The Friday column January 28, 2005

Pakistan's opening conundrum, and Zim's super keepers

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it

Perhaps numbers never do reveal the full story, but they tell a large part of it. Every Friday, The Numbers Game will take a look at statistics from the present and the past, busting myths and revealing hidden truths:

Pakistan's top-order woes
Pakistan haven't had too much cause for celebration on their tour of Australia, but one of their few gains has been the emergence of a quality opener. Salman Butt did enough in the three Tests against a star-studded bowling attack to suggest that Pakistan might have found a possible replacement for Saeed Anwar at last. Butt scored 225 runs in the three Tests, including a fluent 108 in the final match, at Sydney.

Over the last six years, Pakistan's batting has generally been their Achilles heel, and the problems have started right at the top of the order, with the openers being changed at the blink of an eyelid: in the last 54 Tests, Pakistan have tried out a shocking 27 different opening partnerships - that's exactly two matches per pair. As the table below shows, Pakistan's opening pair has been by far the least stable of all the Test-playing nations': even Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have given their openers a marginally longer run, as have India, despite their struggles at the top of the order in the last few years.

On the other hand, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and England have all had fairly settled first-wicket pairs, and the numbers show why: each of these four teams average more than 40 per opening partnership, with Australia leading the way with 50.29.

Opening stats
since 1999
Tests Different pairs Average p'ship Matches per pair
Australia 74 6 50.29 12.33
England 75 11 43.89 6.82
Sri Lanka 60 9 41.19 6.67
South Africa 68 13 49.91 5.23
West Indies 69 17 36.12 4.06
New Zealand 54 18 35.30 3.00
India 62 20 37.06 2.82
Bangladesh 36 13 21.42 2.77
Zimbabwe 44 16 21.75 2.75
Pakistan 54 27 38.77 2.00

Pakistan have generally struggled to find a successful combination, but there was one pair which lasted a relatively long time, and achieved a fair degree of success - Imran Farhat and Taufeeq Umar played together 15 times and ran up 754 runs at an impressive average of 50.27 per innings. Their golden run came in the home series against South Africa in 2003-04, when they put together three consecutive hundred-plus stands. However, Pakistan's selectors then showed the kind of impatience that has prevented the side from acquiring a settled feel - Umar had a lean series against India, and instead of looking at it as a brief slump and persisting with him, he was promptly dumped. Umar wasn't the first to be given short shrift after a brief sparkle - Mohammad Hafeez, Wajahatullah Wasti, Naved Latif and Imran Nazir have all been dubbed the next big hope for Pakistan's top order, only to be discarded within a year. Will Salman Butt buck the trend?

Zimbabwe's super glovemen
Zimbabwe have generally been the bottom-rungers in most departments in international cricket - at least before the advent of Bangladesh - but here's one stat in which they come out right on top: their wicketkeepers are more prolific with the bat in one-dayers than keepers from any other side. As the table below shows, Zimbabwe is the only team where the keepers average more than 30.

Tatenda Taibu, the latest in charge behind the stumps, continues a tradition started by Dave Houghton, and carried forward by Andy Flower. Houghton averaged 33.50 in the 12 one-dayers in which he played as a wicketkeeper, while Flower made 34.73 runs per innings in his 185 matches in that capacity. Taibu isn't quite up there yet, averaging only 26.45, but those numbers are likely to look better by the time he finishes his career.

Wicketkeepers in ODIs NO. of keepers Average 100s/ 50s
Zimbabwe 6 32.75 5/ 54
Australia 19 27.54 10/ 53
Sri Lanka 19 25.47 3/ 53
England 19 24.31 4/ 32
South Africa 8 22.27 0/ 16
India 20 21.89 4/ 23
West Indies 11 21.54 0/ 23
Pakistan 17 20.69 1/ 21
New Zealand 17 20.03 2/ 21
Bangladesh 6 17.69 0/ 5

S Rajesh is assistant editor of Cricinfo.