partner who delivered. Why didn't he fight for him? What's the real reason form discarding Compton?

Posted by Dummy4 on (August 8, 2014, 18:43 GMT)

Yep, 20/20'll do that to real cricket.

Posted by Joshua on (August 8, 2014, 18:27 GMT)

Openers have it the hardest in cricket, especially in Test cricket. For this reason I rate many openers over middle order batsmen. Gavaskar, Sehwag, Gooch, Boycott, Hayden, Langer, Smith, Greenidge and a few others are quite underrated. Many of the "great" middle order batsmen benefited from a solid opening partnership soaking up the initial pressure from the opposition's opening bowlers. They (these great middle order batsmen) are then given the best of the conditions when the ball is older than 40 overs, and take full advantage of the 1st & 2nd change seamers and the spinner before he is able to extract appreciable turn.

With quality in bowling in a serious decline since the 2003 world cup, and rule changes in favor of the batsmen,its not surprising to see so many #4 and #5 batsmen with 50+ averages. But we all know how these "modern greats" would struggle in the 80s and 90s. Unless they average 60 (Sanga is quite close), I wouldn't even mention these guys in a "greats" debate.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.

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