The best first-wicket combinations August 29, 2011

The opening salvo

How do Hobbs and Sutcliffe compare to Greenidge and Haynes? A look at the most durable combinations who opened the batting in Test cricket

When Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe batted at the top of the order for the first time for England in 1924, only one opening pair had managed to put together more than 1000 runs. Hobbs had been a part of that association as well, scoring 2146 partnership runs with Wilfred Rhodes at a fantastic average of 61.31. Thus, the bar had already been set high, but over the next six years Hobbs and Sutcliffe would raise it higher still.

In their first innings together, at Edgbaston, they put together 136 for the opening wicket in a match England won by an innings and 18 runs. In the next game, at Lord's, they added 268, which at the time was the second-highest opening stand in Test cricket.

Over the next six years the pair had phenomenal success. By the time they batted together for the last time at the top of the order, against Australia at The Oval in 1930, they had amassed 3249 runs - a record for opening pairs at the time - at the staggering average of 87.81, with 15 century partnerships in 38 innings, which works out to an average of one every two and a half innings.

Other pairs came along later and scored more runs, but none, till today, have scored them at such a prolific rate. Among opening partners who've scored more than 3000 partnership runs, the average achieved by Hobbs and Sutcliffe remains about 44% better than the next-best pair (Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson, average 60.94). Only one opening pair has more century partnerships - Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, with 16, but they batted together 148 times to achieve it.

How best to judge Hobbs-Sutcliffe among the other great opening pairs in Test cricket? There are eight others who've scored more than 3000 runs, with averages ranging from 61 to 40. Greenidge and Haynes till a week ago held the record for most Test runs by any pair of batsmen. Their average stand is relatively low, but is that partly because they faced better bowlers? Were the amounts of runs scored during any of those periods that these nine pairs played in much higher than in other periods?

The table below considers two things. First, the average partnership for all wickets in all Tests for each of the periods that these pairs played in, and then a comparison of each pair's average stand against that. So, for instance, during the period that Hobbs-Sutcliffe opened the batting, the average partnership across all wickets in all Test matches was 35.33, which means Hobbs-Sutcliffe were 2.49 times better than the average partnership. That's easily the best ratio among all nine pairs - they're about 35% better than the second-best, Bill Lawry-Bob Simpson. The Indian pair of Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan climb up to third place in this ranking, ahead of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, despite a lower average, because the average partnership during the Gavaskar-Chauhan era was about three runs lower than in the current age, where bat dominates ball. The overall partnership average was, in fact, highest during the Hobbs-Sutcliffe era, but the numbers in today's age aren't much lower.

This takes care of the overall batting numbers during each period, but it doesn't answer the argument that certain pairs from stronger teams were privileged because they racked up those numbers without having to face their own bowling attacks. Hence there's the column that looks at opening partnerships during the period in which the pair played, against all teams except their own. That works well for most pairs, but not for Hobbs-Sutcliffe, as England were involved in every Test match played during that period. During the period in which Hobbs and Sutcliffe were openers, England had 13 other pairs who opened the batting, and the overall average stand in all the Tests that England played during this period was 61.16.

That average is largely because of the outstanding numbers from Hobbs-Sutcliffe, which means their ratio diminishes because of their own brilliance, but it works in other cases. Take, for instance, Mark Taylor and Michael Slater: during the period in which they opened, the average opening stand against all teams other than Australia was 35.41, while Slater-Taylor averaged 51.14, a ratio of 1.44. Matthew Hayden-Justin Langer averaged marginally more, but in an era when openers generally did well against teams other than Australia. Their ratio thus falls, as do the ones for Sehwag-Gambhir and Alastair Cook-Andrew Strauss, because they've all prospered in an era that has been relatively good for opening batting.

Openers with 3000+ partnership runs
Pair Innings Runs Average 100/ 50 stands Overall ave* Ratio Opening stand ave^ Ratio
Hobbs-Sutcliffe 38 3249 87.81 15/ 10 35.33 2.49 61.16 1.44
Lawry-Simpson 62 3596 60.94 9/ 18 33.23 1.83 38.40 1.59
Chauhan-Gavaskar 59 3010 53.75 10/ 10 31.98 1.68 38.03 1.41
Gambhir-Sehwag 65 3562 57.45 10/ 19 34.96 1.64 40.56 1.42
Slater-Taylor 78 3887 51.14 10/ 16 31.59 1.62 35.41 1.44
Hayden-Langer 113 5655 51.88 14/ 24 34.66 1.50 42.89 1.21
Greenidge-Haynes 148 6482 47.31 16/ 26 32.59 1.45 38.11 1.24
Cook-Strauss 97 4147 43.65 11/ 16 35.17 1.24 41.28 1.06
Atapattu-Jayasuriya 118 4469 40.26 9/ 24 33.13 1.22 38.25 1.05
* The overall average partnerships for all wickets in all Tests during the period in which the pair played
^ Opening partnerships during the period in which the pair played, against all teams except their own

Another pair that misses the 3000-run cutoff, but which deserves an honourable mention, is Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook. In 51 innings they put together 2880 at an average of 60, with eight century stands.

The Hobbs-Sutcliffe combination soars above the rest on just about any parameter. In only 38 innings they had 15 century stands, an average of 2.53 innings per century partnership. The next-best among these nine pairs is Gavaskar-Chauhan, with an average of 5.9 innings per hundred partnership. Gambhir-Sehwag and Lawry-Simpson are the only others who average less than seven, while Greenidge-Haynes averaged 9.25.

The failure rate for Hobbs-Sutcliffe was also remarkably small: in 38 innings, only six times was their partnership terminated for less than 20, which works out to less than 16% of the total innings when they batted together. Greenidge-Haynes, on the other hand, had 60 partnerships of less than 20 (excluding not-outs), out of their 148 stands, a percentage of 40.54, while for the Sri Lankan pair of Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya, it was more than 44.

The standard deviation for each of these pairs measures how close each partnership was to its average. Dividing the average by this standard deviation gives a measure of the consistency of a pair. Hobbs-Sutcliffe are again way out in front, with many of the other pairs bunched together.

More comparisons among the nine opening pairs
Pair Inngs 100 stands Inng/100 p'ship Average Std dev Ave/ SD P'ships<20 (%)
Hobbs-Sutcliffe 38 15 2.53 87.81 68.67 1.28 6 (15.79)
Gambhir-Sehwag 65 10 6.50 57.45 54.20 1.06 24 (36.92)
Chauhan-Gavaskar 59 10 5.90 53.75 53.45 1.01 23 (38.98)
Slater-Taylor 78 10 7.80 51.14 54.56 0.94 28 (35.90)
Lawry-Simpson 62 9 6.89 60.94 65.40 0.93 17 (27.42)
Cook-Strauss 97 11 8.82 43.65 47.66 0.92 37 (38.14)
Hayden-Langer 113 14 8.07 51.88 57.26 0.91 39 (34.51)
Greenidge-Haynes 148 16 9.25 47.31 53.14 0.89 60 (40.54)
Atapattu-Jayasuriya 118 9 13.11 40.26 49.77 0.81 52 (44.07)

The home-away stats for these openers bring out more contrasts than the standard deviation. Most pairs have done better at home, which is as you'd expect, and a couple - most notably Cook and Strauss - have done better overseas, but the biggest surprise is the difference in home and away partnership averages for Greenidge-Haynes. In 65 partnerships at home they averaged more than 65, with 10 century stands, which included three double-hundreds. However, overseas the average dropped to a below-par 35.51, with only six century stands in 85 innings. Breaking it up further, in Australia they managed only one three-figure partnership in 28 innings, while they fared slightly better in England, with two century stands in 19 tries. The subcontinent was the toughest of the lot for Greenidge and Haynes - in 26 innings they averaged 28.65. Pakistan's fast bowlers, especially, clearly had the better of them in home conditions, allowing them only 207 runs in 10 partnerships.

Greenidge and Haynes clearly preferred home conditions, but for Cook and Strauss the opposite seems true - their home average is seven less than their overseas one. For Gavaskar and Chauhan, it didn't seem to matter much if they played home or away - they're the only pair whose averages differed by less than one. They didn't enjoy Australian conditions much either, averaging 41.30 in 13 innings, but they more than made up for it in England, scoring 453 runs in seven innings.

The two post-1990 Australian pairs in this list, Slater-Taylor and Hayden-Langer, have similar home and away stats, and both were less than comfortable in the subcontinent: in 18 innings, Hayden-Langer averaged 39.33, while Slater-Taylor averaged 37.27 in as many innings.

Home and away stats for these nine opening pairs
Pair Home - runs Average 100/ 50 stands Away - runs Average 100/ 50 stands Ave diff
Cook-Strauss 2230 40.54 5/ 10 1917 47.92 6/ 6 -7.38
Lawry-Simpson 1604 59.40 4/ 8 1992 62.25 5/ 10 -2.85
Chauhan-Gavaskar 1402 53.92 5/ 5 1608 53.60 5/ 5 0.32
Atapattu-Jayasuriya 2629 41.07 5/ 14 1840 39.14 4/ 10 1.93
Hayden-Langer 3308 56.06 9/ 12 2347 46.94 5/ 12 9.12
Gambhir-Sehwag 2243 62.30 7/ 11 1319 50.73 3/ 8 11.57
Hobbs-Sutcliffe 2047 93.04 9/ 8 1202 80.13 6/ 2 12.91
Slater-Taylor 2193 57.71 7/ 9 1694 44.57 3/ 7 13.14
Greenidge-Haynes 3534 65.44 10/ 14 2948 35.51 6/ 12 29.93

The first instalment of this series featured the West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. Opening the batting against them would have clearly been perhaps the toughest task in international cricket at the time. So to finish this piece, here's a look at the opening pairs who had the unenviable task of facing those bowlers most often, and how they fared against them.

Among the pairs who played the West Indian pace attack at least eight times in the period mentioned below, the one with the best average was Michael Atherton-Alec Stewart. In nine innings they averaged 46.11, despite three ducks. That's because they also had two century stands, including 171 in Barbados, which helped England win. Pakistan's Majid Khan and Sadiq Mohammad were superb too in 1977, averaging 46 against an attack that included Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft.

Geoff Boycott and Graham Gooch managed an even more creditable feat, facing the West Indians in two series and maintaining an average of more than 40. Gavaskar and Anshuman Gaekwad played them across three series, but their numbers were far less impressive: 608 runs at 27.63.

To check out the stats of opening pairs against Australia during their peak years, between November 1994 and May 2008, click here.)

Best opening pairs against West Indies in their heyday* (Qual: 8 innings)
Pair Innings Runs Average stand 100/ 50 p'ships
Atherton-Stewart 9 415 46.11 2/ 0
Majid Khan-Sadiq Mohammad 10 368 46.00 1/ 2
Boon-Taylor 8 297 42.42 1/ 1
Boycott-Gooch 18 688 40.47 1/ 4
Broad-Fowler 8 244 30.50 1/ 1
Marsh-Taylor 13 361 27.76 1/ 1
Gaekwad-Gavaskar 22 608 27.63 2/ 3
* Between March 1, 1976 and February 28, 1995, and excluding the period between April 1978 and November 1979

Includes inputs from Madhusudhan Ramakrishnan.

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 30, 2011, 19:45 GMT

    @Xolile: and also, Sir Jack Hobbs played more 834 1st class matches and scored 199 100's (most by any batsman). more than 100 of them was after his 40th birthday. Sutcliffe also played more than 750 1st class matches and have over 150 100's. Speak about longevity, huh?

  • ian on August 30, 2011, 13:12 GMT

    @ Xoile: You may argue on incomplete stats - I wouldn't bother; they are of interest, nothing more. Your argument seems to run out of steam after you've made your quasi-statistical point anyway. Please go and read the conditions under which this immortal pair played - it's a more intresting read than columns of figures, IMO. Try reducing to stats what happened at the Oval in '26, or just as dramatically,at the MCG in 1929 - a match in which Hobbs scored 20 & 49, (what unremarkable scores, you may think!) Sutcliffe, 58 & 135. Both of these matches deserve your detailed inspection before you reach any conclusions. Averages and strike-rates mean nothing devoid of context! No modern batsman ever contended with the pitch conditions that H&S had to, sans helmets, etc. Stats almost always leave me underwhelmed, but I know they impress others mightily. But we are not all the same - and that is what makes discussions like this interesting!

  • Deon on August 30, 2011, 11:24 GMT

    @Nutcutlet - Your arguments are soft. Strike rate data is available from Statsguru. It's not complete but the coverage for these two players are good enough to be conclusive. Hate the statistics, not the statistician.

  • Tom on August 30, 2011, 10:37 GMT

    What I think needs to be remembered is that everything is relative in terms of the standard of bowlers at the time, and the standard of the batting. And more importantly, the standard of the wickets. Imagine some of the recent and current top partnerships (Dravid & Tendulkar, Hayden & Langer, Strauss & Cook, Gambhir & Sehwag) going out to bat on uncovered wickets that had been rained on for a week or so, and were your stereotypical "sticky dog" wickets? Inversely, you can only imagine what Hobbs & Sutcliffe's record would have been if the pitches back then were given the protection that they are now. it is hard to compare partnerships over a long period of time, as the conditions and strengths of the opposition have changed

  • ian on August 30, 2011, 8:28 GMT

    @xolile: the subject is opening test partnerships - not, if you don't mind me pointing this out, individual records; both Hobbs and Sutcliffe opened with others on several occasions. Besides this observation, I'd be interested to know how you have arrived at strike rates from a time when innings were measured in minutes at the crease and not balls faced. Above all, no statistical analysis can account for the other factors which I mentioned in my first post here. Perhaps you should read relevant Wisdens and biographies on Hobbs to get the full picture.One of the great things about cricket in comparison to other games is that it cannot be reduced to mere stats - for which we must be eternally grateful. There are no stats that take into account the state of the wicket; the context of a specific match, or innings. When such information is factored in, albeit subjectively, then the greatness of H&S as an opening partnership shines out for all to see, for all time.

  • Deon on August 30, 2011, 6:19 GMT

    @Notvery - You cannot be more wrong. Hobbs has a Test career average of 56.94 and Sutcliffe 60.73. Hobbs has a Test strike rate of 46.55 and Sutcliffe 34.59. Hobbs has a median Test score of 40 and Sutcliffe 38. Taking all of this into account, and assuming their individual Test records are reflective of their true ability, you can deduce that over time their partnership average would have dropped to approximately 55.

  • jason on August 30, 2011, 2:57 GMT

    @xolile. 38 times is a short period... in todays level of cricket.. it would be about 2 years. however they would not have played so much cricket and it may have taken more than 6 years to get to those numbers so there is longevity. there is also longevity in their own careers which allow you to suggest that with their averages etc they would have maintined the stats they did create no matter how many games they had together.

  • jagat on August 30, 2011, 2:56 GMT

    By the 90's, the West Indies had all but run out of pace - the magnificent Walsh and Ambrose duo had no back up...

  • Sachin on August 30, 2011, 0:18 GMT

    @TomCalder, @DUKES11: Your argument doesnt hold any merit. Sehwag and gambhir average arnd 62 at home and 50 away!!! (now isnt tht impressive) which is more than wht strauss and cook dont avergage both home (41!!) and away (47!!). I rest my case on who's better overseas. One series cant change the fact tht these guys have been good for indian circket for a long time! Sehwag almost made it to the all time test team (by a panel consiting of cricketer from every country). Strauss and Cook wldnt even get a look in! Stop condescending the man after one series with injury!

  • Tom on August 29, 2011, 21:16 GMT

    @Rahulcricket007 Surely green tracks are designed with bowlers in mind, then green track bullies have to be exceptional batsmen?

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