Openers November 23, 2009

Destroyers and others

The candidates for the openers' slots are two firebrand attackers and three more conventional batsmen

Ask any selector and he will tell you that picking a pair of openers is one of the most difficult tasks. In their pre-Test years Sri Lanka (or All Ceylon as it was known then) had some famous pairs, among them MK Albert and LDS Gunasekera (who were called Sri Lanka's Hobbs and Sutcliffe), followed by Dr C Balakrishnan and Dr Nihal Gurusinghe, TCT Edwards and Mano Ponniah, and Sunil Wettimuny and Bandula Warnapura.

After the country's elevation to Test status in 1981, they initially struggled to find a suitable pair of openers who could provide a substantial platform for their array of middle-order stroke-makers to make capital use of. It was not until the nineties that Sri Lanka eventually found a reliable pair to provide good starts and enable the middle order to stabilise the innings, when Sanath Jayasuriya paired successfully with Marvan Atapattu. They have to date been the most successful pair of openers produced by the country in its short Test history, although individually there have been others who were impressive, but had to team up with several different partners.

Following closely in their footsteps is Tillakaratne Dilshan, who has taken modern cricket by storm with his improvised batting, which has fielding sides scratching their heads in search of answers to his mode of play.

The contenders

Marvan Atapattu
A technically correct batsman, his first six innings in Test cricket yielded five ducks and a 1. But those runs were made as a middle-order batsman. The full potential of Atapattu was realised when he was promoted to open the innings, from which position he reeled off 16 Test centuries, eight of them over the 150 mark. Atapattu also served as captain, and ended his career amid controversy, after he labelled the national selectors "a set of muppets headed by a joker", albeit as a successful batsman, with a Test career average of nearly 40.

Sanath Jayasuriya
With opening partner Romesh Kaluwitharana, Jayasuriya revolutionised one-day-international batting, approaching the first 15 overs as one would the last 15. This mode of attack enabled Sri Lanka to win the World Cup in 1996, and went on to become the standard batting strategy in ODIs. Few thought Jayasuriya would be able to transfer that method to the longer game, but he proved his critics wrong, scoring a massive 340 against India in a partnership of 576 with Roshan Mahanama for the second wicket. Renowned for his powerful cuts and pulls and his trademark lofted cut over cover, he was the most destructive opening batsman produced by Sri Lanka. Jayasuriya ended his Test career averaging 40, and slightly more as an opener.

Roshan Mahanama
The tragedy of Mahanama was that through his international career he never held a permanent place in the batting order for long, which eventually led to him quitting the game rather prematurely. Primarily a top-order batsman, he served his country with distinction as an opener, scoring over 2000 runs in 41 Tests.

Sidath Wettimuny
A grafter of runs who scored his country's first Test century, a six-hour 157 in Faisalabad, and a monumental 190 in 11 hours on his first appearance at Lord's, which made him the first Sri Lankan to make it to Wisden' Five Cricketers of the Year. A strong off-side player, he never mastered home pitches, averaging a poor 18.19 in comparison with his batting average of 39.95 overseas.

Tillakaratne Dilshan
Not as destructive as Jayasuriya, Dilshan has more or less fit into the great man's position as opener after languishing in the middle order for more than half his career. Dilshan's promotion to opener, from the lower middle order, has brought many riches to the Sri Lanka side. Like Atapattu, his potential was not realised until he was pushed into the position, where he has established himself as a permanent fixture in all three formats of the game. It was in the last World Twenty20 that he carved a niche for himself with an improvised shot where he flicked the ball over the wicketkeeper's head.

We'll be publishing an all-time Sri Lanka XI based on readers' votes to go with our jury's XI. To pick your openers click here