December 4, 2009

Opening dilemmas for Pakistan and New Zealand

The New Zealand-Pakistan series is a fascinating one for several reasons, one of them being the problems with the opening combination for both sides

The Test series between New Zealand and Pakistan has been a fascinating one for several reasons - conditions that had something in them for the bowlers, a fast bowler who returned to the Test fold after several years, a debutant who oozed class, and a Test match that went down to the wire. The series is also fascinating for something that's not quite as complimentary - the opening batting woes for both teams.

New Zealand's victory in the Dunedin Test glossed over the fact that they have some very serious problems to sort at the top of their order - the opening pair of Martin Guptill and Tim McIntosh added exactly zero runs in that match, and lasted precisely five deliveries in the two innings combined. New Zealand have historically had problems with their opening combination for a while now (since Mark Richardson retired, actually), but only once before have they sunk this low - against England at Edgbaston a decade earlier, they opened with Roger Twose and Matt Horne, and found themselves a wicket down in the first over of both innings without a run on the board.

Pakistan's plight wasn't as bad - though they've faced that ignominy four times in their Test history - but they weren't much better, with Khurram Manzoor and Imran Farhat putting together partnerships of 11 and 4.

New Zealand have stuck to the same pair for the second Test, but Pakistan have gone ahead and done what they do better than any other side - change the opening combination. The move paid off too in the first innings, with Farhat and Salman Butt staying together for more than 32 overs in testing conditions in Wellington. The pair have a mixed record in the nine innings in which they've batted together, but the fact that they've been paired up so many times is itself a bit of a surprise - since 2000, Pakistan have tried 41 different combinations to open in 146 innings, a shocking average of 3.56 innings per pair.

New Zealand are only slightly better. Leave aside Bangladesh, and their innings-per-pair number is the next lowest for the decade, with 29 different combinations being tried out to bat in 141 innings.

Pakistan's opening combinations have handled these upheavals at the top of the order much better than the New Zealanders, though: they average 37.86 per partnership, which is significantly higher than New Zealand's 29.28. Pakistan's stats, however, have been slightly propped up due to the runs scored against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - three out of 10 century stands have come against them. Exclude those two teams and the numbers are closer together - an average of 36.03 for Pakistan, and 30.40 for New Zealand. The top spot changes hands too, with Australia overtaking South Africa, who have five of their 22 century stands against them.

Opening partnerships by team in Tests in the 2000s
Team No. of pairs Inngs Average p'ship 100/ 50 stands Inngs per pair
South Africa 18 188 51.32 22/ 41 10.44
Australia 13 201 50.03 23/ 47 15.46
India 28 187 47.04 25/ 33 6.68
England 12 235 46.73 30/ 52 19.58
Pakistan 41 146 37.86 10/ 30 3.56
Sri Lanka 22 168 35.56 12/ 27 7.64
West Indies 25 193 35.28 13/ 34 7.72
New Zealand 29 141 29.28 6/ 17 4.86
Bangladesh 17 121 23.24 2/ 10 7.12
Zimbabwe 18 85 21.31 4/ 3 4.72

England and Australia have been the most stable teams of the lot. England have four pairs who've combined in 30 or more innings, with the current pair of Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss opening in 63 innings. Australia were well served by Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, with no other pair opening together for more than 25 innings during this decade.

The stats for Pakistan are a huge contrast to those two teams. The most that any pair has played together is 15 innings. Farhat and Taufeeq Umar did well during their association, averaging more than 50 and achieving a hat-trick of century stands against South Africa. Most of their success, though, came at home. Salman Butt had reasonable success with Yasir Hameed, their high point being a 102-run stand against Australia in Sydney. Saleem Elahi and Taufeeq had four half-century stands, but they opened together only eight times.

Pakistan pairs who've played 8 or more innings together
Pair Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
Imran Farhat-Taufeeq Umar 15 754 50.26 3/ 1
Salman Butt-Yasir Hameed 8 373 46.62 1/ 2
Saleem Elahi-Taufeeq Umar 8 300 42.85 0/ 4
Imran Farhat-Salman Butt 9 319 35.44 1/ 2
Imran Farhat-Mohammad Hafeez 13 377 31.41 0/ 1

Similarly, New Zealand too have five pairs who've opened in eight or more innings. Richardson and Bell averaged 65.50, with four 50-plus stands in eight innings, but Richardson's longest association was with Lou Vincent - they opened in 19 innings and averaged more than 41. The current pair of Guptill and McIntosh doesn't inspire much confidence, though - in 10 innings the highest they've managed is 45, and their average is a mediocre 18.40. The Dunedin Test was their lowest point; from New Zealand's point of view, the Wellington Test will hopefully see them in a completely different light.

New Zealand pairs who've played 8 or more innings together
Pair Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands
Matthew Bell-Mark Richardson 8 524 65.50 2/ 2
Mark Richardson-Lou Vincent 19 745 41.38 2/ 2
Matt Horne-Mark Richardson 12 320 26.66 1/ 1
Jamie How-Aaron Redmond 14 373 26.64 0/ 2
Martin Guptill-Tim McIntosh 10 184 18.40 0/ 0

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo