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Australia's search for opening glory

Their opening combination used to be the best in the business, but over the last couple of years they have flagged a bit

S Rajesh

November 16, 2012

Comments: 24 | Text size: A | A

David Warner takes off for a run, West Indies v Australia, 3rd Test, Roseau, 1st day, April 23, 2012
David Warner had a great start to his Test career, but his last few innings haven't been as prolific © AFP
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Ed Cowan's 136 in the Brisbane Test against South Africa was a key one for both player and team. For Cowan himself, the century answered questions that had been raised about his place in the side after his ordinary series in the West Indies: in the previous eight innings he had passed 50 only once, and barely at that, scoring 55 in Roseau. In the context of the match, the Brisbane knock steadied Australia after a faltering start to their innings. More importantly, especially given the manner in which he constructed his innings, it's a step forward in Australia's search for a long-term opener.

When Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer were around, Australia's openers were easily the best among all teams. In the period between 2001 and 2009, Australia's openers averaged 51.43; the next-best average belonged to South Africa, 46.42. (These are the combined batting averages of the openers, not the average opening partnership.) In 386 Test innings, the Australian top two batsmen scored 58 hundreds - an average of 6.6 innings per century; the next-best century rates belonged to South Africa (8.4 innings) and England (8.8).

In the last two and a half years, though, the stats for Australia's opening batsmen have fallen away: since July 2010, in 88 innings their average has dropped to 34. Four teams have done better than that during this period, with England and South Africa averaging more than 40. Their rate of innings per century has dropped even more significantly - from one every 6.6 innings to one every 17.6. England have managed one every 8.2 innings, South Africa one every 6.9. The problem for Australia's openers has also been their conversion rate: five hundreds out of 20 scores of 50-plus (four out of 19 before Cowan's Gabba effort). England and South Africa have far better conversion rates.

Team-wise averages of opening batsmen in Tests since July 2010 (Qual: 20 innings)
Team Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
England 90 3763 43.75 11/ 14
South Africa 62 2435 41.98 7/ 11
India 102 3608 36.81 7/ 21
Pakistan 94 3022 34.73 6/ 13
Australia 88 2891 34.01 5/ 15
Sri Lanka 88 2749 33.52 5/ 16
New Zealand 62 1865 30.42 3/ 11
West Indies 80 2238 28.32 4/ 11
Bangladesh 22 599 27.22 0/ 4

However, while Australia's openers haven't got big runs individually, together they've got the team off to decent starts, averaging 38.56 runs per completed partnership, which is better than the averages for all teams except South Africa. Between 2001 and 2009, they averaged 52.50, which still wasn't good enough to win them top spot. (On another note, four teams averaged more than 47 during that period, while none have topped that mark in the last two and a half years, which suggests batsmen - especially those at the top of the order, haven't had it all their way recently.)

England's combined batting average for openers is high - thanks to Alastair Cook - but their average partnership drops to 36.53, largely due to Andrew Strauss' relatively poor form during much of this period: he averaged 32.39 to Cook's 56.14. England's partnership average is lower than Sri Lanka's, even though the combined averages of their openers is about ten runs higher. That also indicates that both of England's openers haven't often scored runs together.

Australia's openers have also been pretty consistent, though they haven't put together huge starts like some of the other sides have. In 44 partnerships during this period they've only managed two century stands, while England have four in 45 and India five in 51. However, Australia also have 13 partnerships of 50-plus, which means once in three tries they've given the team a start of at least 50 runs. For England, on the other hand, that ratio drops to one stand of 50-plus every five innings.

Team-wise average opening stands in Tests since July 2010 (Qual: 10 partnerships)
Team Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
South Africa 31 1368 45.60 4/ 5
Australia 44 1697 38.56 2/ 13
India 51 1924 38.48 5/ 9
Sri Lanka 44 1577 37.54 2/ 11
England 45 1644 36.53 4/ 5
Pakistan 47 1493 33.17 4/ 8
New Zealand 31 1019 32.87 3/ 3
West Indies 40 1146 28.65 4/ 2
Bangladesh 11 266 24.18 0/ 1

Though Australia's average opening partnership is pretty decent, none of the Australians who've opened the batting during this period has an average of 40 or more, which should be a cause for concern. David Warner comes close, but after a bright start he has scored only 211 in his last nine innings, which has diminished his overall average to 39.60. Cowan's graph is moving in the opposite direction after his Gabba century, but he needs to string together more such performances.

Much has been written and said about Shane Watson's contribution as a batsman, but his numbers as a Test opener in the last two and a half years aren't all that impressive. In 27 innings he has scored only one century, which was two years ago in India. His inability to convert fifties into hundreds has also hampered his, and Australia's, overall opening numbers. Phil Hughes is the other batsman who has had a go at the top of the order, but his technical flaws have been exposed far too often.

Australian openers in Tests since July 2010
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Shane Watson 27 952 36.61 1/ 7
David Warner 17 594 39.60 2/ 1
Ed Cowan 13 494 38.00 1/ 3
Phil Hughes 19 457 24.05 1/ 1
Simon Katich 12 394 32.83 0/ 3

Overall, there are six openers who have scored 400-plus runs at 40-plus averages since July 2010, but only two of them average more than 45, which is again an indication of the relatively tough times for opening batsmen recently. One of those two batsmen, Chris Gayle, has played only nine innings to achieve that average, and 333 of his 620 runs came in one innings, against Sri Lanka in Galle. Cook is the only opener who has been consistently prolific during this period, with eight hundreds in 45 innings and an average exceeding 56. None of the Australian batsmen figure among these six, but if a couple of them sneak their way in over the next couple of Tests against South Africa, they will have done their team, and themselves, a huge favour.

Highest averages for openers in Tests since July 2010 (Qual: 400 runs)
Batsman Innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s
Chris Gayle 9 620 77.50 2/ 1
Alastair Cook 45 2358 56.14 8/ 7
Alviro Petersen 23 968 44.00 3/ 3
Graeme Smith 30 1177 43.59 4/ 6
Virender Sehwag 41 1732 43.30 4/ 11
Mohammad Hafeez 35 1282 41.35 3/ 5

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

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Posted by NotU on (November 17, 2012, 13:25 GMT)

Australian openers in Tests since July 2010, notice a common thread running through them? Give you a hint, that thread is blue.

Posted by RJHB on (November 17, 2012, 2:46 GMT)

The thing is, what we're experiencing right now with average stats and just average batsmen (in terms of world class level) is much more the norm than what we'd had for so long in Australia. I think it just demonstrates even further what a magnificent generation of cricketers we had in this country for 15 years or so, not just at international level but the backup at Shield level too. As with the Windies, its a shock when the supply of greats runs out because unlike some teams, we can't just go and poach players from South Africa and call em our own!

Posted by   on (November 17, 2012, 2:28 GMT)

@ swervin

here is a little fact for you about hilfy, he is the current leading wicket taker for australia this year....

Posted by Timmuh on (November 17, 2012, 2:11 GMT)

The problem with Warner is not his match-winning potential, but his high failure ratio. In 50% of Test innings he has scored less than 20 over 10 Tests (that is excluding a not out under 20). Being a quick scorer, that means that the number three is in against the new ball very often. If his opening partner also fails, the middle order is exposed to the new ball - part of an opener's job is to avoid that. Cowan's failure rate is also high, higher than I thought, but is under 50% and he hasn't had quite the same amount chances yet (plus, of course, is coming off a century).

I would not be dumping Warner yet, but consistent starts are arguably a better return than consistent failures with the occasional sparkling innings. I can see the possibility of a Watson, Cowan, Quiney, Clarke, Hussey, Khawaja top six by the end of the series against Sri Lanka. Warner and Ponting might well save themselves though.

Posted by   on (November 17, 2012, 1:14 GMT)

My assessment of Australia's top 3 over the past 12 months is - Watson, failing to fully realise potential but the best player and a worthy long-term option; Cowan, a trier but limited; Warner, overrated and without the necessary FC batting credentials to warrant his selection; Quiney, a serviceable FC player but it remains to be seen whether he's good enough; Khawaja, should have been picked above all the others except Watson and may still get his chance. Each of these players has made the odd good score (e.g. Cowan's excellent 100 in Gabba test) but that does not mean they are going to be a long term good test cricketer. Makes you wonder why Katich was dropped.

Posted by   on (November 17, 2012, 0:36 GMT)

@sawifan, Cowan held the innings together when we were 3/40, do you remember what Australia went on to make? If he'd fallen cheaply and it was 4/50 or something, might have changed the way Clarke had to approach his innings, perhaps brought about a couple more wickets and we might not have even made 250. It wasn't a match winning hundred as such, but had he fallen in the 30s, you might have seen a South Africa win.

Posted by BG4cricket on (November 16, 2012, 23:40 GMT)

@timmyw - Quiney was the domestic player of the year last season and he has scored consistently well in all formats of the game over the past 18 months and that alongside his demeanour is why he has got a chance, especially after a very good 85 for Australia A when the game was really on. Khawaja was asked to address 3 things - converting starts (getting there but not quite as lots of starts this year), develop a few more shots for a more rounded wagon wheel (huge progress and success here) and rotate the strike better (still needs work as he has a large boundary ratio) - but he is showing good progress and is probably next in line. Bear in mind that Warner had very little behind him when he started so Quiney is more justifiable that his selection originally was.

Posted by swervin on (November 16, 2012, 23:36 GMT)

if ponting does score runs soon he'll either be sacked or retire - when watson comes back you put him at three and then bring in quiney or khawaja or whoever's looking good to replace ponting when he goes - certainly it is better to stick it out with warner and cowan for a bit longer and see how they go - it is very encouraging what they have achieved to date even though they have been a bit inconsistent - warner is the goods definitely - on the bowling side, hilfy seems to have trouble getting wickets but at least he is economical i suppose he's under the most pressure - siddle and pattinson (and harris before then) have been great for the team and are the kind of players you want...

Posted by   on (November 16, 2012, 21:58 GMT)

give Warner a break I say. He was benched in south Africa for the t20 competition. He hasn't really had a chance to get in his groove yet. I say rest watson because if his still under an injury cloud you shouldn't go into a test with the possibility of losing a player. look what happened to South Africa once they lost duminy.

Posted by R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (November 16, 2012, 21:53 GMT)

Why so many articles about Aus this series? SA were behind in the first game... I don't see any other opening combo tearing up the test cricket arena at the moment for any country. For Aus I would have liked to see Katich given a longer run opening. His dropping was harsh...

Posted by   on (November 16, 2012, 17:50 GMT)

It was blamed that Indian opener failed to score big and both of them are under bad patch... But both the lists comparing teams does not give that idea truly.. India is in third position on both lists...

Posted by Stark62 on (November 16, 2012, 17:04 GMT)

If your opening average is below that of Pak openers, then you really are lost in the abyss.

Anyway, Warner was phenomenal against Ind last year because their pace attack is almost like playing spin bowlers (except they can't turn the ball) but he has been found out against better quality fast bowlers.

Why not get Ponting to open? Might as well take a risk, since his form has been abysmal.

Also, Cook is by far the best opener out there!!

Posted by timmyw on (November 16, 2012, 15:32 GMT)

I have been wracking my brain. Pondering vociferously. For the life of me I don't understand why Quiney is in the team. What has that bloke done to be a test no.3? I've no idea. I don't care how old Rogers is I would very much like to see him opening the batting for Australia. Be nice to see Khawaja play too.

Posted by Vindaliew on (November 16, 2012, 15:17 GMT)

So much has been made of Watto's inability to convert 50s into 100s, but how many Aussie opening bats since Hayden and Langer could even score 50s regularly? Watto provided stability and aggression at the top, and if he could score regular 50s with only the occasional 100 he would still serve Australia better than some of the other options.

Posted by sawifan on (November 16, 2012, 14:44 GMT)

I am not biased either way, but i cant understand, that after Cowan has played exactly '0' matching winning/ (almost saving) innings in only 4 less innings than Warner, who has already played 2 innings of note, is now in front? I like Cowan, but his ton is Brisbane was not even close to both of Warner's tons in match importance. For me, both Warner and Cowan stay, Quiney might well for a series or two, but judging my his record, he'll be another Marcus North... and everyone hated him!

If u look at stats for batsmen, often batsmen who start earlier have a better test average than their 1st class average, while this in the reserve for older batsman. From this i believe we are better off trying these young guys, than trying older guys that patch a whole for a series...

Posted by RandyOZ on (November 16, 2012, 14:25 GMT)

Hughes, Khawja and Cowan looking like the best candidates. Forget Quiney.

Posted by CricketMaan on (November 16, 2012, 13:17 GMT)

Good Lord! I want to see Warner playing in Delhi (now that the venues are announced). I still remember that jibe Kholi took at him 'Come to Delhi'..would be fantastic to see.

Posted by Big_Maxy_Walker on (November 16, 2012, 13:17 GMT)

you cant take a player like warner into the 10 ashes tests. 9/10 he is a cheap wicket, consistentcy and reliabitlity are needed more than big hitting as a test opener. my openers would be cowan/watson when shanes healthy, and cowan/quiney now

Posted by CricketMaan on (November 16, 2012, 12:54 GMT)

Why not M Hussey? Even if it means only for short term, and what about Cosgrove? is he that old?

Posted by sony_sr on (November 16, 2012, 12:50 GMT)

warners technique is not upto the mark for surviving against world class fast/swing bowling. he may tear apart ordinary bowling like we saw in perth against india. but will fail on most of the occasions against teams like eng/sa whoch have world class opening bowlers.

it will be better for aus selectors to go with 2 guys who are technically more perfect in the long run.

Posted by   on (November 16, 2012, 7:56 GMT)

stick with warner , he is the best we have available, even if he is a bit out of touch right now

Posted by Paul_Rampley on (November 16, 2012, 6:45 GMT)

Long term the top batsman with the best techniques in Australia are Cowan, Khawaja and Doolan. I think Khawaja should be bought in as the opener or number 3 if Aus fails to find candidates for this position, he is the leading shield scorer this year and always felt he was a bit unlucky to be dropped.

Posted by dsig3 on (November 16, 2012, 4:41 GMT)

All opening pairs in world cricket are pretty ordinary at the moment. I dont think the problems are limited to australia.

Posted by Meety on (November 16, 2012, 3:51 GMT)

It was an aye opener to see our batting average for the opening batsmen was below Pakistan!

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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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